Situational Awareness and Good Sense

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

If you see someone who is advertising their criminal tendencies and your alert level goes up, that doesn’t make you racist, police officer Chris Hernandez argues:

It means you’ve got some sense, you don’t ignore obvious signs of danger and you’re being situationally aware. If you spot an obvious threat like those I’ve described, then identify pre-assault indicators, you may have just saved your life.

Note that the victim in this assault does not appear to be paying any particular attention to his surroundings. He’s simply walking down what appears to be an alley, face forward, minding his own business. He doesn’t seem to give a second thought to the fact that the young black males approaching him are spread out almost all the way across the alley, leaving him only a small gap to pass through. And he takes no action at all when one of the young males moves sideways toward him. My guess is that the victim never recognized any signs of impending danger. In this case the young males don’t, by appearance alone, seem to be threatening. But some of their behavior before the attack certainly suggests a threat.

Let’s look at the first indicator I mentioned. The young males are spread out, taking up most of the alley. While that might just mean those kids are selfish jerks, it could also be an intentional effort to channelize the victim into what we soldiers call a “choke point”: an area where a victim’s freedom of movement and action are restricted. When soldiers plant land mines, dig ditches and emplace concrete obstacles, it’s not to simply stop enemy vehicles. It’s to force them into a specific area, like a narrow mountain pass, where they can be easily ambushed. Those attackers did the same thing to their KO game victim.

Now take another look at the video, right around the 00:21 mark. Even in the blurry, distant video you can see the attacker make an obvious, deliberate move to his left just prior to throwing the punch. While it might seem that the victim had almost no time to react before being punched, he actually had more than enough. If he had noticed the signs, he could have stopped and waited for the group to pass. He could have kept his eyes on the young men, giving the non-verbal clue that he was watching them as closely as they were watching him. Even if he had walked into the choke point they created, he still could have ducked or sidestepped once he saw the punch about to be thrown. Any of those countermeasures could have kept him from laying facedown and unconscious on the pavement.

But here are my questions: did the victim walk blindly into an ambush even though he felt uncomfortable when he saw the group of young black males approaching him? Did he intentionally disregard signs of danger, because he didn’t want to appear racist?

One night I arrested a murder suspect. He had stabbed someone to death at a bar, and I found him the next night as he was hurriedly loading possessions into a truck prior to his planned escape from town. I snuck up and surprised him in his front yard; when I ordered him to put his hands up and lay on his stomach he ignored me, protested his innocence and started walking toward me.

I repeated the order. He ignored it and kept coming. He wasn’t cursing, he wasn’t saying “I’m going to kill you”, his demeanor suggested he was friendly. But his actions told a different story. He kept ignoring my commands. He kept walking toward me, despite the fact that he could easily hear me from where he was. He kept talking over me, trying to appear casual. He was about to attack.

Because my flashlight was in his face, he couldn’t see my pistol pointed at him. Despite his apparent friendliness, I knew he was “innocently” closing distance. I expected him to go for a knife, and was ready to shoot him. The sudden appearance of another officer made the suspect stop.

But here’s the twist. The suspect was an illegal alien. He was speaking Spanish as he protested his innocence. Was I being “insensitive”, not considering that he may have been confused rather than uncooperative? Was I stereotyping by assuming he had a knife? Should I have given him the benefit of the doubt and not kept my pistol on him?

It turned out I had arrested the suspect once before, and he had been verbally aggressive and threatening. When I saw him in court later he cursed me out. His friendliness was just an act. Had I given him the benefit of the doubt, and if I hadn’t had backup, I have no doubt he would have stabbed me.

One night I had to run a mental patient off from a truck stop. He had been there for hours bothering customers. I didn’t realize he was a mental patient until I saw the sunglasses he was wearing (at night) still had the “Made in China” sticker on a lens. That, and when I told him he had to leave his first question was, “But then where will I get refreshments?”

I asked for his name and date of birth, then called in a warrant check. The man hadn’t been threatening before that. But as soon as he heard give his name over the radio, he went silent, dropped to one knee, hung his head and covered his face.

I backed away, drew pepper spray and made sure I had space to go sideways if he came at me. When he suddenly sprang back to his feet, angrily demanding to know why I was harassing him, I was prepared for an attack. But he didn’t come at me, maybe because he saw my stance and intermediate weapon in my hand. He left peacefully.

He was black. His race had nothing to do with it. I saw black customers in that truck stop all night, every night; nobody called the police on them and I didn’t run them off. But his behavior made the employees call the police, and his unmistakable pre-assault indicator made me take defensive measures.

On another night I stopped two black men in an area known for narcotics trafficking. The passenger looked like a crackhead. The driver was well-dressed, polite and articulate, but was nervous as hell. I asked the driver to step out and walk to the hood of my car.

The driver and I had a pleasant conversation. Until I asked for consent to search his pockets. Then he stiffened up, went silent for a few moments. When he turned around and put his hands on the hood, his back was rigid and head held way high. I could feel his heart racing as I checked his front pockets. But I also noticed something else, which was even more threatening. His passenger, still sitting in the car, was turned almost all the way around, watching us intently. He was waiting for something to happen.

I broke off the search. The driver was probably about to fight, and the passenger would likely have joined in. I was by myself, with backup at least a couple of minutes away. I chose discretion over valor.

Later that night, I found the driver again. His passenger wasn’t with him. I went ahead and searched the driver that time. And he resisted, because he had about ten rocks of crack in his pocket.

Was I racist for asking to search the driver, or for suspecting he was about to fight? No. I recognized behavioral clues. But one night on another call, I totally missed the signs.

A friend and I arrived on a disturbance call in the projects. The call wasn’t serious, and we detained a “suspect” who wasn’t acting the least bit threatening toward us. He was about 19, tall and thin, wearing saggy, loose-fitting running pants with a drawstring. We asked him to sit on the curb. He complied, and my friend stayed by him while I went to the patrol car’s computer to check him for warrants. As I got in the car, I absentmindedly noticed that the young man had pulled his pants up and was tying the drawstring.

The young man was wanted for violating probation on a felony charge. I walked back to the young man and tried to grab him. From his sitting position, he bolted. We lost him.

That kid knew he had a warrant. When I went to my car he knew I would see the warrant hit. He casually tied his drawstring so his sagging pants wouldn’t interfere when he ran. I missed that obvious clue, and was lucky it was a “pre-run” rather than “pre-assault” indicator.

So what did I learn from the above examples? I learned that watching for clues is much more important than looking at race. Yes, race can matter; I doubt anyone would argue that black victims of Klan assaults in 1950?s Alabama shouldn’t have paid attention to certain white males around them. But race isn’t the most important indicator, and isn’t what I would tell anyone to watch for.

Look for behavior. Look for nonverbal clues. Ask yourself why someone is taking the actions they’re taking. Don’t be afraid to take steps to protect yourself, whether they’re small steps like changing direction or big steps like drawing a weapon. Remember that for all the media attention paid to the Knockout Game, the chances of you becoming a victim are infinitesimally small. Remember that KO Game players can be multiracial. And remember that being aware of your surroundings, looking for pre-assault indicators and exercising good judgment does not make you racist.


  1. Steve Johnson says:

    “So what did I learn from the above examples? I learned that watching for clues is much more important than looking at race.”

    All that and he still misses it.

    Blacks are more likely to be criminals. You should be subjecting them to more scrutiny based on race — not being afraid to scrutinize them at all because of their race.

  2. Guy says:

    “…not being afraid to scrutinize them at all because of their race.”

    I agree with that, but focusing on race will work great right up until you give the benefit of the doubt to someone who looks like you, then die when it turns out that actions did speak louder.

  3. T. Greer says:

    Moreover, if you are living in or traveling through a place where blacks are the majority — and some of these stories make it clear that this was the case — then it doesn’t make sense to subject blacks to more scrutiny. At that point you’re just saying “subject everyone to scrutiny.” Which is basically what the phrase “situational awareness” means, right?

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