Inside the intense world of a New York Police hostage negotiator

NYPD hostage negotiators channel personal pain
NYPD hostage negotiators channel personal pain


    NYPD hostage negotiators channel personal pain


NYPD hostage negotiators channel personal pain 02:20
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New York (CNN)"It's time."

When a friend called New York Police Lt. Chris Zimmerman and said those two words, it immediately set off a red flag.
"I'm thinking he knows what I do for a living," Zimmerman remembered. "It's his way of reaching out to someone who is going to recognize it."
Zimmerman is commander of the New York Police Department's Hostage Negotiation Team.
    He is the only full-time member dedicated to this elite group of about 125 officers, spread out across New York City.


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    Full-time for Zimmerman means 24/7, so when his friend called in trouble, Zimmerman said he immediately saw the signs of someone who wanted to kill himself.
    He rushed his friend to the hospital, where doctors credited Zimmerman for saving the man's life.
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    But accolades aren't why Zimmerman has stayed on a job he could have retired from eight years ago.
    "I enjoy the challenge and I like knowing I can help somebody," he said.

    First of its kind

    The NYPD's HNT is the first of its kind in the world. Zimmerman is the seventh commanding officer of the unit, which was founded in 1973.
    HNT members on average respond to a call a day; anything from hostage situations to depressed or emotionally disturbed people.
    To handle the amount and diversity of these calls, Zimmerman handpicks the unit to include officers from different religions, ethnic backgrounds and who are fluent in several languages.
    Most importantly, the men and women on Zimmerman's team have to know pain, he said, to help those who are feeling their worst.
    Zimmerman remembered interviewing a man for a job in the unit. "I go, 'What makes you want to be a hostage negotiator?' He turns around and he looks at me and starts crying. He goes, 'My son is as big as me. He's autistic with (intermittent) explosive disorder. I've had to handcuff my own son four times.'
    "If you can do that, you can do anything," Zimmerman said.
    That detective is now a member of the team.

    'It all comes down to human life'

    HNT officer training is extensive.
    They often bring in professional actors to simulate stressful environments. The training teaches them how to respond and resolve intense situations.
    The unit constantly adjusts its tactics to real world situations, Zimmerman said, such as terrorist attacks.
    "We're getting called when people are at their worst moments," he said. "We're there until the job ends -- whether it be 20 minutes or 20 hours. At the end of the day, it all comes down to human life. It's all about helping somebody who is in crisis."

    Watching a real-life hostage situation

    CNN had exclusive access as the team responded to a hostage situation in New York.
    The call came in that a Brooklyn man, with a criminal history, was holding his girlfriend hostage in an apartment. Zimmerman and four other hostage negotiators raced to the scene.
    "Our priority is getting her out safely," Zimmerman said as he suited up in a bulletproof vest and other tactical gear.
    His team, alongside Emergency Service Unit officers, talked to the man from the hallway outside his apartment.
    For an hour, they worked to ensure he was unarmed, that his girlfriend was indeed safe inside and that he would surrender peacefully.
    He eventually did and was arrested.

    'Just doing my job'

    Zimmerman said he's never lost someone on the job.
    Even with such success, he refused to call himself a hero. "Just doing my job," he said.
    This summer Zimmerman celebrated 28 years on the force. He said he may serve another 12 years, until he is forced to retire by city mandate.
    "I want to be here," he said with a smile. "I may age out of this job."