#TBT: A chat with NYPD's Hostage Negotiator and Instructor James Shanahan

NOTE: This was written in the fall of 2012 when I first moved to the city (It originally appeared here). I met Jim at the Jersey Shore where he frequents the same beach club that my parents and I do. He has since become a friend, mentor and sort of "Uncle" to my brother and I. I wanted to post this today around the holiday season as a reminder to us all on how important it is to keep a truly open mind and a truly progressive perspective as we move into 2016 and collectively fight for a better future.

Written by: Kirsten Chen | Edited by: Michael Goodwin

I spot James Shanahan from afar, which is not a particularly trying task, as he’s a smiling 6’ 3” Irish man with a distinct New York accent and presence. I am already acquainted with Jim, and upon seeing me, he simultaneously salutes and waves my direction, and we soon sit down to chat. There is an effervescent quality about him; he is both approachable and playful, generally not the first two characteristics one might attribute to someone in the police force. Nonetheless, it would come as no surprise to anyone that he is, in fact, a long-standing (30+ years), reputable member of the NYPD. Maybe it’s the Irish thing.

Born in Brooklyn and having lived in Manhattan, Jim grew up traversing the general area, and proclaims himself a true “5-borough guy”. It is clear that his upbringing and city surroundings have had a profound impact on his path in life. Many of the men in his family were policemen, and from a young age, his family instilled in him a respect for the job. He even tells me that one of his first memories in life involves the police. In the very brief moments before he divulges why, my mind conjures up an elaborate series of dramatic possibilities. Could it be a valiant story involving some profound historical event? Or perhaps, an unfortunate, personal tragedy? But, alas, Jim goes on to reminisce a simple memory, which, so often, is the most insightful kind, about being a little kid and watching the single, flashing police light on the top of a squad car come down the street, and then seeing an officer step out, clad in blue uniform with the old-school brass buttons on either side. As Jim recalls this story, he says he remembers feeling safe. Clearly, Jim revered the police force and was set in the direction of the law early on. So, it would seem natural for the rest of this conversation to tumble only into the heroic, traditional and goodside of the job. After all, Jim is certainly a “good cop”, if we’re going to play that game. But he is also, as his work further explores and charges, a very in-touch human being.

“In my family, I was taught that ‘Whenever you ever need help, you go to a cop,’“ says Jim. “But, see, I also grew up in New York City and I grew up during the counter-culture, too.  So, I was never blind to the inherent love/hate relationship people have for cops. I understood they were capable of good and bad.” At this, I bring up Jim’s compassion, mentioning that due to the nature of the job, it must be difficult at times to observe the world in a shade other than black or white – to see people and their actions as multifaceted, and in turn, have those people see you, a police officer, as multifaceted. Jim nods and discusses both the necessity and confinement of such strict ways of thinking and acting. He is talking about straddling the line between his identity as a police officer and his identity as an emotionally and mentally complex human. He puts it perfectly when he says, “No matter your job, when you lose your empathy, you lose your humanity. And I firmly believe in keeping a foot in both hemispheres, otherwise, what do you become?”

And so the story continues. In 1978, CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice opened its doors to an eager and prepared JimShanahan. Then, four years later, after a successful college career, Jim was accepted into the NY Housing Authority.

He spent most of the ‘80s  both “walking the beat” and patrolling in squad cars through some of the most “vulnerable, depressed conditions imaginable.” During this time, a lot of things came to light for Jim, including the aforementioned difficulties of dealing with the limited ways citizens saw the police and the limited ways police saw citizens. There was a lack of understanding on both sides –  there were sides to begin with. And in a tale as old as time, the most important fundamental component missing between citizens and the police, who Jim has noted are “the most conspicuous and accessible form of government,” was communication.

 “During that time a few things happened. [Personally] I tread through some very dark moments and dealt with some difficult internal issues,“ Jim says, grazing upon the taxing nature of the job. "Then, [Interacting with the housing population] I was made crucially aware of how important community initiatives and progressive forms of the police system are. Take the Eleanor Bumpurs tragedy. That was a big eye-opener.” Jim is talking about the 1984 Bronx case where Eleanor Bumpurs, a 66-year-old emotionally disturbed woman, was ordered to be evicted from her apartment by the Housing Authority. In an unfortunate turn of events, an NYPD officer ended up shooting Eleanor dead with two bullets from a 12-gauge shotgun.

Jim had been an active member on the executive board of the former Housing Police Benevolent Association. However, this incident, amongst other environmental and personal factors, motivated him to further impact the community.  Jim says, “Everything that was happening to me or around me during those early years was grist for the mill. I didn’t want to become complacent. I was ready for something more.” I insinuate, to his progressive nature, that Jim wanted to effect change, to which he responds, “Yes, but I also wanted to be affected by change.”

By now, I am so impressed by Jim’s eloquent delivery and his rare ability to story-tell that I’m seriously contemplating whether I should have just recorded this conversation and posted it in its entirety, rather than tried to capture it in highlights. The whole conversation is a highlight! Regardless, it is clear after our exchange of his upbringing and early years in the force that a spark for change was lit up inside Jim at this time. 

And, now for a brief interjection, it might be a good time to introduce Jim’s other hobby/talent/whatever you want to call it - acting. Yes, Jim Shanahan, 30-plus years in the police force is also an … actor? It may seem disconnected with the needs of law enforcement, but Jim’s theatre background has actually been an essential element in his career growth, and in turn, every officer in NYPD’s growth. Logically, this makes perfect sense. Acting is chock-full of that disparity between the police and the people that we’ve already mentioned: communication. 

So, after a few more years of character-building time on the streets, Jim altered his scenery in the early 90s to allow himself a more objective type of learning. He took some time to gain perspective, think creatively and decide on his next move. While on the desk, he also studied ways in which the police force could be improved.  True to his progressive nature, Jim examined prisoners and the ways in which they were developing and growing, rather than just looking at police training. He visited correctional facilities and state penitentiaries and delved deeper into the behaviors and motives that drive people. His forward-thinking research combined with the current events of the time proved to Jim that “there needed to be an alternative to the criminalization of the mentally ill and the demonization of the police in the process.”

Shortly thereafter, being “In the right place at the right time with the right skills,” Jim tells me how a door soon opened for him as a Senior Instructor for Police Academy Special Projects in NYPD’s training academy. Jim went on to teach Tactical Communications (or, Verbal Judo) in collaboration with Verbal Judo creator, Dr. George Thomas, and, really, the rest is all history.

Tactical Communications is based on conflict resolution in human relations, hostage negotiation and critical incident and disaster management. Since its inception in 1996, Jim has taught the course to over 80,000 new and current officers. In 1999, Jim also took a position at his former alma mater for “Adjunct lecturer-Senior Police Instructer” in the program for “Police Handling of Emotionally Disturbed Persons.” With both his communication-based classes and his combination of martial arts training, experience on the job, and acting background, Jim helped transform the way police are trained to communicate and act tremendously. He admits to having made mistakes in the early years, which are, as we know, par for the course, and notes that the classes morphed and matured over time. The main purpose, however, has stuck.

“We wanted to put a face on policemen for the public, but also show these officers how to obtain compliance from citizens in a less stressful or physical manner – it goes both ways,” Jim says. And it certainly has. For such a large organization that is continually in the spotlight and under scrutiny, the NYPD works arduously and openly toward maintaining mutual respect in its city. I feel it pertinent to note that the courtesy and respect shown by and to the NYPD must undoubtedly be culled directly from this program.

Jim continues to explain the need for this training, saying, “How you talk to people has a great impact. The difference between ‘Hey, you need to calm down,’ and ‘It’s going to be alright, help is on the way,’ is enormous.” Reflecting back on my own emotionally outstanding moments, I fully agree that the difference in those two statements is evident. One, I might be slightly soothed into complying and taking deep breaths. The other, I might lunge at someone’s throat and consequently get arrested. So, fine, maybe emotional stability isn’t my greatest strength, but is it most people’s greatest strength when dealing with the law? If a person is dealing with the police, chances are they are at a more fragile state to begin with.

“Police meet people at their absolute worst: the scene of an accident, the victim of an assault, broken at rock bottom.” Then, noting a most recent tragedy, Jim adds, “Walking in front of the Empire State building.”

By now, it is clear that people skills aren’t in higher need in any other profession. It is also clear that Jim believes in what he preaches and that he is very good at it, indeed. Jim has passion. He has passion for progress and unity, both internally and environmentally. He has “the gift of desperation” – the need to soak in all the information he can, make sense of it, and pass it on to as many people as possible, all for the betterment of society. It is altruistic people like Jim, who have the gift of desperation and the skill to pass it forward, that make the world a magnificent and hopeful place.

As we wrap up our discussion, I summarize his work as best as I can and remark that he has helped the NYPD make exceptional strides during his career. Though he certainly has earned bragging rights, Jim remains humble and states, “We just work toward change and hope. That in the future, police will be talking more and doing less.“ Thanks to Jim, it certainly seems that way.