“There was just something off about the person. I couldn’t explain it but I just felt like I needed to get out of there.”

IMG_2029The comment above is one that I hear often while teaching or talking to people who have read, Left of Bang. As humans, we are hard-wired to predict danger. This natural ability is one of they many reasons why we need to trust our instincts that stem from the limbic system, which is the survival center of our brain. For example, in early December, there was a story reported by an ABC News affiliate in Long Island, NY, about a mother who had an instinct that another woman was trying to kidnap her baby. Because the mother was able to trust her intuition that there was something “off” about the other woman, she was able to safely get away and prevent herself and her baby from becoming the victims of a crime.

However, recognizing that there is something wrong is often only the first part of the process that people with situational awareness need to go through in order to ensure their own safety. For police officers and security professionals who are going to have to write out a report, there is still the requirement of being able to effectively communicate exactly what you observed. For civilians who need to file a police report or are looking to better understand where that original gut feeling came from, the ability to articulate what you saw and explain why it was important is a critical skill. While it is extremely gratifying that the students who come through the Tactical Analysis program note that they now have the ability to clearly and articulately explain what about a particular situation led them to make a decision, the communication of those intuitive recognitions we rely on takes practice to master.

One method that we use to hone this skill and that we recommend to our course graduates seeking to make behavior analysis a habit is to take real life events and translate the eye witness accounts into the terminology that we teach in our program. Not only does this help make the process of communication more natural but, as you will see in Part 2 of this article next week, it also serves as a platform on which to simulate scenarios and talk through situations as practice so that you don’t risk hesitating or being unsure when you find yourself face to face with a criminal.

To show how we might do this, I’ll use the example referenced above about the woman shopping at the mall who realized she was being targeted. You can find the whole story here, but in case you don’t read it, the short version of the situation was that a man and a woman were apparently hunting for a baby to kidnap inside of a Kohl’s store at a mall on Long Island.  After they identified the baby they wanted, the woman kidnapper followed a mother into a restroom and began checking the stalls to ensure they were alone. Once she knew there was no one there, she tried to get the woman to hand the baby to her willingly and, when the mother refused, the woman turned aggressive, unsuccessfully attempting to grab the baby.  As the mother ran out of the restroom looking for help, the two kidnappers left the mall in a taxi.

What is important as we look at this situation is that we use enough of the information that we have to create a story in our head that we can use to think through what would make the criminal stand out from the baseline of a woman’s restroom.  We would translate the pre-event indicators from the eyewitness’s statements into the framework taught in the Tactical Analysis Program as follows:

Statement #1: “The woman was checking the stalls as if looking to see if they were alone in the bathroom.”

Why We Care: Of the two types of people in the world who operate in Condition Yellow, there are good guys and bad guys, often causing people with situational awareness to stand out from the baseline. As the woman was checking the stalls, it looked as if she was looking for other people, which would not fit the pattern for someone in the restroom because they have to go to the bathroom.

The Baseline: Think about the reason why you would check a stall in a public bathroom.  You are probably assessing the level of cleanliness and whether you are going to be able to stomach using that particular stall or not to do your business.  Take that idea to the next level and ask what you would be looking for specifically and how that thought process would reveal itself on a normal/baseline person? How long do you spend looking at the stall?  What is your reaction if you need to move on to look at the next one down the line?

First, your eyes are probably focused on the toilet itself after opening the stall door.  You probably pause for a moment in the door to assess the cleanliness of the stall.  I say that you pause because a stall’s cleanliness is something assessed along a spectrum of grossness, instead of being an immediately apparent yes/no decision. If it is too disgusting for you to go into, there is probably some negative reaction to what you see, whether that is disgust on your face or a shift into the uncomfortable cluster as you try to get away from whatever mess has caused you to move on.  If a negative reaction does not appear, the person would likely just use the stall as it appears satisfactory.

How She Broke The Pattern: The woman kidnapper in this scenario, because she wasn’t interested in stall cleanliness, probably didn’t pause after opening the doors to the stall, breaking from the pattern. Because she was looking for whether or not there was a person inside of the stall, she probably spent less time in front of the stall as this yes/no question of whether a person is occupying the stall can be answered much more quickly than whether the stall is clean or dirty.

Also, as the woman checked a stall and then moved on to the next one, there probably wasn’t any negative reaction on her face or in her behavior either. For an actual bathroom-goer to pass on a stall, there would be a reason why that stall wasn’t satisfactory and a reaction to it that would appear in their manner. But, as she wasn’t looking at it from a clean/dirty perspective, her reason for passing was because of a positive observation, that there were no people around to stop her from the act she was planning.

Statement #2: “When she said he was a ‘beautiful baby,’ it didn’t feel like a compliment.”

Why We Care: Criminals and attackers have to close the distance between themselves and their intended target. This is why we care about the concept that close proximity negates skill, and it is why we spend time learning how to establish the baseline and recognize anomalies in how people approach us.

The Baseline: As we assess the intentions of people coming towards us, we look at the underlying reasons why people are proxemically pulled towards objects in the first place. You can find the four reasons in this article, but the end result is that our baseline for people in the approach with legitimate/non-violent intentions is the comfortable cluster.

How She Broke The Pattern: The kidnapper first tried to approach the baby by displaying a submissive posture towards the mother, using the comment about the “beautiful baby.” Because her intentions were not simply complimentary, but likely used to try and cause the mother to drop her guard, that is what caused the mother to feel that there was something off with the way she made the statement. As the submissive cluster is outside of our baseline for people approaching us, it is one of the cues that the mother intuitively picked up on as being abnormal.

However, the submissive approach can be hard to detect as being adversarial because it isn’t always easy to recognize the person who is trying to be non-threatening as being up to something. Sometimes a submissive approach by those with a violent intent can cause doubt in the observer and make them wonder if they are just being paranoid and over-analyzing the situation.

For the mother, the moment that it became immediately clear what the woman’s intentions were was when the kidnapper realized that submissiveness wasn’t going to work and shifted into the dominant cluster. This was when she said, “Give me the baby,” and grabbed the baby’s arm. As dominance is often an easier behavior recognition to make than submissiveness, there was no longer any uncertainty. This was the tipping point for the mother to run out of the restroom seeking help.

To Wrap Up

All of these observations that I list here from this scenario, from the kidnapper’s elevated levels of situational awareness, to the break in the pattern as she checked the stalls, to the submissive and dominant approach, all happened very, very quickly. Especially in close quarters like in a public bathroom, you might not be able to consciously state all of those assessments and think through the possible reasons why they don’t make sense to you in such a short amount of time. While in a situation like the one experienced by this mother you may very well have to rely on your intuition, that doesn’t excuse you from doing the work to simulate scenarios like the one explained above so that you are mentally ready and prepared to recognize the criminal and take the actions needed to protect yourself if you ever find yourself in a bad situation.

The behaviors that we talked about here from this situation are the ones that the woman remembers and, in Part 2 of this article, we will look at this situation through the criminal’s eyes and highlight how her and her partner went through each of the seven steps of the attack cycle. This will provide even more context as to why each of these observations were so important to make leading up to “bang.”


Do you have any examples of other scenarios that you have been in or read about that provide a similar situation but in a different environment? If so, let us know so that we can add it to the site and help other readers find more example scenarios to think through and practice with.