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Who Is Harvey Schlossberg, The Progressive Police Psychologist In 'Hold Your Fire'?

Harvey Schlossberg, the police psychologist see in the new documentary "Hold Your Fire," helped shift the way that hostage situations are handled by the NYPD.

By Gina Tron
A photo released by the NYPD of Dr. Harvey Schlossberg

A deadly hostage Brooklyn siege ended up permanently changing law enforcement tactics in hostage situations due to a police psychologist who pushed for an ideological shift from the department.

Four Black Sunni Muslims had entered a John and Al's Sporting Goods store in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1973 with the intent of stealing guns for self-defense. What ensued was a deadly days-long hostage situation, revisited in the new documentary Hold Your Fire.”

The city was already brimming with racial tension when, during the siege, bystanders were shot and a police officer was killed. But while the police were seemingly out for blood after one of their own was killed at the start of the incident, Dr. Harvey Schlossberg managed to de-escalate the situation over the course of two days, resulting in no further deaths.

The former New York Police Department traffic cop and psychologist had already been working on a new protocol for hostage situations for a few years, given that the prior techniques emphasized the use of overwhelming force against hostage takers and had increasingly led to civilian deaths.

“Harvey faced an uphill battle getting cops to ‘negotiate with killers’ because, for 130 years, the NYPD’s official M.O. in barricade situations had been to issue ultimatums, throw in smoke and tear gas, and, if necessary storm the building,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told the New York Times in 2021. “Many lives were lost. Harvey changed that.”

The need for new tactics became more obvious after the 1971 Attica prison riots in upstate New York (10 hostages and 29 inmates were killed and 89 people were wounded), the 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery that inspired the 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon” (which resulted in the death of one robber) and the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics (all nine Israeli hostages, five hostage-takers and one police officer were killed), according to Schlossberg’s 2021 New York Times obituary.

In 1973, Schlossberg made a training film for the New York Police Department in which he pushed for patience and “crisis intervention therapy.” He also suggested that police delay drastic tactics as long as possible, so the perpetrators could get to know their victims and, in turn, be less likely to harm them. Police listened to his theories and the Sporting Goods incident ended peacefully: The gunmen surrendered and freed nine hostages. 

The following year, the police force promoted Schlossberg to be the director of psychological services. He then coached thousands of officers in hostage negotiating. 

"Hold Your Fire" filmmaker Stefan Forbes told Oxygen.com that Schlossberg "was a transformational figure."

"It’s amazing that in the macho, authoritarian, paramilitary, mostly-Irish organization of the 1970’s NYPD there existed a diminutive intellectual Jew teaching radical empathy," he said. "Harvey challenges all our traditional American notions of masculinity. He didn’t seek to win, dominate conversations, project toughness and invulnerability, or see violence as any kind of solution. He had a steadfast belief in the transformative power of empathy, conversation and deep listening. His revolution in American policing remains tragically unfinished." 

Schlossberg left the police force in 1978 and later became the chief psychologist for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from 1990 to 1999. He held the same title for the Police Department in Rye, N.Y., from 1988 to 1994. From 1974 to 1982, he taught at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

He died of cardiopulmonary arrest in 2021 at the age of 85.

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