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Updated: May 4, 2021

”Hey, you know the time?”

You didn’t even see him approaching. Innocuous question, but something was not right. A little shabby looking. Dirty hair. No smiles or greeting. One hand hidden behind the back. No one else close by.

Congratulations. You’ve just been ‘interviewed’ - and you failed. What happens next is down to whether you realise it and recover - or you‘re at the mercy of the intent of the criminal who picked you as his next victim. A little unaware, head down lost in your thoughts and your world, you were a prime target for the money for the next fix he so desperately needed.

Criminals need low risk targets. Just like any other risk management activity, they need to evaluate and pick those people who pose the minimum probability of danger to them in their ‘profession’.

There could have been a number of reasons why it was you. You didn’t pay attention. Earphones blasting out the latest tunes blocking all audio from around around. Eyes gazed on the social media updates on your phone. Hoodie up blocking peripheral vision as you walked along the street. Mind filled with internal thoughts as you forget what’s around you.

You were an easy target. Stalked for a couple of minutes until you turned into an empty street. The time was ripe.

Now, he’s on the home straight. Closing in the last few feet with a supposedly innocent question.

Situational awareness is the first line of defence in personal safety. Mixed with your body posture and language, this can do more than anything to avoid being picked - when ‘interviewed’ - by a criminal or group of criminals acting together.

Situational awareness is knowing what’s around you. It’s the process of identifying people, incidents or factors that pose a potential threat to your safety and welfare, including how you use the environment around you to your advantage; the escape routes, the weapons and the people or places that may aid your safety if the situation calls for it.

In short, it’s seeing the threat before it develops. It’s a skill that we all have from evolutionary biology, but few actively practice to make it habitual. Refine your situational awareness through exercising it and you vastly increase your personal safety as you improve your perception of the changing world around you.

To optimise situational awareness, there are some ground rules you should apply. Call it the ABC, or top three things to follow.

Firstly, do not look like an easy target. Walk upright, confident and with purpose. Look around you, occasionally paying attention to what’s behind you. Scan the area around you.

Self-assurance, even when faked, it’s an overt sign that you are not weak. Criminals don’t pick on strong or capable people if they can avoid it. Confident people appears to pose a high-risk target. Weakness, particularly in younger, older or intoxicated people, signals a lower risk opportunity.

Body language can make all the difference. Practice not being an easy target by observing those who are just so. Pretend to be a criminal yourself, e.g. a mugger, pick your victims, then reverse their behaviours to avoid them. You’ll be surprised what you can learn. Who would you pick? Now you know what to avoid.

Secondly, as you look, analyse through low-level awareness what’s around you. Who’s nearby? What vehicles and buildings are close? Are street corners or other concealments a potential threat ahead? What are the threats and the opportunities for escape? Are there CCTV cameras around?

Can bystanders be sources of aid, if so identify the leader of multiples and if you need to seek refuge there, seek out how you can actually touch this person to create a stronger bond (top tip: people will identify the threat being to them psychologically even if you’re the target, if you are in physical contact with them).

If you become aware of potential danger, pay attention. Shouting, things breaking, unusual sounds, abnormal behaviour or strange (abnormal to the norm expected in that moment) appearances are all alerts of something requiring closer scrutiny. Don’t forget to stay alert generally, the focus of your mind may just be a ploy to distract you from something else, e.g. if the criminals are operating in a group. Be especially aware of who may be behind you.

Thirdly, if you’re being approached - like in the opening part of the article - your alert level should rise significantly. Don’t start anything, but be prepared. If there’s a single person approaching, be aware of bystanders also in on the criminal act. Use sound, smell, reflections and shadows to help you scan around you. What are your escape routes? Can you see the person’s hands? Do the clothing indicate any concealed weapons? Can you and should you run at this point?

This is the time not to look like a victim. Keep a safe distance. Don’t be obliged to engage, and don’t hesitate to be rude or dismissive if need be. Continue walking on and don’t stop if you feel unsafe. Refer their request visibly onto someone else if you want to, e.g. ‘I don’t know the time, but ask him (by pointing to someone else, as you just move on quickly).

Criminals will often use a code to close the last few yards on you, especially if they’re not using a firearm where distance is less of an issue. This code is often referred to as the 4 D’s.

Think of them as Dirty tricks.

Dialogue creates a distraction for the criminal to get close without suspicion. He or she really needs to be three to five feet away to threaten you effectively with a (non-firearm) weapon. Asking for time, cigarette or directions are typical ploys as they are all seemingly innocuous requests playing on your predisposition to be helpful.

Deception is another ploy where the criminal makes sure he or she looks harmless and at home in the setting you’re being approached. This can be clothing or behaviour aimed at keeping you at ease until it’s too late. Just think of all those criminals masquerading as utility service personnel to get access to your home or how you would view someone in a suit and tie approaching you versus a more dishevelled attire?

Distraction is used to set up the attack or threat, using for example a question, verbal messaging or body language to get close or get you to look somewhere else as the criminal act takes place.

Destruction is the physical attack, ranging from severe to injury or murder to picking pockets. In most scenarios, if the theft can take place when you’re not too aware or the assailant can land blows on you when unaware, you’ve been put at a major disadvantage, at least temporarily incapable of resisting the crime.

Despite the 4 D’s, most people will be aware before and during when a criminal act takes place, especially if they practice and employ situational awareness.

Situational awareness doesn’t mean walking around in paranoia or hyper-vigilance. It simply means, when in public, to deploy a lower level of scrutiny to factors around you; human, physical and emotional. Retain your senses and mind ready to exert thinking and actions based on what you have already observed via audio, visual and other information.

Practice your responses beforehand to typical 4 D scenarios. What do I do if someone asks me for a cigarette? What are some of the typical escape routes I can use on my routine travel or places I spend a lot of my time? What is the body language, pitch and tone I have if speaking to strangers approaching me?

Self defence training is not just physical or sometimes not even actually visual. Some of it simply takes places inside your head.

With regards to the first layer of personal security, most of it is mental training. It’s free, it’s fascinating and it’s done in your spare time. What’s stopping you training?

“Hey, you know the time?”. You know what to do now.

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