Safe Distance

posted on May 4, 2015

One of the issues I’ve struggled with through the years while living in urban jurisdictions is determining how close is too close when it comes to suspicious characters doing their best to approach me. At what point do I violate most societal norms and begin to angrily bark commands to a total stranger? 

What is obvious to me is that there is no fixed answer. I have to rely on my gut and a reading of each case’s circumstances. I will, however, always err on the side of my personal safety.

Dallas has a significant homeless population, and most of the homeless are harmless enough. However, evidence indicates that one of the leading causes of homelessness is mental illness. On an evening walk home from work a while back, a mentally ill man picked me out of the crowd for whatever reason and things went south from there. I thought long and hard about what I could have done differently to avoid the trouble in the first place. I could not come up with anything, and had to conclude that there are some occasions that are just beyond my immediate control.

I saw him coming at me from about 20 yards away. There were a number of people between us, but he had me locked in his sights. I tried to make some space, but the traffic light at the corner had changed and everyone had to stop. He began to yell at me and was now right in front of me, contact-close. In my most authoritative tone, I told him multiple times to get away from me. It was clear that he was not following along with the “conversation.”

His anger grew as the seconds passed. I was worried that he could have a knife or other weapon. Being so close, it could have gotten ugly in a hurry. His hands went from waving wildly in the air to down around his waistline. I was about to launch him away from me with an explosive and instinctive push to his chest. Just at that moment out of my peripheral vision, I noticed a city bus speeding by in the nearest lane of traffic. I stopped at the last moment and instead moved off a couple of feet to my right. If I had pushed him away from me, I would have been clearly justified in my mind, but the government might have viewed it differently if this man had been severely injured or killed by the passing bus.

The traffic light changed just as I stepped off to the side, and I was able to start across the street. The man who had been yelling at me had moved on to a new unlucky soul. The situation haunted me for weeks. I thought about how close the man had come to being seriously injured and what the consequences might have been for me. I thought long and hard about what I could have done differently to avoid the trouble in the first place. I could not come up with anything, and had to conclude that there are some occasions that are just beyond my immediate control.

What concerns me most is the vast majority of instances that we can control. While the advice I’ve received from defensive tactics instructors has varied, I’ve settled on trying to be nice once, if time and space permits, and then transitioning to downright rude from there if my hand is forced.

If I see someone suspicious (an obviously subjective term) approaching me, I generally extend my arm and firmly say “no thanks.” In most cases, the person bounces in another direction because he or she has seen the show before. Every now and again the pleasant path doesn’t work, so things have to be turned up a few notches. At this point, I give some clear and loud commands to leave me well enough alone. I’m glad to say that the success rate here has been 100 percent since my unpleasant situation described above.A person who does not heed the loud and clear commands to keep their distance can and should be considered a threat.  Good people don’t choose to cause other people fear. 

A person who does not heed the loud and clear commands to keep his distance can and should be considered a threat. Good people don’t choose to cause other people fear. At this point, appropriate action should be taken in order to ensure your safety. What this action should be is totally dependent on the circumstances, but know that a determined attacker has the momentary advantage here because he knows exactly what the end game is while the intended victim is uncertain. Always remember that distance is your friend. 

One of the reasons NRA aggressively pursues the passage of Stand Your Ground legislation throughout the country is because retreat can be dangerous and should never be compelled by government dictate. However, there are times when it is safe and advised in order to avoid a serious confrontation. When an aggressively approaching person’s intent is not absolutely clear and there is room for retreat, it may very well be the correct move. It may also help to further clarify the perceived threat’s intent and justify taking other necessary action, up to and including the deployment of defensive implements.

I strongly recommend regularly thinking through potential scenarios as you go about your daily routine. What if the guy who looks like he is high on methamphetamine at the other bank of fuel pumps begins to approach you for no good reason during your late-night stop? What will you do if he doesn’t listen when you tell him to stay where he is? Mentally working your way through these contingencies will help you when the real thing happens.

There’s arguably no better training than role-playing scenarios. One of the best training classes I have taken is The Fight – Force on Force Scenarios with Tactical Response in Camden, Tenn. It will offer some real challenges to your critical thinking skills and allow you to identify where you make your mistakes without having any real-world consequences. Instructors can tell you when your hesitation can get you hurt and where taking dramatic actions too early can get you into other trouble.

Keeping distance between you and a potential threat is critically important. Finding the right approach when dealing with a perceived threat that is closing the distance in a public setting is a personal subject. It’s important to come up with a plan before the trouble starts. Mine might not be perfect, but it is working. If I have to be rude, I will be. My safety is more important than the perceptions of those around me.


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