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Pittsburgh police plan new social media training for hostage situations, other crimes

  September 30, 2012.

Pittsburgh police plan to train their officers to be fluent in social media, joining other departments nationwide, days after a man armed with a hammer and kitchen knife used a hostage's computer to post Facebook messages lamenting his troubles.

The case of Klein Michael Thaxton, who is accused of picking a hostage at random in a downtown office tower and then kept authorities at bay for hours before surrendering and releasing the hostage, was a first for the Pittsburgh department.

There is some reflection about whether officials did the right thing by not immediately shutting down the suspect's Facebook page. Police say they want to make sure officers are prepared for such judgment calls down the road.

"I think it's something we will train for in the future," said Lt. Jason Lando, who acted as a coach to the primary negotiator, Officer Matt Lackner.

Members of law enforcement are finding variations of the Pittsburgh situation nationwide. The International Association of Chiefs of Police now has a Center for Social Media to help officers prevent and solve crimes using social media. The center's website contains training tools for law enforcement, and a list of crimes where social media played a role. Special software applications are even being created to help monitor and solve crimes.

Gary Noesner, a former chief of the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit, said his instinct would have been to shut the Facebook page down immediately, though he agreed it might also have provided some useful information to law enforcement.

"The whole social media situation is really fascinating, the impact it is having on operations," Noesner added.

Pittsburgh police wouldn't detail their specific conversations with Thaxton, 22, whose defense attorney didn't return calls for comment.

But, in general, Lackner said negotiating with a hostage taker is like "riding a seesaw," as authorities try to "reduce the emotionality and raise the rationality" of their subject.

"When one goes down, the other goes up," Lackner said.

But until police got federal authorities to intervene and shut down Thaxton's Facebook page about four hours into the ordeal, the negotiators couldn't control how many other people might be riding that see-saw. Thaxton's posts drew about 700 responses, most from family members and friends expressing concern and the hope that he'd do the right thing. But other messages were "ridiculous," Lando said, and had the potential to incite Thaxton.

Lackner said that even seemingly positive messages could have posed a problem because police were primarily concerned with establishing a one-to-one rapport and building trust with Thaxton.

"Any outside influence is distracting and, generally speaking, does not help our cause," Cmdr. Scott Schubert said. "We want our subject speaking to us."

Last year, a Utah man posted updates on his Facebook page during a 16-hour standoff with police. According to reports at the time, some of his friends and relatives urged him to "be careful" while at least one tipped him off to the location of a SWAT officer.

In another Utah case last year, a woman used Facebook to seek help after she and her 17-month-old son were held hostage at a residence for nearly five days. According to police, the woman hid in a closet with a laptop computer to post her plea for help, saying she and her son would be "dead by morning" if they were not rescued.

Thaxton, who remains jailed unable to post $1 million bond, faces a preliminary hearing Oct. 17 on charges of kidnapping, aggravated assault and terroristic threats in the confrontation at a financial services firm on the 16th floor of Three Gateway Center, a 24-story office tower in Pittsburgh.

Although police were vitally concerned about the hostage's welfare, and did what they could to check up on him, the negotiators were careful not to ask Thaxton too much about his hostage.

"Clearly we're always very concerned about the hostage," Lando said. "But when we're doing negotiations, we have to make it all about the hostage taker."

Too many questions about the hostage and the suspect "might feel like, `You don't care about me. You just want to say whatever you need to say to get this person (the hostage) out of here,'" Lando said.

Instead, negotiators try to find people the hostage taker cares about who will help the negotiator build empathy.

"People want to tell their story," Lando said. "Listening to them is a cheap concession."

In Thaxton's case, key issues were his inability to find a job and his feelings for an ex-girlfriend he hadn't seen since 2008. Police arranged for her to speak with Thaxton, but only once the hostage was released. Thaxton surrendered, and police were sure they could keep the woman safe with Thaxton handcuffed and in custody.

"We try to find hooks _ their schooling, work history, personal relationships," Lando said. "Oftentimes personal relationships are the source of why they find themselves in crisis."