Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chicago Crime: "Hey man, can I borrow your phone?"


(With my finals week over, it is time to return to a more regular posting routine. At the request of some readers, I am working on a "schedule" of sorts for when to expect certain posts on certain topics. More on that to come!)

"Phone borrowing" is one of the standard robbery/theft tactics I see around Chicago these days. I have seen it in action, I have seen people try it on me, I have heard of it around town, and my friends have experienced it firsthand. In this situation, an attacker approaches you and asks something along the lines of "Hey man, can I borrow your phone?" (This is a direct quote from a young man on the Red Line the other day). Maybe he saw your phone earlier. Maybe he did not. In either event, if you produce the phone or give it to him, he will grab it, run off, and potentially even strike you to deter pursuit. Of course, there is a chance (a good chance, even) that he might just use it to make a call before handing it back. But there are certain cues and mannerisms your attacker will effect, and that will clue you in to his intentions. In this article, I will go over the scenario itself and some verbal/physical tools you can deploy in this situation.

A SOCIAL WORK WARRIOR DISCLAIMER

Before proceeding, I am obligated to identify a problematic assumption that I have made here. You can never perfectly predict another person's intent. This is true even if they supposedly fit a standard "pattern" of behavior. We have a name for that in social work and criminal justice. It's called "profiling". It can be especially troubling if you take into account certain non-behavioral characteristics (i.e. race and age) at the expense of others.
"These aren't the iPhones you are looking for."
In this case, I am just assuming that your attacker is a young man with aggressive and suspicious cues: too much shifty eye contact, looking over his shoulder, lack of respect for personal space, an overly friendly demeanor, etc. I am not assuming his race. Indeed, in the past few months, I have seen this robbery trick tried by two white teens working as a group, a solitary Latino adult, and two black teens on separate occasions. If anything, this article serves as a guide to prevent purely racial profiling, helping you to identify behavioral, physical, and verbal cues that are independent of the more descriptive ones. Although you do not want to completely discount your experiences (for example, in Chicago, the majority of robberies are committed by young, black males), you also do not want those biases overwhelming your other sources of evidence.

THE SCENARIO
I was standing at the Red Line stop at Garfield wearing a dress shirt with my laptop bag slung over my shoulder. At around 10:45 AM, a few minutes before the train arrived, a young man approached me. He had just been talking with two friends on the other end of the platform. There were only a handful of other passengers at the stop. My only indication that he was suspicious was his constantly checking over his shoulders.

"Hey what's up man? Can I borrow your phone?" I took a casual step away from him and brought up my hands in a polite gesture of refusal: "Naw, sorry man." He took two steps in, cocked his head to the side, and raised one of his hands as if to accept the phone I had not offered. He looked over his shoulders again. "C'mon man, just gimme the phone."

I took another step back and raised both my hands up, giving a short and incredulous laugh. "Look buddy, you need to back up. I don't let people borrow my phone." He looked at me, looked over his shoulders again, and then backed up. "Man, fuck you." He turned around and walked off the platform.

There are three steps in phone borrowing incident. The first is an economic assumption, and it happens before your would-be attacker even opens his mouth. The other is a behavioral assessment, and it happens in the first few seconds of your exchange. And finally, there is the robbery itself, a step that you can hopefully avoid. .

STEP ONE: THE ECONOMIC ASSUMPTION
The first step in the process is an assumption: That you have a valuable handheld device. All those phones that are more advanced than my poor N64, such as iPhones and Galaxies, will sell for at least $100 at the criminal's local cell phone "store" (read: fence). Or the guy can just use it for games. Given the proliferation of such technology, the would-be robbers are making a decent bet that you actually have a phone worth stealing.
Neil Diamond would be very upset.
Your average robber probably doesn't stay informed of the latest Pew research studies (finding that roughly half of all Americans have such phones), but you don't need to be a WSJ subscriber to tell that. Just ride a train or a bus. That makes working professional and students, those who are most likely to have such phones, especially vulnerable. Laptop bags and nice clothes can all indicate phone ownership. Even if you regularly dress down and avoid showing clear symbols of wealth, you can still be targeted based on either the sheer prevalence of smart phones (it's a good bet that anyone has one), or because everyone is dressed up once in a while (even I have to sometimes forgo a white tee and jeans in favor of dress shirts ).

STEP TWO: THE "INTERVIEW"
So far, the potential assailant probably has not even talked to you yet. That leads directly to the second step in the impending attack: An assessment of your difficulty as a target. Rory Miller calls this the "interview" process, and it is an apt, albeit sinister, analogy. But unlike in most interviews, this is a job you do not want to get. Your attacker needs to quickly ascertain whether or not you are an easy victim, a goal accomplished in a few steps. Your objective is to show that you are a hard target.

This is also when you can identify the young man's intentions. If the guy genuinely wants to borrow your phone, he will ask respectfully and without entering your space. If he starts to make you feel uncomfortable, however, then you might have an impending crime on your hands.

  1. Asking "Hey man, can I borrow your phone?"
    "Wait, so you won't just hand me your phone?
    Are you sure you went to UChicago?"

    Don't let strangers borrow things. Seriously. For all of the times where it is not a bad idea, there are dozens of other instances where it ends with a problem. UChicago students, and other Chicagoans with positive outlooks, are famously oblivious when it comes to this request.
    In asking for your phone, the criminal wants to gauge your ability to handle uncomfortable situations. He is trying to disarm you. He will be overly familiar without being polite. If I personally wanted to borrow a phone, I might say "Hey, I'm really sorry to ask this, but can I borrow your phone? I forgot mine and need to call home. Or could you just do it for me?" That is a much less suspicious request. But there is something very presumptuous in just asking "Sup bud, can I see that phone for a sec?"
    • An easy target will be distracted and at ease. An easy target will not immediately identify the possible danger of this request, will avoid eye contact, and will overall remain unaware. He will not respond assertively, or he won't respond at all. This is someone who is either too reticent to respond to an attack or someone who is too inexperienced to know what is happening at all. 
    • A hard target will instantly go into a higher state of alertness, moving to create distance between himself and the potential criminal. Hard targets make eye contact and acknowledge the other guy's presence. They are focused on the potential attacker, but also mindful of others around them; the attacker might have friends, the terrain might be unsuitable for a fight (e.g. on the edge of a CTA platform), etc.
  2. Challenging your response
    This is probably the most important step in the process. A guy who genuinely wants to borrow a phone will not become aggressive or belligerent if refused. He might be insistent, but he will do so politely and apologetically: "Oh, see, and I'm sorry for asking again, but I just really need to call my wife or have someone call her for me. Would you mind please helping me out? I can just give you her number." And if he was refused a second time, a good-intentioned phone borrower wouldn't ask again.
    A robber won't take accept that first "no" as answer, and he will respond with a sense of aggrieved entitlement. "C'mon man, really? I know you have a phone." A nice guy would respect your discomfort. A bad guy will try and exploit it. He will try and fluster you into making a mistake, such as relinquishing your phone or turning your back. 
    • Easy targets get scared during this step. They back down, fumble around in their packets, deliberately avoid eye contact, and generally shut down. They become defensive in their actions, as if acknowledging that they are the ones who have done something wrong. If you lack the confidence and fortitude to withstand a verbal assault, then you indicate that you are also ill-prepared for a physical one. 
    • Hard targets remain stalwart, restating their initial refusal without overtly becoming aggressive or scared themselves. "Like I said, I don't have my phone." The difficult target will maintain eye contact, keeping his voice level and assertive. This indicates that you are steadfast and ready, two qualities that a would-be robber does not want to deal with in a victim.
  3. Entering your personal space
    Neither the personal space of the
    Vietnamese nor his staff was safe

    Don't let strangers enter your personal space. Common sense 101. "Personal space" can be generally defined as a circle centered around your body with an arm's length radius. If an assailant is inside that range, you just won't be fast enough to react to any aggressive action. Sure, you could still win the subsequent fight, but it's not fun to start with a punch to the face. Of course, if an aggressor is too far outside that range, you can't reach him to defend yourself (or disarm a weapon), so it's a careful balancing act that must be played.
    Again, this is another opportunity to distinguish ill-intent from a genuine request. If I wanted to borrow someone's phone, I would stand far back, maybe even be sitting down, and fully respect the discomfort that my inquiry might cause. When someone asks for your phone and then stands mere inches from your face (like Mr. LBJ above), he is sizing up your comfort in dealing with aggression. Victims will acquiesce. Hard targets will get ready.
    • Like anyone in that situation, easy targets become very uncomfortable with someone so close. But for reasons of propriety, fear, and ignorance, they do not try and move away. This shows that you are a target that won't fight back and/or lacks the street smarts to win an engagement. Alternately, easy targets are completely oblivious to the invasion of personal space, which makes the criminal's odds of a successful attack even higher.
    • Hard targets respond immediately to that intrusion. They sidestep methodically and quickly to create room (but not in a hurry or panic). They keep their hands up and ready, ostensibly in a conciliatory "Sorry buddy" posture, but also ready to attack or defend at a moment's notice. They move their feet into a ready stance. They take a deep breath. At worst, this indicates to your would-be robber that you are smarter than the average guy on the street. At best, it shows you are ready to fight without wanting to fight. 
You might notice that I am assuming that the proverbial victim in these above examples seems to have martial knowledge. That is to say, he could win the engagement and stop the robber if a fight broke out. But I admit that not everyone has the  training to do that. Thankfully, that is totally fine. You don't need to actually be a hard target. You just need to appear to be a difficult target in the eyes of your assailant. Think of it from his perspective. Why would he attack a difficult target, who may or may not know how to fight, when the robber could just wait a few minutes for an easier target to come along? Your goal is just to make him doubt his ability to seize your phone.

STEP THREE: THE ATTACK
Finally, there is the grab for the phone. If you got to this step, you either didn't
"C'mon guy, I really just
need to call my girlfriend!"
assert yourself enough, or your attacker was just too intent on robbing you in thefirst place. If you are lucky, he will snatch it and run. If you are unlucky, he will wrestle for it. If you are extremely unlucky, he will hit you before going for the phone. Your specific response in this step is going to be wholly dependent on your training and experience, and will run the range of "engage and subdue" to "scream for help". My goal in this article isn't to teach the fighting skills to win Step Three, but rather to give tips to stop the encounter at Step Two. I admit that there are certainly other variables that could influence the above progression. For now, however, the above explanations give a good elementary sense of how this robbery unfolds.

VERBAL DEFENSES
Let's go back to Step Two. Whether due to the insistence and belligerence of the guy's words, or his disregard for your personal space, you have strong reason to suspect an attack. What do you do now? You can't really launch a preemptive physical attack because it is inappropriate, immoral, and most importantly, illegal. That leaves verbal deescalation and deterrence measures, which are actually more effective than physical ones when wielded correctly.

Here are some sample exchanges that can guide you through the verbal phase of this encounter. Feel free to modify all of them to fit your own speech style; nothing is less compelling than trying to recite words that you wouldn't actually say yourself.

SCENARIO 1: The guy hasn't actually seen that you have a phone
Young man: "Sup? Can I borrow your phone?"
You: "Man, I left my phone at home today, sorry."
Young man: "What? You don't have a phone?"
You: "Yeah, forgot it at home today. Hate when I do that."
WORST CASE SCENARIO - Young man: "I don't believe you. Let me see your phone."
WORST CASE SCENARIO - You: "Sir, you need to step back. I don't have a phone and you need to get back."
  • The best way to get someone to reconsider the robbery is to just flat out deny having a phone in the first place. No phone means no profit. The trick is to make your performance convincing. Don't hesitate or delay if you plan on denying that you have a phone. If you have to think about it, the other guy might know you are spinning a story. Obviously, if you have any reason to suspect that this stranger knows you have a phone (e.g. he saw you using it 5 minutes ago), then do not risk the lie. That can just insult him and escalate the attack.
  • Your would-be robber will probably challenge you on your statement because everyone has a phone these days. First of all, if he does that, this vindicates your suspicions; people who genuinely want to borrow a phone will never be aggressive towards a refusal. Second of all, remember that this is a second step in the interviewing process. Remain resolute but courteous. I like to throw in the "hate when that happens" line to keep things casual. You could even add in a more in-depth story (but not too lengthy) to further deescalate your attacker. "Yeah, left my phone at the bar last night," or "Funny you ask because I just let my friend borrow my phone last night and he still hasn't returned it." This shows that you aren't afraid to talk with strangers, the sort of confidence that can translate well into resisting a robbery.
  • WORST CASE SCENARIO: If the belligerent keeps arguing and engaging, you need to loudly and authoritatively (hence, "Sir") tell him to back up. This has two effects. First, it shows that you are willing and ready to escalate if need be. Second, it draws a lot of witness attention to the situation, demonstrating that you are the victim. Once you have bystanders on your side, the guy is very likely to just stop and retreat. If he attacks at this point, he was probably going to anyway, and at least now you have a whole bus or train full of reinforcements on your side.
SCENARIO 2: The guy actually saw you using a phone earlier but you have since put it away.
Young man: "Hey man, can I borrow your phone?"
You: "Nope, sorry."
Young man: "C'mon, I need to call my friend. Why won't you let me?"
You: "I don't let people borrow my phone, sorry."
WORST CASE SCENARIO - Young man: "What? Fuck you, let me see your phone!"
WORST CASE SCENARIO - You: "Sir, you need to back away from me, I told you already that I am not giving you my phone!"
  • This situation is a lot more awkward because your attacker actually knows you have a phone. If you have any reason to suspect that the questioner knows about your phone, DO NOT DENY HAVING IT. Offering a blatant lie to a criminal is a great way to escalate, because you are, in effect, telling him that he is too stupid to see through your obvious fib. This leaves him to either admit that he is an idiot, or escalate in retaliation for your insult. 
  • Don't feel a need to explain yourself too much to this guy. The point is to implicitly assert that you are fully aware of what he is trying to do and suggest that you are ready to fight back if necessary. At each step, while reinforcing your intentions to keep your phone, you simultaneously leave the attacker with an "out" so he can peacefully back down. 
  • WORST CASE SCENARIO: The big difference between this comment and the previous worst case scenario is that you are restating your intention to keep your phone. Bystanders hear this, look over at the confrontation, and realize that you are not the aggressor. The attacker can either back down or admit his criminal intent to the entire audience of witnesses. Most iPhone thieves just want to get the phone and run, not start a brawl, so this attention is quite unwelcome.
SCENARIO 3: You are texting/using your phone when the guy approaches you
  • First of all, why are you using your phone in a location where would-be robbers are lurking? If you read this blog, you should know better. If you are in my self-defense class, you should definitely know better. 
  • Verbally, treat this exactly as you would Scenario 2, albeit with a few modifications to your actions. As soon as the conversation starts, you need to casually put your phone away and keep it in your pocket. Do not instantly whip your phone into your pocket; this just makes you look scared. Count out a 1 or 2 beat in your head and then pretend like you just finished whatever you were doing. Calmly put the phone into your pocket as you would if you had actually finished your text message.
  • If you are actually talking to someone on your phone and this guy is rude enough to interrupt or linger around waiting for you to finish, that is a sure sign that he is trying to steal from you. Again, treat this as you would Scenario 2, but hang up the phone and focus your attentions on the potential attacker.
PHYSICAL DEFENSES
No matter what verbal approach you take, you are going to incorporate some basic self-defense movements in your conversation. These are all ways to improve your position, create space, and generally appear competent and aware. They are not fighting techniques, persay. If you have to fight, these preliminary physical steps will give you a better chance. Even if you don't end up engaging, these movements will force your attacker to reconsider his target selection and maybe suggest that he find an easier victim.
  1. STAND FACE-TO-FACE AND MAKE EYE CONTACT
    Eye contact and face-to-face communication has a few effects on a would-be robber. For one, it shows that you are neither uncomfortable nor afraid when interacting with strangers. Criminals want to select targets that are easily intimidated and overwhelmed. Someone who establishes eye contact with a stranger is less likely to fall part under stressful situations. Second of all, from a very practical perspective, if you see your attacker, you can better anticipate his moves. A criminal's objective is to ambush and surprise his target. In the phone borrowing situation, the ambush comes when he converts an ostensibly friendly request into a theft or robbery. That's harder to do when you have him fully in view. Finally, eye contact is a sign of acknowledgment and respect. If you look down or away while talking to a stranger, you might insult his sense of ego or entitlement. That can just make him angrier. Obviously, don't lock his eyes in a Gorgon's death stare, but do provide some sort of eye contact.

  2. KEEP YOUR HANDS IN FRONT OF YOU IN A NEUTRAL STANCE
    Whenever I refuse a request from a total stranger, I always have my hands up in a congenial gesture of apology. It is also a decidedly un-congenial position of "ready-to-rumble", from which I can block, grab, strike, etc. You don't want to overdo the movement. Keep it casual and smooth. Don't jerk your hands up, and don't hold them too far out in front of you. Just lift them up nice and easy as you calmly deliver your lines.
    Your attacker won't see your hands and think "Crap, he's a martial artist. Better rethink this one". But he will realize that with your hands up, and not in your pockets/at your sides, you present a slightly more difficult target. This helps him reconsider his plans.

  3. LOOK OVER YOUR SHOULDERS
    Whenever you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, always do a quick scan of your surroundings. From a practical perspective, you need to be aware of the terrain, the bystanders, potential allies, additional enemies, and so on. If a train is coming in the next 10 seconds, you probably don't want to get in a fight on the edge of the platform. That will tell you to move to the center, or to get your back to a pillar. If two guys are creeping towards you as you talk to another, that might indicate a serious ambush in the works, and you will need to respond accordingly.
    From a more theatrical perspective, you want to show your attacker that you are the sort of person who is aware of his or her environment. Robbers will always preference an oblivious target to a  vigilant one.

  4. TAKE A CASUAL SIDESTEP BACK
    As a general rule, distance is your friend in any criminal situation. Action will always beat reaction in a physical confrontation, and if your attacker is too close to you, he can strike and grab before you can realistically react. If you can establish an arm-and-a-half's distance between you and the other guy, however, then you will be much better prepared for an engagement.
    To accomplish this, you need to take a casual step back as your conversation begins. Don't jerk away or back up too much; that can just insult the would-be robber and escalate the attack. Instead, step as if it is part of your standard conversational routine.
    If I am facing the street and a guy approaches down the sidewalk from my left, I will keep my right foot planted, turn my torso towards the approaching man, and take a circle step back with my left foot. This puts my feet in a balanced approximation of my fighting stance without indicating to anyone that I am ready to fight. I will not step into my target; that is too close. I will not face my target with squared feet; I lack balance. I will definitely not just turn my head to the target without turning my body; that closes off my entire right side of my body from the attacker AND I lack balance.
    Of course, Pippin's maxim still holds a grain of truth: "The closer you are from danger, the farther you are from harm." If I am too far away, I can't effectively jam a weapon draw or preemptively strike if I sense that things are absolutely turning violent. If you have martial skill, you need to find the optimal distance point where you can react to his moves but still act yourself. If you are not trained, however, then the more distance you establish the better off you will be.
These tips should help guide you through these situations if ever they occur to you. Remember that in all interactions with strangers, the primary concern is your safety. There is a time and place for both propriety and political correctness. That time is not when you feel threatened. Make sure you assess all the variables of any situation, not just those that you might give undue weight to (such as race). But if the phone borrowing situation arises, your alert level should instantly be heightened. Although I have not offered concrete tips to win the fight, if one breaks out, hopefully with all the other guidelines you will be able to prevent that awful Step Three from happening at all.

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