Transitional Spaces and Self Protection

Some places are just more dangerous than others. That’s a fact of life. The good news is that most of us are smart enough to avoid places that elevate the likelihood of our asses being beaten or our stuff getting stolen.

There’s an alleyway just about a block from my happy little house in modern suburbia. My wife’s place of employment is just across the street from this alley. At the opposite end of the alley from her workplace is a parking lot in which a rape, a near sexual assault, a physical assault, and numerous verbal altercations have occurred. The place is a well-known area for potential trouble, especially when the presence of a basement pub is taken into account.  Because… drunk people.

Suffice it to say I don’t use that alley, and I don’t hang around in that parking lot. It is an easy place for me to avoid because I live here and know the area. I know about that lot’s past and the potential danger it presents.

However, since I don’t spend all of my time in my own hometown (and I’m betting you don’t either), it is important that I develop a strong understanding of where I should and should not go when I travel beyond the range of my familiar area. The same sorts of dangerous places in my familiar areas are probably dangerous in other cities and towns as well, so I can apply a set of rules across all places I happen to travel.

Some of the advice that follows will be painfully obvious; some not so much; try not to let the obviousness of some parts detract from your investment in the article. Simple reminders like this article can be life savers under the worst of circumstances.

The primary concern, of course, is to maintain a high level of awareness that will ultimately enable you to see trouble before it finds you. Beyond that, it is worth taking the time to absorb the information below to better prepare yourself for the likelihood that you will find yourself in unfamiliar and dangerous territory without sufficient background knowledge.

Transitional Spaces
A transitional space (or danger zone, or high-crime area – whatever verbiage you use) is anywhere a criminal has the means to surprise a potential victim, carry out a crime, and rapidly escape from the scene. Often the space is one where the victim is naturally distracted and/or hemmed in. Given that crimes within such areas are typically asocial in nature (meaning the criminals involved prefer few to no witnesses), transitional spaces provide cover from which the threat can emerge and into which he can disappear.  Here are some examples of transitional spaces:

  • alleyways
  • sidewalks
  • parking lots
  • parking garages
  • ATMs, especially walk-up ATMs
  • entryways/exits
  • elevators
  • stairwells
  • hallways
  • public restrooms
  • any blind rear of a building
  • any 24-hour/convenience store
  • gas stations
  • any remote and/or dark location

So just avoid all of those places. Right?

OK. Not so much, but it stands to reason that we should avoid them to the greatest extent possible, especially when we are outside of our familiar areas. When life demands that we enter a transitional space, we do so with a heightened sense of preparedness and awareness.

Managing a Transitional Space
Some transitional spaces can be maneuvered simply by traveling in numbers. Sidewalks, parking lots, hallways, and entryways/exits are good examples of transitional spaces whose power is diminished when you move through them in a group.

Parking Lots
Sometimes navigating a parking lot or parking garage alone is unavoidable. Working late, shopping (particularly in winter, when the sun goes down much earlier in the evening), and evening activities quite often necessitate maneuvering dark parking lots that are rife with potential for danger. When walking through a parking lot alone, consider the following:

  • park under a light if you know you will be returning in the dark. Asocial predators hate being illuminated.
  • walk 6-8 feet from the rear bumpers of parked cars. Doing so increases the depth of your line of sight between vehicles, allowing for more reaction time to a threat
  • carry a small pocket flashlight. It can serve as an improvised weapon, a distraction, and a way of illuminating the dark spaces between cars.
  • do NOT check your phone messages while you walk. Keep your head up, eyes probing the darkness for potential trouble, and ears tuned to the sounds around you
  • use your key fob only when you are within visual range of your car. If you need to locate your car with the fob, press the ‘lock’ button to sound the tone.
  • once you are in your car, lock the doors, start the car, and go
  • if you have to unload groceries/packages into the vehicle, alternate between moving bags and looking around. Pay particular attention to anyone who seems to just be loitering in the parking area without an apparent sense of purpose

Parking lots seem to be the most prevalent transitional space for victimization. You are well-served to be dubious about anyone who approaches you in transition from building to vehicle or vice versa. The same is true of our next transitional space.

ATMs are always a tricky defensive spot. The closest ATM to my house is next to a convenience store near the rear of the building (thus exponentially increasing its danger as a transitional space).  I never go to that machine at night, and during the day I am sure to bring someone with me to act as a lookout for trouble. It is not particularly difficult to recognize your standing as a high-value target at an ATM: users who are distracted by a screen, their wallet, and their cash are easy to assault and rob.

If you must visit an ATM, especially at night, bring a friend. If you are alone, first decide whether the need for cash is worth the risk you take to acquire it, then (assuming you decide to push your luck and withdraw cash) keep your head on a swivel the entire time you are out of your vehicle.

Stairwells & Elevators
I have never seen a building stairwell that failed to give me reason for concern. Deciding between a stairwell and an elevator can be a 50/50 proposition depending on the area in question. In hotels and office buildings, I lean toward using the elevator. In parking decks, dormitories, and classroom buildings, you could toss a coin to decide which to use more safely.

Elevators are an issue due to the fact that anyone can join you on an elevator, thus creating a captive victim whose escape options are nil. I’m reminded of the elevator scenes in the movies Jack Reacher (see video below; skip to 6:13) and Batman Begins, as well as the real-life episodes involving Ray Rice and Elisa Lam. The elevator proved to be a confining space that led to the eventual downfall of the victims. At least on a staircase there is the option to retreat; no such luxury exists in an elevator.

If you find yourself on an elevator with a stranger, do not let that person stand behind you or beside you. Personally, I lean against the side wall of the elevator car so that anyone who joins me is in front of me in plain view.  If you are confined in the elevator with someone who puts off bad vibes, hit a button and exit the car. There’s no shame in bailing, even if it seems rude to do so. I’d rather you be rude and wrong about his intentions than polite and right about his intentions.

As far as staircases go, keep your eyes up – not looking down at your feet – and look to the next landing before leaving the one you are on. Every step between you and a waiting criminal is more room for escape should necessity dictate a hasty retreat. Being able to see him from a landing below or above where he’s waiting gives you an edge for escape.

Public Restrooms
I have a long-standing dislike for public restrooms (beyond the obvious revulsion for their lack of cleanliness). I do not mind so much the single-occupant restrooms with solidly-locking doors; it is the multi-stall restrooms with open traffic flow that are a problem.

As a general rule, you should always make a mental note of the people in a restroom when you enter. Who is doing what? Does anyone seem to be just idling with no obvious sense of purpose? Is that one guy taking too long to wash his hands? People who seem to be just hanging around the restroom should make your watch list. I’m not implying that such people are trouble, just that it is better to know who is where.

I prefer to use the locking stalls exclusively since they eliminate the chance that I will be surprised by someone in the middle of my ‘business’. It would be fairly difficult to focus on defense were I attacked mid-stream and forced into defensive mode with certain *ahem* appendages *ahem* exposed, Having a locked door at my back severely reduces the potential for such awkward attacks.

Before exiting the stall, I take a quick look under the door to see if anyone is lingering close to the entrance to my stall. It is not specifically indicative of a threat (how many times have dads waited outside of a stall for their young child to finish up?), but it is definitely worth giving your attention.

Convenience Stores
24-hour stores, convenience stores, liquor stores, and any other quick stop type of location is a target-rich environment. Spending at such establishments is done largely in cash, which makes for a high-value heist to any criminal ne’er-do-well.

Managing a convenience store-style situation is a matter of being on higher alert for the duration of your visit. When you walk into the store, know exactly what you want, pick it up, pay, and go. The time it takes for you to decide between Snickers and Milky Way could be the time that some desperate person makes his move.

Should a dangerous encounter occur while you are in the store, hopefully your threat response skills are up to or above par. Can you safely move away from the threat? Is the threat including you in the situation (is he robbing you and the store, or is his focus on the store only)? Are you far enough away from the threat that exiting the store is viable? Can you lock yourself in the restroom? Is cover/concealment available?

This specific defensive situation will be very fluid and you’ll need to act with great care and discretion (which will be difficult under the circumstances). As usual, your awareness and attention to detail will likely be your first line of defense.

Gas Stations
Pumping gas leaves us in a particularly vulnerable position for robbery:  we’re out of our car; distracted by getting the pump started; and then (usually) fixated on the purchase screen, mindlessly watching the numbers tick by. Few things say, “Rob me!” more than blind fascination with a digital screen.

Criminals see very profitable opportunities in our distraction from the world while pumping gas. Recall the DC Sniper event from the early 2000’s when Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammed sniped people while they pumped fuel. The event terrorized the DC area for several weeks (in addition to their southern rampage in areas as distant from DC as Texas and Louisiana).

Who would believe that pumping gas could be so dangerous.

As usual, the best defense against becoming a victim is awareness. Granted, there is little that could be done in the face of such a situation as the DC Snipers, but there are practical steps that can be taken to minimize the likelihood that you will be victimized.

First, it is always a good idea to get a good idea of who is where before getting out of the car. Take particular care to note anyone who is near the pump you will be using (or if there are cars with no one near them). As much as it is possible, I use pumps that do not have users opposite of where I am.  If that preference is unavailable, I make sure to look at the user of the pump next to me and greet him/her with a friendly, “How ya’ doin’?” Just that small move lets the person know that I recognize his/her presence and I am not afraid to speak out.

When you do exit the car, do NOT leave your keys in it. Close and lock the doors and keep your keys in a pocket. It is a grand invitation to a thief to see an unoccupied vehicle with the motor running or music thumping while the owner is distracted by a the numbers on the pump.

Which brings us to the next point: we must get our eyes off the screen. Occasional looks are fine to keep track of the purchase, but watching the numbers tick from $0.00 to $XX.00 isn’t necessary. Look around while pumping. Is anyone approaching? Anyone watching me a little too intently? Be sure to move around to observe any blind areas (like the opposite side of the pump or the opposite side of your vehicle).

When you are done pumping fuel, take a last glance around as you unlock your driver-side door. Get in and go.

Other Areas
Blind Rear of a Building:  This is going to be absurdly obvious, but the rear of any building, particularly at night, is fraught with danger. Unless you are driving a big rig making a delivery, the rear of a building should be very low on your list of places to go. We have a Salvation Army store not too far from home in a questionable part of town. Their donation drop-off area is behind the building. It stands to reason that when we donate stuff to the store, we travel in numbers and keep a constant eye on our surroundings.

Alley:  If you are unfamiliar with an area, any alley is suspect. Skip it and take the long way around a building.

Other Dark Areas:  If there is low visibility for you, there is low visibility for everyone, and criminals know this. If you are alone in a dark area, job #1 is to get out quickly. I’ve read stories about women who were followed while walking on a dark sidewalk and attacked when they reached their car. If you are prone to stargazing, late-night parking with your lover, or just wandering around darkened streets, have a solid plan on how you intend to extract yourself from potentially deadly situations.

In Conclusion
While most of what is written above makes it seem like we should just stay in our homes, gird ourselves with body armor, and strap on the M4. Not true. While there are considerable dangers that lurk beyond the walls of our homes, we should not allow the potential for violence to dictate our behaviors.

If you have the proper mindset when leaving home – one of careful attention to your surroundings and readiness to act should things go wrong – then the danger is already mitigated. Live your life, but live it in condition yellow.

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