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Be dangerous: Maintaining street smarts off duty

Body language, situational awareness, stride, and walking pace are major precipitators for victimization

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” I could only laugh — mostly at myself — as this quote from the James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger ran through my head.

I had only moments before imagined that I was about to become a target of two quasi, wannabe street thugs who wanted to make me part of their “knockout game.”

Or was it just my imagination?

The Incident
I was standing outside a coffee shop dressed in civilian attire, having left my fellow police trainers inside in order to take an important phone call. Ever the street cop, I was standing with my back to the wall. Although deeply engrossed in the call, I detected two individuals approaching from my left.

It wasn’t so much their appearance that attracted my attention as much as the “track” that they were on. Not only were they approaching laterally along the sidewalk, but they also drew closer as they moved towards the building and away from the parking lot. Not at all unusual except for the fact that the geometry of the movement seemed to place me directly in line with their track.

Less a deliberate movement than an intuitive response, I turned toward my left, facing them. The two males passed me and I kept them in sight as I turned to the right. Almost as soon as they passed me they stopped and turned back in my direction.

As I continued my phone conversation, the two then walked past me back in the direction from which they had come.

Still without much thought, I turned to my left, keeping them directly in front of me. Abruptly, the two then once again reversed course and passed me one last time as I now was forced to turn towards my right to keep them in direct sight.

At this point, all contact was over and they walked away.

Unconscious Defense
Due to the distraction of the phone call, it was actually several seconds after the encounter that I came to the realization that I had been making the subtle turning movements in response to the individuals’ three passes by me.

It was at this time — after I completed my phone conversation — that the Goldfinger quote popped into my head.

Was I actually being targeted? Probably not. Was I ready to act if the two had launched some sort of attack? Maybe. But if the two did have evil intentions, it is likely that they thought I was prepared due to the fact that it at least appeared that I was closely watching them — although again, it was more incidental than intentional.

As a civilian and law enforcement safety and survival trainer, I have told my students that almost all they have to do to avoid becoming a victim of a street crime is to keep their heads up, keep their eyes open, look around and be observant, present a hard target, and move with purpose. Crooks won’t want any part of you.

Research Results
In 1981, researchers Betty Grayson and Morris Stein showed incarcerated prisoners video tapes of pedestrians and asked them to pick who they would target for crime (“Attracting Assault: Victims’ Nonverbal Cues,” Journal of Communication, March 1981). The surprising result of their choices was the overwhelming unanimity about just who the criminals would pick as their targets.

Although the convicts had no conscious understanding of why they chose their targets, the researchers believed that it was due to overt cues presented by the identified “victims.”

Body language, situational awareness, stride, and walking pace were major precipitators for victimization. That is, those who had minimal awareness of their surroundings, were unsynchronized and lacked fluidity in their stride, and moved at a slow pace were more likely to be identified as an easy victim.

I recall reading in the FBI’s 1992 study Killed in the Line of Duty an account of a convicted cop killer who had disarmed and then killed an officer with his own weapon. This particular suspect had an encounter with a sergeant from a nearby jurisdiction prior to his contact with the victim officer. When debriefed by the FBI researchers and asked why he had not tried to take on the sergeant in the earlier stop, the convict simply stated that he was not sure that he could win.

What was it about the sergeant that dissuaded this criminal, and conversely what were the cues presented by the victim officer that provided the convicted killer his optimism in his ability to overpower him? If you are reading this article, then frankly you already know the answer to this question, because you are one of those professionals who take the time to study and prepare.

But I’ll list a few thoughts of my own:

1.) Stay in shape — fitness is a weapon.
2.) Look sharp and keep your equipment in order.
3.) Move with authority and stay light on your feet.
4.) Remember what your mother told you: “Stand up straight.”
5.) Speak calmly but be stern when necessary, and don’t bluff. These guys do that for a living, and they’re probably better at it than you.
6.) Keep your eyes moving and scan with a purpose.

Finally, be polite and professional, but know what it takes to look — and be, if necessary — dangerous in the eyes of the criminal predator.

Steve “Pappy” Papenfuhs is the CEO of Battalion Defense which distributes premier armor, armor carriers, ballistic helmets and shields, and other tactical kit. Pappy retired as a sergeant after serving 29 years with the San Jose, California Police Department. During his career he worked Patrol, Field Training (FTO), Street Crimes, SWAT, Auto Theft, Sexual Assaults, Narcotics, Family Violence, and supervised the department’s in-service Training Division. He holds a Force Analysis certification from the Force Science Research Center, and is a certified instructor with the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) in several disciplines including: Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Baton, Force Options, and Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVOC). In addition to running Battalion Defense and teaching both academy recruits and in-service officers, Pappy provides expert witness consultation in police practices, use of force, and training issues.

Contact Steve Papenfuhs.