Intelligence Gathering For Personal Safety

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My dictionary defines “intelligence” as follows:

1. Capacity for understanding and for other forms of adaptive behavior; aptitude for grasping truths, facts, meanings; 2. Good mental capacity; 3. The faculty of understanding; 4. The gathering or distribution of information, especially secret information; 5. A staff of persons engaged in obtaining such information.

The selected definitions listed above accurately reflect what we mean when we refer to gathering personal intelligence. Make no mistake, the law-abiding populace of this country is at war with the criminal subculture. The gathering of accurate intelligence on the enemy’s identity, location and strength is a vital part of planning your overall defensive strategy. Unless you are aware of the threat, how can you plan to counter it?

In this article we will examine some of the facets of personal intelligence gathering and processing to assist you in a realistic threat assessment of your environment, and to provide forewarning in street encounters with likely threat sources. While this will not be an exhaustive examination of every threat, it will at least expose you to the main elements of some of the more common criminal types with which you will likely deal.

The purpose of this endeavor is to allow you to recognize subtle danger signs that will be present prior to an assault. By recognizing these cues, you can place yourself on alert, and be thinking about a planned response. As we discussed previously, being aware of a threat and having a plan in mind to deal with it greatly decreases reaction time and helps overcome the mental inertia that slows down our response.

When interacting with strangers, these subtle cues, once learned, can assist you in evaluating the proper degree of vigilance and readiness to act.

Be alert for these signs as you go through your daily routine. Forewarned is forearmed.

Street Gangs

One of the most common threats right now is that of the violent youth street gang, whether that gang has its origins in the black, Latino, Southeast Asian or white communities. Street gangs, once confined largely to places like Chicago and Los Angeles, have now spread throughout the United States, driven largely by the lucrative market in illicit drugs — particularly cocaine and crack.

Street gangs become surrogate families of sorts for many members, providing the companionship, support, affirmation and respect missing from their home life. This mutual bond among gang members is the source of one cause of violence against non-members. “Dissing” a gang member (showing disrespect to him or his associates) causes him to lose face in the eyes of his peers unless redeemed by violence against the person showing the real or imagined disrespect. Since there are usually multiple members present, you are faced with an attack by all of them (fight one, fight them all).

Other attacks are motivated by desire for your money, and carjacking is a common crime among youthful offenders, who take a new vehicle each night to use in the “cruising,” robberies and drive-by shootings they have planned for the evening’s entertainment. In some organizations, gang members must commit a serious crime, such as shooting a stranger (you) in the presence of a senior gang member in order to move up in the social order. Regardless of the intent, these are dangerous individuals, and they must be taken seriously as a threat.

Gang graffiti is not just vandalism; it is a form of advertising and communication. Gangsters use graffiti to mark territory and to establish dominance, just as a predator might urinate on the tree trunks around the perimeter of his home range. Gang graffiti must be taken seriously as a red flag; its appearance around your place of business means that you must be on the lookout for gang members and activity.

Black street gangs in this country are typically affiliated with one of several major national groups. The best known of these are the Crips and the Bloods, which originated in Los Angeles, and The Folk Nation and The People Nation, which originated in Chicago. All of these groups have sent recruiters throughout the United States, and there is now no area of the country completely free from their influence.

Bear in mind that graffiti is not the only form of expression in which gang symbols are used. The same images often appear as tattoos, and these provide a ready means of identification. In the past, gang members usually sported “colors,” readily identifiable pieces of clothing, which made identification easier for both friend and foe.

Examples included red or blue bandannas, and “dressing right or left” which means cap brim turned in a certain direction, or one pants leg rolled up and the other not. In most areas these practices have been abandoned, as they lead to attention from law enforcement officers on patrol. Now, tattoos are probably your best means of identifying gang members.

Among the major Latino gangs are the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia, which originated in Southwestern U.S. prisons, and the Latin Kings, a common street gang. Tattoos are a prevalent form of communication among these gangsters, with often ornate, colorful and extensive coverage. The Mexican national emblem, the eagle and snake, are common, as well as stylized initials like eMe (the pronunciation of “M” in Spanish, for the Mexican Mafia), and a crown in Latin Kings tattoos.

Among the most dangerous of the white gang types is the Skinhead, a white, neo-Nazi type who specializes in personal brutality, particularly violence directed toward Jews, blacks, homosexuals and others they consider to be “inferior.” Skinheads got their name from the practice of shaving their heads, but again, this has been largely abandoned to prevent harassment (oops, I meant monitoring) by police.

Heavy boots, suspenders (braces), muscle shirts and black leather jackets or military style jackets are the principal mode of dress. Again, tattoos are your best indicator. The Celtic cross, Nordic or Viking artwork, and Christian religious symbols are the most common form of tattoos.

The other predominately white threat group is the biker gang or outlaw bikers. Bikers live in a culture all their own, in a world dominated by their motorcycle, degradation of women, drugs and violence. Bikers seldom work in the traditional sense, but make their living from prostituting their “old ladies,” selling drugs and working as enforcers for other criminal enterprises. Bikers tend to be extremely violence prone, especially if they perceive weakness in a victim or opponent, and they tend to be both well armed and, often, better skilled than most other gang types. This makes them formidable adversaries.

Obviously, the most common indicator is the biker’s motorcycle, but this is not always present. Bikers often travel in other vehicles, and a group of bikers traveling on “business” will often be accompanied by a van containing backup members, heavy weapons (including automatic weapons), and extra ammunition.

The primary indicator is the biker’s colors: a vest adorned with the symbols of his gang and of his personal achievements. A biker wears his life story on his vest, with his status within the gang, his rank, his past deeds and other information proudly displayed, although somewhat encoded. A biker will usually die before he will surrender or risk loss of his colors. The same markings found on his colors will often be found in tattoos, which are quite common among bikers.

Drug Abusers

According to many authorities in law enforcement, as much as 80 percent of the crime in the United States is driven by the use of illegal drugs. From turf wars among drug dealers, to robberies to get money to buy dope, drug abusers are your single largest threat group.

According to a recent detailed study by the FBI, 80 percent of the offenders studied who had killed police officers were under the influence of drugs, alcohol or drugs and alcohol at the time of the fatal assault. Many types of drugs lower social inhibitions (this is why alcohol is so important to so many people at social functions). Unfortunately, these social inhibitions include the inhibition to kill a fellow human being.

The most commonly abused drugs in this country include: cocaine, crack, amphetamines, methamphetamines and other nervous system stimulants; PCP, LSD, MDMA and other hallucinogens; marijuana; anabolic steroids; and, of course, alcohol.

Different types of drugs can cause different physical symptoms, of which you need to be aware. In addition, certain drugs can cause psychological effects on the offender for which you must be prepared. Remember that different people can have different reactions to drugs. A complete discussion of these drug types and their effects is outside the scope of this brief article, but the information is readily available.

Mental Cases

In any major urban area, street contacts with mentally or emotionally disturbed persons are practically unavoidable. According to the American Psychiatric Association, one of every three Americans will suffer some form of serious mental or emotional illness at some point in their life. I’m OK, but frankly, I’ve been a bit worried about you.

The most common group of mentally disturbed persons you will encounter is the street person, typically a homeless drifter or bum, usually shabbily dressed, unkempt, bearded and dirty. A lot of people will try to tell you that these people are helpless, harmless victims of the failed mental health care system. This is not typically true.

It is now extremely difficult in this country to involuntarily commit someone for a mental illness — even a serious one. Even disturbed persons who kill are typically stabilized with medication and released back into the public, with the frail hope that they will continue to faithfully take their medication without supervision. Most mentally ill street people have been placed in care homes or mental institutions at some point, but since they cannot be held there against their will, they left and went back on the street.

In my experience, many of these persons prefer uncertain life on the street to the structured and confining life in an institution. Of course, once on the street and broke, they have no access to medications, and no one to evaluate their progress or deterioration.

In my area, for instance, I used to patrol a residential area which was a short distance from the main concentration of hospitals, including mental health facilities. We would arrest these “disturbed persons” for theft, burglary or assault so many times we knew them all by name. Some were not violent; some were. In court, the judges recognized them as persistent offenders but understood that they were seriously mentally ill, so they were reluctant to put them in jail. In jail, true criminals horribly victimized these typically unhealthy people. The judges were powerless to commit these individuals to mental institutions for any length of time, as the admitting psychiatrists would judge them not to be “an imminent threat to their own safety or that of others.” Back on the street they went in 24 hours.

One night, one of these “repeat customers” of ours, a 50-ish female of slight build, knocked a man down, sat astride his chest and cut out his heart with a steak knife. Sometimes, three or four of us would have to “pile up” on one of these offenders to get him into custody without having to kill him. Harmless? Hardly. In fact, almost all of these people have an extensive criminal record, and a surprising number of them are registered sex offenders. They also tend to carry such diseases as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis.

A large percentage of these street people are armed, usually with crude weapons such as knives, screwdrivers, straight razors or improvised weapons. They are often very territorial about “their home,” which may be a cozy spot behind your office’s dumpster. They also tend to be very touchy about personal space, and inadvertently getting too close to one may be interpreted as the worst sort of aggressive attack against him, resulting in a furious assault against the intruder: you.

Aside from the obvious bum, be on the lookout for behavior such as a shuffling, uncoordinated gait; a vacant, thousand-yard stare; incoherent mumbling; talking to himself or unseen associates; and other bizarre behavior. With anyone you suspect to be mentally disturbed, try these tips to avoid or de-escalate a contact:

  • Remember his personal space, and don’t invade it.
  • Do not try to touch him, unless you are prepared to fight him.
  • Do not make sudden, rapid or startling movements.
  • Speak quietly and slowly. Do not shout.
  • Try to increase distance and get an obstacle (parked car, fence, etc.) between you both, because if he is armed it is probably with an edged weapon.

Just Plain Criminals

Criminals must go through certain specific stages of activity before they can assault, rob, abduct, rape, etc. These stages will differ slightly in different types of crimes, but will generally fall into the following categories:

1. Selection: The criminal views you as a prospective victim. He looks at your “victim potential” on two separate bases. First, do you have the type of car he wants, are you wearing expensive watches and jewelry, have you flashed a roll of cash, do you fit his rape victim profile? We think of this as: “Do you have what I want?” If the answer is, “Yes,” he moves to the next question.

He then evaluates you as a threat to him. First and foremost, are you paying attention to your surroundings? Are you aware of his presence? Do you look like you might be a physical problem? Do you look like you might be armed? I assure you, he goes through these questions. We think of this as, “Can I get what I want from you, safely?”

If the answer to either question, “Do you have what I want, and can I get it from you, safely?” is “No,” then off he goes, in search of easier prey. Thugs are not looking for a fight. What they’re looking for is the easy mark. Someone they can get to, get what they want from and get away from, without being hurt and without being caught.

There were some fascinating studies done in which incarcerated career criminals were shown video of people walking down the street and asked to pick out the ones they would victimize and the ones they would pass. Although interviewed separately, the thugs almost always chose the same people to victimize. The “victims” walked with a less purposeful stride than the non-victims and often had their heads down, unaware of their surroundings. People who walked with a confident stride and their heads up were not selected routinely by the criminals.

There are signs that a potential attacker is evaluating you. They include:

Anyone who appears to be watching you. If every time you look up, the same guy is looking at you, ask yourself, “Why?”

Anyone who is inactive until you approach, then tries to look busy.

Anyone whose activity is geared to yours. You speed up, and then he speeds up, etc.

2. Positioning: Once a criminal selects a victim, he must move into a position from which an attack is possible. Always remember that to assault, rob or rape you, he must be close enough to talk to you. He will attempt to maneuver into this position by stealth (which is defeated by being alert) or by ruse. He may ask you for the time, for change, for directions, anything to distract you and preferably cause you to look away from him. When you look away, here comes the blow!

The best course of action is to politely refuse any request, no matter what it is. Keep your eye on him and say, “No.” Anything you agree to is the springboard for the next request, which then escalates to demands. Just say, “No.”

Positioning prior to the assault is vital to him, as he relies almost totally on surprise for success. If you avoid his attempts to properly position himself, you forestall the attack. Be alert and watchful for these cues:

Anyone who falls in behind you after you walk by.

Two or more people who are together, but split up as you approach.

Anyone staying in one place, observing, but begins to move toward you.

Two or more people lined up along a wall or fence.

Anyone who moves to block an exit after you enter a confined space.

If you see one of these cues, cross the street, change direction, turn a corner. If he alters his course to match yours, he has tipped his hand. Get mentally prepared and start planning an escape or response.

3. The Attack: The attack phase can only come after the evaluation phase and the positioning phase. It is simply not possible to attack you until these first two stages have been completed. The very best defense, therefore, is to circumvent the attack by not allowing the evaluation phase and the positioning phase to be fruitfully completed.

Every single attack you avoid is a battle won. In every attack you fail to prevent, you are at enormous risk. A one-eyed, three-fingered jackass can miss you by 10 feet with a handgun and ricochet a round off the pavement and into your femoral artery. Although you are “accidentally” dead, you’re still dead. Be alert and use your head and you won’t have to use your pistol nearly as often.

4. Behavioral Cues To Impending Aggression

With the exception of the true sociopath (more on him later), there will normally be cues, principally body language, which will assist you in forecasting aggressive activity by an individual you are observing. Being aware of these cues is vital to your accurate threat assessment.

Of course, verbalization by the offender is a critical cue. Someone cursing, shouting epithets and generally being verbally aggressive is a likely candidate for physical aggression. Bear in mind, however, that 80 percent of human communication is non-verbal, and you must be aware of, and watchful for, these sometimes-subtle indicators.

One of the most reliable indicators of an impending assault occurs when you are in a position of authority and the offender fails to comply with or contemptuously ignores your commands. If, for instance, you encounter an intruder in your home and he does not immediately comply with your commands, you are in for a fight.

Other definitive indicators can include these, alone or in combination:

  • Hands on hips.
  • Cocked head.
  • Arms folded across the chest.
  • Fists clenched or clenched and flexed alternately.
  • Jaw clenched.
  • Spitting.
  • Deliberate avoidance of eye contact.
  • Continuously looking around.
  • Sustained verbal rationalizations.
  • Continuous yawning and stretching.
  • Target glancing.

Target glancing refers to brief, repeated shifting of the offender’s eyes to your chin, your nose or your weapon. Repeated target glances to your chin or nose means he is gauging the distance for a punch. Target glances at your weapon indicate a gun snatch may be imminent.

Always, when the pre-attack indicators are present, shift to the highest level of mental readiness and be geared up. If at all possible, extend the distance between the two of you. Have a plan and be ready to move quickly.

–Tom Givens

Personal Liberty

Tom Givens

is the owner of Rangemaster in Memphis, TN. For over 30 years Tom's duties have included firearms instruction. He is certified as an expert witness on firearms and firearms training, giving testimony in both state and federal courts. He serves as an adjunct instructor at the Memphis Police Department Training Academy, the largest in the state. Tom's training resume includes certification from the FBI Police Firearms Instructor School, NRA Law Enforcement Instructor Development School, NRA Law Enforcement Tactical Shooting Instructor School, Gunsite 499 under Jeff Cooper, and more. This article first appeared on US Concealed Carry’s website. To learn more, visit www.USConcealedCarry.com.

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