Some eighteen years after Columbine, efforts to standardize active shooter maneuvers for law enforcement teams have led to the adoption of templated and standardized training in this regard, shared by federal counterterrorism teams such as the FBI’s HRT and fifty-six domestic SWAT programs. But the era of allowing ‘perfect’ to be the enemy of ‘damn good’ in planning for a hasty assault when presented with a hostage scene, one that FBI-HRT or the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six is simply not an immediate response possibility, has not been consistently addressed. How so? Well, the deliberate assault planning and methodical law enforcement clear tactics are still employed by localities that simply do not have the budgets or the time to train their personnel accordingly. Does it not always go back to training? And no matter how much local departments are currently clamoring for it, the breaching expertise that is explosive breaching is simply not available to departments that are simply armed with the tools and requisite expertise that mechanical breaching options provide. To date, in most instances, the capability of explosive breaching — now almost exclusively the sole domain of military special operators, and domestically, the HRT — is unavailable to first responders. However, that unavailability may ultimately change.
Yes, we have seen some recent police department employment of explosives [think: Dallas PD “explosive robot” in the cop-killer case, and the wall breaching by Orlando PD in the Pulse Nightclub mass murder incident]. But these local departments are anomalies. Even the mighty NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit (ESU) has no explosive breaching capability. Leftist mayoral politics in big cities typically trump the notion of better arming the police — who are viewed as “inconvenient necessities” and potentially threatening tools of future fascist (GOP) regimes.
Local departments are typically armed with sledge hammers, crowbars, pneumatic door-jamb spreaders, and “Halligan” tools, breaching accouterments similar to what most fire departments and rescue units have in stock. But hostage rescue requires four things for success, and these are, inarguably — speed, surprise, violence-of-action, and a failsafe breach. If you can’t get in, you can’t save hostages. Without explosives to hasten and better guarantee entry — and concurrently providing attendant violence-of-action — hostages will be killed. Discussions with military and federal law enforcement practitioners indicate that some municipal police departments have expressed interest in possibly hiring retired explosive breaching experts to augment their department’s breaching capabilities in a hostage-taking scenario. This notion will most certainly run afoul of the current political climate and activist leveled charges that local police departments have become “too militarized.”
Exactly what do these domestic attacks and overseas hostage-takings in the age of ISIS portend for domestic law enforcement and military special operations? Certainly, domestic law enforcement has embarked upon more of a commitment towards the sharing of best practices and standardization of hostage rescue tactics. And while no one is ready to add hostage negotiators to the endangered species list, General Patton’s “good plan violently executed” is solid advice in light of the recent active shooter post mortems I have reviewed. “Talk to me” should always be the preferred manner to proceed. But in the age of ISIS, immediate interdiction appears to be the primary calculus for saving lives. Servare Vitas — “To Save Lives” — is the motto of HRT. The devil, as has often been stated, lies in the details. ISIS has introduced a tectonic shift in how hostages are used abroad and in how martyrdom is promised here at home. This necessitates a calibrated sense of urgency in the response from the profession charged with saving those lives. And in so doing, this ISIS-related shift has directly shaped hostage rescue in the modern age.
In hostage rescue, as in warfare, there are no constant conditions.
James A. “Jimmy” Gagliano has some three decades’ worth of practical leadership experience, both in traditional military units as a U.S. Army Infantry Officer and in federal law enforcement executive-level assignments with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He spent 25 years as an FBI criminal investigator, SWAT Team Leader, member of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), Undercover Agent, Task Force Commander, Legal Attaché (Diplomat), and as Chief-of-Staff for the Assistant-Director-in-Charge of the FBI’s New York Division. He has led tactical and diplomatic operations in Afghanistan and México City, and served tours in parts of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as assignments in combat theaters in Afghanistan, while assigned to the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
He is a recipient of the FBI’s second highest award for valor, the Medal for Bravery. Now retired from the FBI, Jimmy serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor, instructing undergraduates in Homeland Security, Criminal Justice, Military History, and Leadership courses at St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, and is a leadership consultant with the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) located at West Point, NY. He is also a full-time Law Enforcement Analyst and Contributor on CNN and delivers speeches across the country in corporate and university settings.