Police see time and ex-girlfriend as advantages

Time to reconsider, `bond' with captives could help situation

Standoff In Dundalk

March 21, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Police negotiators trying to talk Joseph C. Palczynski out of a potentially deadly situation hold two trump cards, experts said yesterday: time and Tracy.

"As time ticks by, this man may become worn out and he may have some time to do some rethinking," Stephen Davis, a director with the New York office of Decision Strategies/Fairfax International, an investigative and security consulting company, said. "Time is always in the favor of police."

Then, there's Tracy Whitehead, Palczynski's former girlfriend, to whom he has demanded to speak by telephone from the confines of her mother's first-floor apartment on Lange Street in Dundalk.

Conversation ruled out

So far, officials with the Baltimore County Police Department -- which in 1978 became one of the first in the nation to organize a hostage negotiations team -- have apparently vetoed any conversations between the two, a decision endorsed by experts in hostage negotiations yesterday.

"If his primary demand has been to talk to his ex-girlfriend, the only thing that [police] actually have to work with is that demand," said Roger A. Bell, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville, Ky., who has served as a consultant on hostage negotiations. "The dilemma here is that if they give in to that demand, there's nothing that says that he won't go ahead and kill his hostages and himself."

Should police negotiators decide to allow Palczynski to contact Tracy Whitehead, they might want to consider making a video or audio tape of the woman instead of allowing her to talk with him on the telephone, the experts said.

"Once you put her on the line, this is introducing a variable that they have no control over," said Bell said. "But with a video or audio tape they can provide a script that will include a message that says, `We can talk but not under these conditions.' "

Little to offer

Given the crimes of which he is accused -- police say Palczynski has killed four people since kidnapping Tracy Whitehead on March 7 -- it may be difficult for negotiators to persuade him to give up and let his captives go free.

"The very fact that there are four dead means that there is very little that police can offer him in terms of any negotiations," said William Monning, a professor of commercial diplomacy and director of the project on negotiation, mediation and conflict resolution at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. "Police can't excuse four killings."

Palczynski's apparent willingness to speak with police negotiators is a good sign, experts said. It means that he may be receiving some counseling.

"It's important that police establish a rapport with him and that they get people to talk with him who may be able to understand him, such as a doctor or a clergyman," Davis said.

Also, the longer he stays with his hostages -- Lynn Whitehead, her boyfriend, Andy McCord, and their 12-year-old son, Bradley McCord -- the greater the chance he will "bond" with them, lessening the risk of physical harm to the family, experts said.

Critical information

During talks with police, Palczynski may give away important clues as to the status of his hostages and where they are being held, experts said, information police may need if they decide to break into the apartment -- a last-ditch scenario, since such actions often result in deadly violence.

"Going in is the last resort," Davis said. "Going in is only to prevent further death."

As part of the effort to coax Palczynski out of the apartment peacefully, police negotiators might speak with him about how exhausting the standoff has been for them as well as local residents.

"They might suggest to him that they are all tired and that they need to go to the bathroom and that they will get back to him," Bell said. "By doing that, what they are trying to do is to set up things that are very basic to all people."

The county police department has been on the leading edge of hostage negotiations for more than two decades, said Robert L. Oatman, an international security consultant based in Towson and retired county police officer who helped set up the first negotiating team.

"What you've got there are top-shelf folks," Oatman said yesterday. "These aren't just people selected at random, but those with the proper skills. It's not an easy job."

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