Situational Awareness Isn’t Enough

I was once confronted by a robber.

In broad daylight.

Within 20 yards of the front door of my local home improvement store.

No one noticed.

This whole encounter played out in less than 20 seconds. No one seemed to notice a thing, not even my young children who were an arm’s length away.  What makes this encounter different from others is that I was a police officer enjoying a day off from work. 

I spent more than a decade in police work investigating every conceivable crime. As a field training officer, I taught new officers how to recognize threats and to properly address them within the law. As a sergeant, I oversaw the response to, and investigation of, all kinds of violent encounters. As a lieutenant, I wrote and updated policies on firearms, the use of force, and response to crimes in progress. And as an academy instructor, I talked to officers about the effects of body alarm response when facing a lethal threat.  Despite all of this, on that day, I was well on my way to becoming a crime statistic.

I wasn’t being robbed in a new or unusual way that I could not have anticipated. Rather, it was a well-rehearsed method that I had investigated many times before.  Because you might run into the same situation, I want to explain what this former cop learned as an investigator and recipient of violent crime in the hopes that it will help you avoid a violent encounter.

Recognition: The First Line of Defense

During my incident, I was retrieving a shopping cart in a location that was outside of the normal traffic pattern for shoppers on the outside of the building. As I turned around to head toward the store, a man rapidly rode up on a mountain bike before stopping very close to me in a way that prevented my forward movement.  I immediately recognized his behavior as abnormal and probably dangerous, but would you?

Many people claim that awareness is your primary tool for avoiding a violent encounter. I disagree. I think that recognition of a potential threat is your best tool for avoiding victimhood.

On the surface, this might sound like a distinction without a difference, but there is a substantial difference between the two. Awareness is simply seeing what’s going on around you. Recognition, on the other hand, is understanding what you are seeing. In other words, recognition is the process of spotting a problem. In my case, anyone would have been aware of the man, and many people would have been concerned about how close he was. But how many people would have instantly recognized what was happening?

There is a stumbling block for most people in moving from awareness to recognition. That block is learning what a problem looks like. If you don’t know what a dangerous problem looks like, how would you ever recognize and avoid it even if you saw it?  Consider this: if you were sitting in a nuclear power plant monitoring the power output, you would likely be aware if the output increased by 10%. But would you properly recognize whether that was dangerous? Similarly, if you observed someone behaving oddly, how would you know if it was a threat?

Going Beyond Situational Awareness

Recognizing threats is a learned skill that you can practice. It just takes effort on your part. There are two things I recommend for improving recognition of threats: active observation of your normal surroundings and the study of aberrant behavior.

Actively observing normal behavior is simple. You can do this everywhere you go. In fact, you should do it every time you are in a public setting, especially in the places you frequent most. Without being creepy, watch people as you shop in the grocery store, stand in line at the vehicle tag office, or visit the park with your family. You will be amazed at how quickly you notice the way normal people tend to act within certain societal norms – from the volume of their voice to how close they stand to strangers. What’s particularly interesting is that the more you study normal behavior in various public settings, the quicker you will spot abnormal behaviors.

People exhibiting abnormal behaviors should be observed more closely. The goal is to understand what behavior you recognize as aberrant and why the person is acting in that manner.  People acting unusually should be avoided until you can determine the reason they are acting in a particular manner. For example, is the person from another culture in which the behavior is considered acceptable? Perhaps the person is having a medical problem and needs assistance. Or maybe the behavior is indicative of something more sinister.

Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of people you observe are good folks just going about their day. However, studying them gives you a good mental baseline of what normal behavior looks like. The more you observe people the more obvious criminal behavior becomes. Spotting potential criminal behavior means you recognize a threat instead of just being aware of your surroundings.

Another thing you can do to improve your recognition skills is to study documented criminal behavior. There are only a small number of instructors who offer courses on criminal mindset and behaviors. The majority of these courses are open only to law enforcement officers. If you find a class that is open to you, I recommend you enroll. Criminals do not think or act like you. These classes can be a real eye-opener.

Assuming that a specialized class is not readily available, you can still educate yourself by reviewing videos of criminal behavior. When viewing one of these videos, actively look at the specific behaviors of the criminals. The more you watch, the more commonalities you will pick up on. One of the better sources for these kinds of videos is Active Self Protection on YouTube. Their videos show actual criminal attacks while self-defense instructor John Correia narrates with background, context, and analysis of the incident. I’ve generally found his analyses to be reasonable and in line with my own experiences as a former street cop.

Two commonalities are frequently seen in violent criminal activity: isolating the victim and a victim interview. Recognizing these in my incident allowed me to react immediately and put the suspect behind the curve instead of the other way around.

Creating Isolation

A man (or woman) alone is a target

Isolated in between a car door and an attacker. Not a good place to be.

Isolation is one of the classic tools used by horror writers. Readers quickly relate to the fear experienced by a character alone in the dark because of the instinctive feeling that bad things can happen when you are separated from others.  That aversion to isolation is a well-founded fear. Time and again, I’ve seen violent aggressors isolate victims to ensure the success of their unlawful actions.

Isolation can take many forms. We all recognize that dark alleys and late-night parking lots are potentially dangerous due to the isolation they provide. But you can also be isolated in plain sight.

In my case, the would-be robber cornered me near the entrance to a busy home improvement store. Even though I was within 20 yards of the front door, I had a brick wall, impenetrable mass of shopping carts, and a row of large grills creating a large amount of concealment from passersby on three sides. I was trying to get my kids situated in one of the shopping carts when the man rode up and blocked the fourth side with his body and mountain bike. This created a significant, if brief, amount of isolation. Since a robbery often happens in mere moments, brief separation of a victim from those around him is enough to greatly increase the likelihood of the criminal’s success.

Consider another scenario. You pull up to the gas pumps and begin fueling your car. Your vehicle and the pump hide you on two sides. A criminal approaching on a third side can isolate you long enough to rob you or, even worse, shove you back into your car and take you to a truly isolated location. Sadly, this happens more often than you realize.

Avoid isolation whenever possible. Also understand how your environment can be used against you. Know the likely avenues from which an attack could originate and your best opportunities for retreat and escape. Appearing confident and purposefully scanning the area will help you to recognize potential threats and convey a message that you are not a soft target.

The Interview: Your Last Chance to Prevent Violence

Situational awareness needs to be acted on

Are you truly facing the threat of lethal force?

Believe it or not, many criminals will interview potential victims. Your response will often dictate what happens next.

A victim interview is generally limited to a single, innocuous question that the criminal uses to gauge your response. He is looking at how compliant you are. If you are willing to acquiesce to a simple demand, then the criminal believes you are unlikely to offer significant resistance to the robbery, rape, or other violent act he intends to commit.

For me, the suspect said “Hey, gimme a cigarette.”  

Asking for a cigarette is one of the most common victim interview questions I encountered when investigating street crimes. Other common questions include asking the time, for directions, or for money. Also note that demanding a cigarette is more forceful than asking for one.  If the criminal receives any response from you other than a firm, or even harsh, verbal rebuke paired with body language indicating you are something other than an easy victim, then a violent crime will swiftly follow.

A simple, loud response along with moving your body to defend against an attack will deter some, if not most, attacks. The volume of your response can bring attention to the incident – an act that can overcome the isolation the criminal desperately needs to increase his odds of success.  In my case, I responded with an immediate and very loud “No! Get the (censored) away from my children!” While I dislike the use of profanity in public, harsh language is what the average street criminal understands. It is also more likely to draw attention to your situation. Store employees are likely to take notice and most adults go into parental protector mode when there is a hint of danger toward children.

When I was on my way to becoming a robbery victim, I didn’t have anyone else in the area who took notice of my predicament. However, due to my bold response, the suspect hesitated. A look of uncertainty washed over his face as both his posture and expression changed. He did not back off, but I had accomplished an important feat as I disrupted his plan and thought process. He was now reacting to me instead of me reacting to him.

Immediacy of Action

Takeaways that can help you live a safer life:

  1. Learn what normal behavior looks like, learn to spot potentially problematic behavior, and seek out examples of actual criminal behavior to train yourself to spot danger before you are forced to engage it.
  2. Recognize how criminals use isolation and how you can be isolated even in the daytime and in seemingly well-trafficked areas.
  3. If you are confronted by danger and find yourself being “interviewed” for a crime, respond immediately, loudly, and forcibly to draw attention to the situation and indicate that you are not a soft target.

As a police officer, I was able to prevent many violent confrontations by recognizing and properly addressing problems before they escalated. Nevertheless, I was never able to dictate how a suspect acted. If someone was intent on violence, I had to defend myself. You must always be ready to immediately act to defend yourself. Just because you recognize a threat doesn’t mean you will be able to avoid it. Similarly, offering verbal resistance during a victim interview doesn’t guarantee the situation will resolve peacefully.

When you recognize a threat, you must act immediately. From natural disasters to violent attacks, I’ve seen time and again that people who immediately react to a threat tend to survive more often than those who hesitate or try to rationalize things. Often, the best course of action is to avoid the situation entirely. Sometimes that is not possible, and you will have to use violence to protect yourself.

If you are forced to act, do so rapidly and without hesitation. If you are going to run, do so without allowing the subject time to discern your intention. If you are going to fight, do so with all of the power you are legally allowed to use. In a deadly force situation, know that failure may mean your death so don’t leave anything on the table – use all of the tools you have available and don’t stop until the threat ends.  There are some situations when immediate action may not be the best course and you have to bide your time for the right opportunity. Be ready for that one chance and give it all you have – you may not get a second chance.

When I was confronted by the would-be robber, I recognized what was happening and gave clear verbal resistance with the order to get away from my children. But I was also acting as I was talking. One of my children was in the shopping cart behind me. My second child was walking on my left side. With one hand, I pushed her behind me while my other hand went for my concealed handgun. As my hand wrapped around the grip of the gun, I gave the subject a second loud order. “Get away from us!” I shouted.

Still, the suspect hesitated. His mind was racing, probably trying to catch up to the reality that the situation had turned on him. As my hand began to draw my handgun, the suspect saw the movement and his eyes grew wide. His expression suggested he now understood he selected the wrong victim, and he began to peddle away at a speed I would not have thought possible.

For me, the danger was over. My gun never cleared concealment and, as I said, no one in the area seemed to know what had happened. It is my firm belief that my action accompanied by my verbal warnings prevented violence from happening. It is my hope that you are able to glean something from this article that may prevent violence in your own life.

The Moral of the Story…

There is no way that anyone can give you a definitive list of criminal intent signals or a set way of responding to every situation. Life is messy like that.  However, I’ve shared what I learned as both a police officer and as a potential crime victim. The key is learning to rely on situational awareness while also recognizing likely criminal behavior and immediately responding in a legally defensible way. When possible, avoiding the problem is your best choice, but criminals don’t always give you that option. In that case, be ready to spring into action and fight with everything you have. It may be the last thing you ever do.