In 1973, four young Black Muslim men went into a sporting goods store to steal some guns. It didn’t go as planned, as these things rarely do. The cops got there too soon, pinning the would-be thieves inside, with a loaded gun counter, and a bunch of hostages. This would be the longest hostage siege in NYPD history.
With the four men holding captives inside, and the police outside preparing to meet them with deadly force, the media reported round-the-block updates while crowds gathered around the police perimeter. The fear and anxiety was high. The crowd took sides, and became aggressive. The journalists reported misinformation. When the police department showed up with tanks and ultimatums, the hostage-takers grew angry, and uncooperative. Communication was very poor. Looking back at the bungles on both sides, it almost feels like a funny game of cops and robbers, but the guns were real, and so were the stakes. The young Black men knew they stood little chance against the cops, not exactly known for being kind to people of colour at the time. A Black hostage refused to be released because she was afraid of the cops; she’d rather take her chances with the men holding her captive, of whom she was also quite afraid.
Enter Harvey Schlossberg, a traffic cop with a PhD. Since Attica, he’d been struggling to be taken seriously as a psychologist who could train the police force with new negotiation tactics, potentially saving lives and making the officers more community-minded. He believed that words were more powerful than bullets, and that time should be taken to speak and to listen to the captors, to find peaceful resolution rather than force violent altercations.
Director Stefan Forbes interviews surviving hostages, cops, and robbers, and everyone’s got a conflicting story about what went down in the sporting goods store. When emotions and tensions are high, it’s way too easy for violence to be a first response, but Schlossberg’s methods focused on finding common ground and understand motives.
All these years later, this hostage siege is not well-remembered, but you can see how Schlossberg’s work basically founded crisis negotiation and influenced the concept of restorative justice as we know it today. His name may not be known, but his work has saved untold lives. This documentary is his origin story.
Hold Your Fire is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.