Approximately 250 million Americans live in urban areas. Many more people travel into or through those areas every day. We can expect that some of those people will experience some sort of incident that causes them to have a very bad or possibly deadly experience.
There are three general threat levels that represent the types of challenges to our personal security and safety. These consist of 1) a normal day with the risks of street crime, bad weather and traffic accidents; 2) a heightened threat level where a natural or manmade disaster is pending; and 3) when a disaster like an earthquake or terrorist attack is in progress.
There are plenty of precautions and defensive measures that we can take as we make our way through urban areas, but they are not all practical and appropriate for every situation. Before and during the journey, we have to analyze our surroundings as we travel through the city. This is an ongoing action as we move. We should be constantly scanning the environment and updating our assessment.
Spot The Threat
We have to determine what route we will take to get to our destination. Will we travel alone or with someone? What will we wear? When will we leave? What will we take with us? How will we get there? We begin with mental preparation in which we make a conscious effort to empty our minds of all the things that distract us from paying attention to our surroundings. Turn off the music and hang up the cell phone. Clear your mind and prepare to be receptive to what is going on around you.
It’s time to turn on your radar. Look around. Listen to the sounds of your environment. Do you see or hear anything that seems suspicious or out of place? When you see something, ask yourself, “What does this mean for me?” This question is important. It makes you actually articulate what it is that you detected that made you feel cautious or uneasy. Once you actually declare to yourself what you think the problem might be, you have a starting point to figure out what to do about it.
Emergency situations and incidents may cause us to change our route to our destination or our schedule for when we want to arrive. We may find ourselves in an unfamiliar neighborhood or street. Some of the inhabitants of that neighborhood may be wary or aggressive toward strangers.
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I once flew into a major U.S. city for a business meeting. The only rental car available was a brand-new, all-white limo. This happened long before cell phones, GPS and real-time navigation software. I got lost and had to drive through some bad parts of town in that big limo. At four-way stop signs there were groups of men just hanging around. Rather than stopping, I slowed down and rolled carefully through each intersection. I eventually made it to my destination in one piece and I learned some valuable lessons.
First, always plan the route to the destination and plan for some alternative routes if the primary route is not possible. This applies to driving as well as walking. Second, try to blend in with your surroundings. If most people in the neighborhood wear jeans and a T-shirt, then dress like them and wait until you get to work before you put on your suit and tie.
Ideally, clothing should be nondescript and similar to that worn by the local population. Plain and dark garments may help to avoid attention. Clothing should be practical whenever possible. Women, in particular, need to consider practical, sensible shoes for walking. If high heels are a must for work, carry them in a bag or leave a pair at work. A hat or head covering that is typical of what most of the local population is wearing helps you to blend in. In addition, women may find that wearing sunglasses helps to avoid panhandlers and some street criminals. If they cannot see your eyes, it’s harder for them to make contact.
Additionally, dressing in layers can also help to confuse someone who is following you. Get out of their line of sight and put on or take off a shirt or jacket, or even turn it inside out if the lining is a different color. Adding or removing some kind of hat seems to make it harder for someone to recognize you. If possible, also change direction for a couple of minutes or a couple of blocks.
Walking, and the role that it plays in projecting body language, is an important skill to master. Walk like an insecure, timid person and you may attract predators. Walk like you own the city and you may attract violent challengers. The trick seems to be to walk with quiet confidence and awareness of the surroundings. For example, when walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood, my body language will try to show that I’m alert to my surroundings, but not staring at any one thing or person for more than a moment.
If I’m approached by one of the locals, I first have to decide if they are a threat or just curious about the stranger in their street. This will determine how I respond. I’ve found that initial greetings can make things go well or badly, and so I start off by giving the impression that I’m not a threat, not particularly interested in the locals and not planning on staying around: “Hey guys, you seen a black and white dog running loose here today?” Or perhaps you notice something about the other person that you can relate to: “Nice hat. You a Denver Broncos fan?” Keep it short, smile and keep moving away. Give a friendly wave as you get out of earshot.
Maintain personal space by walking in the middle of the sidewalk whenever possible. Stay clear of hedges, alleys, doorways and parked or passing vehicles. Try to use main streets with plenty of pedestrians, rather than backstreets with few witnesses. Regular commuters through the same neighborhoods should be aware that, after a while, the locals will recognize them. This can be either bad or good.
A regular routine may allow a mugger to plan his attack at a specific place and time, so vary your schedule and route to destination if possible. On the other hand, a friendly wave and a smile to a local resident as you pass by his home every morning may make that person more inclined to help if you ever need it. If you get coffee at the same place every morning, make a point of getting to know the people behind the counter. It’s a good way to stay informed on local news, such as street closures or where somebody was recently mugged. In a disaster situation, they may offer a safe refuge for one of their regular customers.
Be aware of choke points along your route. These are places with only one entrance and one exit. Alleyways between buildings, pedestrian tunnels under railroads and pedestrian bridges over expressways are all examples of choke points where attackers can seal off both ends of the walkway and trap a person. Underground parking lots with stairs up to the street can harbor muggers at the top and bottom. It may not be possible to avoid some of these potential traps, so we must have a plan to defend ourselves.
As pedestrians in a city environment, we can use reflective surfaces to see what is happening around us. Take advantage of store windows, rearview mirrors on parked cars and trucks, highly polished granite facades on banks and office skyscrapers—any clean, smooth and shiny surface that can reflect light. Depending on the angle, we may even be able to see around corners. With a little practice, we can condition ourselves to analyze the image to see if it’s a threat to our security.
Disasters, such as the attacks in New York on 9/11, highlight the importance of always carrying the equipment you need to get home. There has been a lot of discussion about “bugging out” to escape disasters. It’s sensible to have a bag at home, packed with items needed to evacuate and survive elsewhere. For everyday travel and commuting, however, I use the same bug-out principle but on a much smaller scale.
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Depending on my situation and where I am, my micro bug-out kit for urban use can consist of items such as spare cash, a mini flashlight, a spare car key, a credit or reloadable debit card and some “chump change.” These items will help me to get home or find shelter. The chump change is a couple of dollar bills wrapped around a couple of coins secured with paper clips or rubber bands. It can be tossed to an aggressive panhandler to distract him while I move off in the other direction. Don’t expect this to work every morning with the same panhandler. If nothing else, it could get expensive.
An urban disaster may also affect our travel plans. If it occurs at the beginning of our day, we may decide to stay at home. However, if it occurs while we are away from home, we may need a plan to get home by a different route or method of transportation. An electronic or paper street map is invaluable in guiding us through the backstreets to our destination. Plan your route, plan for changes and be aware of what’s occurring around you.