Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Techniques: Tricks to identify potential criminals

Chicago temperatures are rising, and that means the crime rate will follow. Although the average reader of this blog does not need to worry about the gang violence that occurs on the city's periphery, the threat of robbery, theft, random battery, or even sexual assault is still very real. Most of us, if not all, will never suffer one of these crimes (God willing). But with the weather warming, there will be more criminals and predators on the street, and a greater chance of victimization. To minimize our chances of falling prey to crime, we need to learn to identify bad guys and distinguish them from the average pedestrians.

The new iPhone app.
Just point and scan!
This article goes over the threat identification process. In many ways, this is one of the hardest parts of self-defense because it forces us to forget our socialization and human politeness. It demands us to make assumptions, generalizations, and even to profile. It forces us to take shortcuts when there are no easy ones to take. As I will discuss, this can be a philosophically difficult task, especially for those who are trying to help low-income populations. But it is also a critical tool in our self-defense toolbox, and one that every Chicagoan should have. To get you thinking about the topic, here is the checklist I eventually introduce as a way of identifying a person as a potential criminal. It also works to help identify dangerous groups. More "yes" answers means more danger.
  1. Is it between 3:00 PM and 3:00 AM?
  2. Are you on a low-traffic street? 
  3. Do you feel that the person is making inappropriate and constant eye contact?
  4. Does the person not have a bag/backpack?
  5. Is the person not on their cell phone?
  6. Is the person wearing unseasonably warm clothing?
  7. If the person is in group, is the group loud, rowdy, and overly physical?
  8. Do you feel uncomfortable?
Walking down the street is an ordinary experience. Being followed or confronted by a potential predator is an extraordinary one. Once we actually confirm this experience is happening, extraordinary action is justified. We can run, call 911, scream, and fight. But until that point, we need to overcome the inertia of our ordinary, polite, friendly pedestrian mindframe and shift to an extraordinary, impolite, survivalist one. That rapid and radical shift makes this a very difficult step in the self-defense process.

Too bad there wasn't
an archery gene
One of the most enduring bits of human evolution is our sense of community and family we share with all people, including those we do not know or have never even met. Our bygone ancestors were selected for their communal sensibilities. Antisocial genes got weaned out as the social folk flourished; in a foraging community, any selective advantage of selfishness is outweighed by the community's selection against that trait. Today, we wave to people, nod to them, smile at them, and generally trust them to be congenial fellows. We are very much the sort of person you would love to have on your hunter-gatherer team.

It is not just an evolutionary instinct, but also a strong social one. This is especially true in modern America. From birth, many of us are conditioned to be polite and unobtrusive, to not make assumptions and to give the benefit of the doubt. This is how we play in the sandbox, make friends in school, get job interviews, mingle at parties, and generally go about our day. Incidentally, many residents of the precise neighborhoods we want to avoid have a different social conditioning, one that might challenge them in these above settings, but make much more efficient survivors. But for the average UChicago student, let alone reader of this blog, we have probably enjoyed lifelong conditioning towards friendly and sociable behavior. 

Sandbox defense against carjacking.
As a side note, check out that Jujitsu technique!
These are great dinner party mannerisms but terrible self-defense instincts. Self-defense is about prioritizing personal safety over propriety. Threat identification is so hard because it forces you to suspend that shared sense of human community, both the social and evolutionary instincts. It is hard to adopt an animal-like survival mode. Most of us have gone our whole lives without making that shift, and we are deeply uncomfortable with doing so. But most of the time, our problem is not that we can't become survival-driven animals. If actually cornered, even the most docile academic can escalate into a frenzied berserker. The problem is that we don't want to escalate when we are just walking home from the bus stop. It's rude, silly, paranoid, or even racist. And if the stakes aren't immediately high, we will never risk being any of those things. How do we break out of this behavior? We must learn to identify the signals and evidence that will demand that you make the shift.

I use a number of criteria to try and identify a potential attacker. Given the high stakes of a false-negative (misidentifying a threat as harmless), I always err on the side of suspicion. As I often discuss in other articles, this awareness, orparanoia depending on how you want to frame it, can certainly be at odds with your personal philosophies and your daily enjoyment.
Not sure if muggers...
...or fellow consultants.
It can be hard to go for a late night walk with friends if you are too busy scanning the area every 10 seconds. It might feel inconsistent to work with young black or Latino students during the day, and then to avoid other young minorities at night. These are serious challenges that cannot be answered through purely technical advice as I give here. I will end with a brief discussion on these apparent contradictions, but it ultimately falls to you to see where it fits into your personal moral compass.

In the spirit of actionable advice, here is an 8 point checklist that I use to try and identify a potential robber, stalker, or criminal. These items will help you distinguish a threat from an average pedestrian. It might seem like a long list to deploy at short notice, but with practice you will remember the points intuitively. I recommend NOT adding or subtracting points from the list. With too little information, we can't make an informed decision and we increase the risk of false positives (identifying pedestrians as predators) and false negatives. With too much information, we take too long to process our knowledge and we act slowly. This list tries to strike a balance between both extremes.

You are walking to your destination and someone is walking behind you. This also applies to groups of people. Answer the following questions. The more you answer "Yes", the more worried you should be.
  1. Is it between 3:00 PM and 3:00 AM?
    If you live in Chicago, the vast majority of crimes happen after 3:00 PM and until 3:00 AM. Some crimes happen earlier (the 5:30 AM UChicago robbery of this spring comes to mind) and criminals definitely don't follow a schedule. As I always say, if you are attacked during these supposed "off hours", you aren't going to care about the statistical trends. But if you want to start collecting information, this is a good place to begin. I emphasize "time" and not "ambient lighting" because there are plenty of robberies that happen at 4:00 PM when it is bright and sunny out. 

  2. Are you on a low-traffic street?
    Even the most brazen robbers prefer to avoid witnesses. The busier your
    Just a stroll by the vacant warehouse.
    street, the safer you are; it's one of those common sense lessons that your parents endlessly repeat. It isn't that criminals aren't capable of dealing with witnesses, either by striking quickly or intimidating them away. It's that criminals generally want easy payouts. Whether that payout is from your wallet, your car, or something worse, it's always easier with no witnesses around. Two glaring exceptions to this are CTA "Apple Picking" (i.e. iPhone snatch and grabs) and the mob "wildings" we see in downtown Chicago. In the former case, this is often a nonviolent crime of opportunity. In the latter case, there are just so many other warning sings to clue you in beforehand.

  3. Do you feel that the person is making inappropriate and constant eye contact?
    One of the consequences of socialization is that we tend to be fairly knowledgeable about the difference between menacing and welcoming physical cues. With just a brief moment of eye contact between you and a potential follower, you can gain a lot of quick information. We know that a returned nod and a wave means "Hello", indicating a person who probably harbors no ill-intent. If your eye contact is ignored, this means some combination of "Don't bother me" or "I'm oblivious"; also not signs of impending violence. But we also know that a humorless glare means "Watch out". If you see that, it might mean trouble. Just as you know that significance of this threatening glance, so too does the potential criminal. He is putting on his look for a reason, and it's probably an unhealthy one. Of course, you might misinterpret a signal from a pedestrian. If that is the case, just casually look again. An innocent pedestrian is likely to ignore you a second time, smile again, or even just look at you quizzically. An attacker will keep his steely expression.This is particularly important in assessing a group. More eyes can mean more danger.

  4. Does the person not have a bag?
    It's hard to fight and run with a backpack. Ever tried sprinting to catch a bus
    Some belongings should arouse
    more suspicion than others
    while your bag is bouncing around, falling off your shoulders? Your average Chicago criminal has about as much tactical sophistication as a 5th grader on Call of Duty, but they do understand the importance of speed and lightness. Bags limit their ability to rapidly attack and disappear. They are also additional distinctive characteristics that a victim or witness can use to identify the attacker to the police. Moreover, bags are often the marks of someone who is going to or coming from a definitive location. They are leaving school, going to work, or coming home. Criminals are generally out with the intent to commit a crime, not in transit from point A to point B.

  5. Is the person not on their cell phone?
    Most attackers want to focus on their target and any potential witnesses. Just as we lose defensive awareness when we are on our phones, so too does an attacker lose their offensive awareness in the same situation. A person talking on his phone is also announcing his presence through his audible conversation. Although it is possible that a criminal would use this tactic just to lull us into a false sense of safety, a flat out surprise attack would be more effective.

  6. Is the person wearing unseasonably warm clothing?
    Armed criminals need a place to conceal their weapons. The overwhelming majority of robbers and attackers are not using a formal holster for their firearm, or a proper sheath for their knives. This means that weapons are carried in bulky pockets, tucked into waistbands, or simply grasped under
    Anyone that wore this armor on Tatooine is
    clearly up to no good
    clothes.With baggier or larger clothing, it is easier to conceal a weapon. Now, we must think critically when using this criteria so as not to confuse tactical awareness with outright discrimination. Lots of young minorities will wear baggy clothes, as a matter of culture, personal style, income, etc. Very few of them are concealing an assault rifle arsenal under those hoodies, let alone a pistol. If we just judge clothes at the expense of other items on the checklist, we are just creating a proxy criteria for racism, and that is neither right nor even particularly safe.

  7. If the person is in a group, is the group loud, rowdy, and overly physical?
    UChicago students walk around in groups all the time. So do financial district I-Bankers and consultants. What distinguishes these groups from potentially criminal ones is physicality. Groups that are likely to engage in violence or illegal activity are often acting far too rowdily for their setting. Take those I-Bankers and get them drunk and upset after yet another losing Cubs game, and I would give them as wide a berth as I would a group of young South Side men all wearing black and blue. When groups get physical, especially groups of men, the group dynamic can often be dangerous to outsiders. Roughhousing, playful fighting, wrestling, grabbing, and similar actions are the hallmarks of an aggressive group. Although this group may not have planned to commit a crime, if the thought strikes them in their charged state, you do not want to be nearby.

  8. Do you feel uncomfortable?
    If you have gotten this far through the checklist, you need to only ask yourself one final question: Do you feel uneasy? If the answer is "yes", then you now have ample reason to run, or even call the cops or fight. As strong as our social evolutionary instincts are, our survival instincts are even stronger. If those alarms go off and you have also answered positively to many of those questions above, you might have a serious threat on your hands. To some extent, I acknowledge that this point is a bit lazy. I was supposed to provide you the reasons to prompt your discomfort, not just invoke it as a motive. That said, there are dozens of other factors that you have personally gathered in your own experiences, all of which need to affect your sense of safety. If my list combines with your list to cause discomfort, then you have good reason to flee. 
As a final concession, I admit that there is something very artificial about this checklist. It reeks of UChicago theorizing, and might seem completely devoid of real application. In my experience, however, these questions are all invaluable in influencing your fight/flight response. You might misidentify some good guys as criminals, but that's an error that you can joke about later. But there is nothing laughable about a false negative. If you think that the criminal is actually a pedestrian, the error can be very costly. This checklist, despite its theoretical appearance, is a very practice tool to help you avoid that fate.

What about race? Or age? Should we identify criminals on these characteristics? Is that good self-defense, or is it just racism?

This point often comes up in my articles. It's a natural consequence of being a practicing social worker and a martial artist. More generally, it is an issue that everyone should be considering, warriors, scholars, and average Joes alike. When I was younger, I didn't question the prevailing Chicagoan wisdom that "blacks are more likely to commit crimes, so we should profile against them for our own safety". It seemed like a risk-averse strategy that would minimize your own chance of victimization, even if at the expense of some broader concept of race and humanity. Most UChicago students also follow this paradigm, and I have definitely been at fault for not explicitly denying its effectiveness.

Chicago's most dangerous gang
Two things changed my view on racial profiling for self-defense. The first was a purely tactical consideration. When you identify potential criminals based on a single race, you train yourself to ignore other kinds of threats. I always tell my students that the scariest group in Chicago is not found on the South or West Side. It is the roving packs of young white males that you see on the Wrigleyville bar scene after hours. They are not likely to rob you, and it is a good bet that they didn't plan to commit a crime. But they are prone to misinterpret any signal you give them, and they are primed for fighting. When you focus too much on one race, you start to ignore the wider threat portfolio of our city. So even from a primarily self-defense perspective, completely independent of moral reasoning, profiling can be ineffective.

There is a more important reason not to profile: Empathy. We need to be aware and respectful of the circumstances that minorities live in throughout Chicago, and we need to be mindful of how that affects our perceptions of them. We must
The average white guy in a suit
be mindful of differences. Some activities that look suspicious to us from our white, middle class standpoint can just be everyday business for a non-criminal black youth. For example, many Woodlawn young people will walk home together in a noisy, rambunctious group. Is this because they are ganged up and ready to rob anyone? Probably not. It is much more likely that they are doing it for safety, or simply because that's what young high school kids do when classes get out. Clothes are another example. We profile against young men in hoodies and jackets, especially when those clothes are too baggy or warm for the weather. But this may just be a difference in cultural attire. Or maybe the young person cannot afford better fitting clothes. Maybe his pants lack pockets. Or maybe he just wants to wear it, the same way the white "hipsters" will forgo socks in a snowy February. Profiling minorities as criminals because some criminals wear hoodies is not unlike thinking all businessmen in suits are federal agents.

These calculations are very difficult to make from the safety of our classrooms, let alone on a deserted street at 9:30 PM. So it's unfair to expect it of everyone, especially those who have just arrived in Chicago or an urban environ. But even when dealing with issues of safety and self-protection, continue to be mindful about the realities of others. You do not need to incorporate that into your calculus on the first time, but you should increasingly try and make it a part of your thought process when going out around the town.

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