The Golden Second - Ten Lessons in Crime-Fighting from a Counter Mugger Expert

During counter-mugger operations with the SFPD, where I served as a decoy "old man" who was physically attacked some 256 times, I became aware of the existence of the split second in hesitation just before the mugger starts his assault.

My role was to serve as a decoy, a seeming defenseless old man, who would appear to be an easy prey to whatever lurking mugger in that part of San Francisco.

In one incident as the "old man" I had just returned to my apartment when the mugger, who had slipped into the building with me, approached me from behind and asked me what time it was. That instant between the asking of the question and his attack, when he started pushing me inside the apartment could have been used by any would-be victim, anyone who had their wits about them, to try and cut off the coming attack.

While I was being driven to the floor, I was reassured knowing my police backups would soon come to the rescue. The sad reality tells us that any other victim of an attack would most likely be alone and without prospects of rescue. However, even without the police just around the corner, all is not lost. I came up with a few ideas that can help defeat a mugger's attack.

1. Devise a plan of action for a variety of scenarios. Think, what do I do right now if someone comes out of this store and makes a grab for my purse? What do I do if I'm hit from behind? You're confronting the problem with a solution and now it will depend on reflex. I can guarantee that with a plan already in mind, that Golden Second can be used to your advantage instead of to the advantage of the predator.

2. Make plans with your companion. For example, if you're walking down the street and a man grabs your wife's purse, you should have planned what you're going to do that split second of time. How a person reacts can mean the difference between severe injury and death. Even in police work I have found officers who were woefully unprepared for the unexpected. During informal lectures on officer safety I would tell them that, instead of sitting in the coffee shop talking about the kids or golf, they should come up with a plan of action they could rely on if the pair of them were to walk into an ambush. I would ask them to devise a scenario and to come up with a way to react to it.

You're driving down an alley at two in the morning and someone fires at your patrol car. What do you do? Nine times out of ten I found that officers had perfectly logical and sound plans of action, but they were independent plans which did not include the other. The same maxim should apply to the elderly.

3. If you don't have a spouse or close friend you can rely on, there is a I very specific plan of action I can recommend you take if you are confronted by an attacker. Because elderly people are not able to engage in a physical battle with an assailant, their one and only hope is to launch a psychological counter-offensive of their own.

In that split second when your eyes lock and you know that something very bad is going to happen, grab your chest area and fall to the floor or sidewalk, yelling loudly that you are having a heart attack. Now, it may be that by falling down an older person has made themselves more vulnerable to attack. But I believe the advantages of this approach far outweigh the drawbacks. It is almost certain that a person who stalks you, follows you into your apartment, and demands money is no criminal novice. Most have done this type off crime before. This isn't the apologetic opportunist who saw you flash some money on the street, ran up to you and took it out of your hand. This is somebody who is criminally bent and more than likely has some knowledge of the law.

If you fall to the ground, chances are I that this person will flee. Why? Because he knows that if there's a death in the commission of a felony then he's going to be put away for murder. By clutching your chest and feigning a potentially fatal heart attack, you've left the realm of simple burglary and entered another plane where the penalties are much higher. Also, if you're on the ground, he's less likely to bend down and expose himself to a possible kicking attack while attempting to strike you with his fists. He may try to kick you with his feet (if he gets that far) but to challenge that, you can swing around on your back or your buttocks and kick at him with your feet.

Chances are that people will say, I don't want to fall down and expose myself to attack like that, but the chances are high that this predator, having gotten to this point in his hunt, is going to knock you down anyway. When you go down this time however, it will be on his terms -- disoriented and possibly severely injured -- and at that moment you're at the mercy of a man who is now electrified by the thrill of his lopsided victory and the hatred he has for his victims.

And you should realize that it is a hatred, that a criminal is often blaming the victim at his feet for the perceived injustices of his life, and that once you become the focus of that sort of hatred, anything can happen.

4. Watch their eyes and listen carefully to their voices. If an attacker is highly strung to begin with, chances are good that if you say something completely off the wall, something to the effect that you are suffering from infectious impetigo, the time he spends trying to figure out exactly what that is will give you an opportunity to get away or to summon help. Many women have successfully dissuaded would-be rapists by telling them they are suffering from a particularly active sexually transmitted disease. This may sound extreme, but it could be argued that people who make themselves disgusting in the predator's eyes may not become his victim.

Look at the alternative. If you're seventy-seven years old and you decide to fight two eighteen-year-olds, and you do make a show of it, but in the process they've broken your hip, your wrist, and your jaw as well as gotten your wallet or purse, who's really won? You've got your pride, but in the long run you've also sacrificed your health and maybe even your sanity because once happens to you, you are never the same again. Think it over. The object of the exercise is to hear the click-click of the handcuffs going on them, not to hear the click-click of the ambulance door closing on you.

Any attempt at physical resistance will probably fail. Now you're going to make them mad because, if you are lucky, you may have succeeded in hurting them slightly, something they did not take into consideration when they initiated their attack. But even though a successfully landed blow may be a tremendous boost for the ego, only the worst will come of it, because your assailant will most assuredly try to reestablish his superiority and then it will be pay-back time. At the end of your attack will you have won? And if you haven't, now you're going to lose in a bad way. To make matters worse, there's always the very high chance that your mugger has got a confederate and these people are not hesitant about jumping on their victims in tandem.

5. When confronted in your own home I think you have to draw the line somewhere. It's either Fight, Flight, or Feign. Either you hurt him and make him afraid, which is the unlikely scenario, you run away, or you do something so completely off the wall that it stops him in his tracks and makes him think. Looking down at you writhing in pain on the floor, a grimace on your face, and your hands clutching your heart, he's got to wonder if you're worth a murder conviction. He's got to stop and think about what he's going to do and that's when you've managed to turn the Golden Second to your advantage.

Each person has to make their own decision about when they will fight and what they are willing to fight for. Some human beings can stand by and watch their parents get killed or their sister assaulted and live to give the police an accurate description of the assailants. Some can do that but not live with themselves successfully afterward.

Our reaction to a given situation is predicated on what we have on hand at the time, our state of mind at a given moment. All kinds of factors must be taken into consideration, whether there's one attacker or two, whether the person is armed. The trick is to turn the element of surprise around and come up with a surprise of your own.

6. An important thing to remember is that most criminals are, when it comes down to it, essentially cowards. Many are simply not capable of carrying out a crime unless they bring a henchman along to help them. Why? Because they like the guy and they want to share the loot they're going to get in this robbery? No. It's because they're afraid and they want to make sure they can win. Their sense of bravado is heightened when they have a confederate with them.

If, in the worst-case scenario, you are confronted by assailants wielding guns, I don't know what you can do beyond adopting the strategy I've already mentioned. Should that fail to drive them off, there is little else you can do except to acquiesce, keep calm and give them what they want. That Golden Second when one well planned move might be enough to confuse and frighten an unarmed opponent has now been heightened considerably, because if you fail, you're staring death in the face. Whether you are to live or die depends on how you react and on that unknown quantity -- how your attacker is going to react.

Remember that there are a good many armed robbers out there these days who would be perfectly happy to shoot you dead, even if you comply with their demands. Pumping hard on alcohol or drugs, many feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking your life. It's a difficult spot to be in. I've been there and I have to say there are no tried and true methods for disarming the situation. When that instinctive drive for survival inherent in each of us comes out, I hope the action you take is the right one. But the object of the exercise is to prevent the situation getting to that point.

7. One thing you can do if confronted by a man with a gun is to try not to stare at the weapon, something everyone does, even police officers, when they find themselves at the wrong of a firearm. Try to look at the person's face. Look for a mole, a facial tic, or tattoo, so that when that man brought before you after the robbery, you can look at him and in all certainty say, "That's the man." Go for some detail and key on it. One robber was recently caught and convicted after his latest victim described the Mickey Mouse shoelaces he was wearing.

8. Beware of women offenders, who often use their wits instead of a weapon. Be careful of young women who come up close and run their hands over your clothes, talking about how she is going to cook your dinner and whispering sweetly in your ear at the same time her hand is going for your wallet.

9. Remember that anyone can be assaulted, even the youngest, bravest among us. Recently a female officer from my department went to a public housing project in plain clothes to follow up on an investigation she was conducting. She boarded an elevator in the building. She was standing there when the elevator stopped, the door slid back, and two men got on, one taking position to her left, the other to her right. After descending a few floors they put her up against the wall and decided to see what she had in her purse. They took her gun and her money and for one frightening moment taunted her until the elevator stopped again and they got off. Fortunately, they didn't see her badge. When those two guys got on the elevator, she should have gotten off on the next floor or maneuvered into a comer, keeping one hand in her pocket and her head up.

When your fear sensor goes off and you've been bracketed by two men, try using a little psychology. Once they focus on you, try to break their train of thought right away. So you say, "Excuse me, I'm very sick. I just learned I have meningitis," or something else to make them stop and think.

10. Finally, every day of our lives we either learn or teach something. You get something from that acquired knowledge. You take it with you and, if applied correctly, it can help make you a winner. There's an attitude you have to develop about winning. The battle of winning versus losing can be won or lost in the trenches of your mind.

Stalking The Stalkers

I know what one can feel when fate, the odds and circumstance combine to make them the target of the day for a young hunter who's faster and stronger. Let's look at a few simple things that can be done to keep both fate and the odds in our favor.

Be Aware
Our own senses -- especially that vital "sixth sense"-- are the bestweapons on the street today.

walk with your head up, constantly moving from side to side. Watch for things and people that look out of place, those who react to you when you pass. Listen for the sudden chirp of sneakers on concrete when a young man takes an interest in the way you're carrying your purse and abruptly changes course to fall in behind you. Be aware of people who get too close to you, who actually "get in your face," to use jargon of the day. They may bump into you, say things to see if you are lietening, move up to you in a crowd and run their hands over your pockets while looking for the telltale bulge of a wallet or coint purse. This shows that they have no respect for your personal space and are testing your hearing and awareness.

If a total stranger invades your privacy without warning and for no apparent reason, beware, becasue the next step can be much more drastic. They may ask you for the time or am opportunity to use the phone or bathroom in your home or apartment, but what they're really doing is testing your ability to fight off that intrusion. If you acquiesce, they know you'll be an easy mark. They'll think, Good, I'm superior, he's inferior, and proceed with their attack.

If you turn to confront them or tell them off, they know you may fight them and chances are they will back away. The same principlecan be applied when you're out for the evening trip to the grocery store. Once you step out of familiar surroundings, the way you act and how aware you are will determine whether or not you're going to attract an "unwanted admirer"who wants to do more than just strike up an idle conversation.

Water-Hole Syndrome
The importance of being aware of your surroundings comes even more to the fore as we approach old age. As hard as it may be for most of us to understand, the reality of the weak becoming the target of choice for the strong in this so-called civilized society of ours has become even more true as the gap between generations broadens. The cruel truth is: big fish eat little fish.

Difficult economic times and the plethora of narcotics available today also lend themseleves to this primitive interaction. As modern science gradually lengthens the life expectancy of the average member of the herd, the watering hole becomes filled with weaker, more tempting targets for the ever-circling "pride of lions."

If you have difficulty in walking, fall down every once in a while, and have a pronounced limp, chances are that the lions in that particular area will come for you. They will key on you and bring others with them to make sure they can make their "kill" and get away without endangering themselves.

I learned that there are three types of "lions" to contend with on the street. The first one is the Opportunist. Essentially a coward who will come in and strike only if the odds are heavily weighted in his favor and the right opportunity presents itself. This type is most likely to seek out another lion with whom they can pump up their courage prior to carrying out an attack.

The there's the stalker, the type of urban lion who enjoys the hunt but could be dissuaded if confronted by a sufficient show of force. For most of them, the thrill is in the chase, they play with their intended victim, convincing themselves that they are more clever than their intended target.

And finally we come to the True Predator, a proven hunter who's developed a keen sense for the hunt and the kill because of the sense of power and the thrill. True Predators among us do it for the sheer pleasure it gives them.

True Predators will not let an opportunity pass them by. To do so would diminish their reputation as hunters in the eyes of their fellows. And a True Predator does not care a whit about his victims.

Once a person is helpless at his feet, the True Predator succumbs to a murderous ragewhich is quite beyond the capacity of a real lion. The human predator will drag his victim further into the apartment, tie him up to reassure themselves that he's in control, and then begin a barbaric game of cat and mouse, aimed at extracting the pass code to a bank card machine or the whereabouts of any hidden valuables.

Anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves in this situation cannot afford to compromise with these people. the only thing you can do is keep your wits about you, try to remember a peculiar feature of your attacker -- that will help the police track them down and arrest them later. Take their anger away from them if you can and attempt to disarm them with an air of calm. These people feed on fear; it excites them, and if their intended victim shows no fear, the sense of superiority they feel when the target is helpless and begging begins to ebb.

Ultimately, the key here is to survive the experience, doing whatever it takes to stay alive. That's the critical thing. You have to live through the horror of the assault, no matter how brutal. But the ultimate goal of the potential victim is not to be selected in the first place.

Victim Aura
The is a certain look the Opportunist and the True Predator will key on before they make their decision to strike. It is the perception each one of us gives off. some of us exude confidence, bravura. Others, either through a hesitation in their step or the furtive manner in which they choose to avoid eye contact with others on the street, send out the message: I am weak. I am trying not to be seen. I can be taken. there are telltale signals -- as alluring to a mugger looking for an old person to rob as blood in the water is for a shark -- a misbuttoned sweater, a hospital release band, a limp.

A mugger is also looking for evidence of disorientation: a lack of purpose in one's walk, head down mouth agape, concentrating on making it from point A to point B, and eager to avoid the slightest confrontation. All these things taken together make this person stand out as a victim. A true Predator wants to win, and is looking for someone who will not be able to put up a fight.If you are unaware or just plain foolish enough to walk around with your wallet exposed or counting bills as you leave the ATM machine, sooner or later the odds are going to catch up with you. The stronger the Victim Aura you project, the higher your chances are of being targeted.

Disrupting the Stalk
One of the worst things an older person can do is to stick to a daily routine. If you walk by the same place at the same time everyday, people will not remember ever having seen you. after a while you iwll blend into the background until you become invisible. And unless you make apoint of talking to the store owner of postman on a particular corner at a given time, you are soon lost against the background of the city. That is why we hear a witness say so often: "I don't know what happened to the old lady, one minute she was nowhere to be seen and the next minute she was just there."

Truth be told, the old woman was there all along, it's just that no one noticed her. And this can be dangerous for a person who, while they may feel they want to blend in to the background, actually needs to be seen by others who may be able to come to their aid.

There are many ways to throw off a potential stalker, the the easiest, most effective method is simply to keep changing your life's routines. Take the same route to the bank or grocery store every day and you've unconsciously programmed your life. Any predator in the neighborhood will think, there's that old lady. It's the first of the month, she's just gotten her social security check and it's 3:40 PM in the afternoon, so she must be on her way home. And bingo, that's it for that person. she's become an automaton and the true Predator can set his watch by her movements. A uniform and routine life is not the best thing for your safety, although many older people feel more secure in theregularity of their day-to-day routines.

Safe-House System
What happened in my neighborhood, which I thought was an exceptionally brilliant plan, neighbors established safe houses. These refuges, usually a place of business or residence easily accessible from the street, were marked with a placard which sent out the message to anyone in trouble that they needed only to run there in order to get help.

This was a brilliant move in many ways. First, it eliminated the need for any long-winded explanation of the problem faced by a stalking victim who's attempting to explain that someone was following them and thatthey feared for their safety, a person under the safe-house system needed only to run in and say, "I need help," and the store owner or resident would call the emergency 911 number right there, no questions asked. It has worked countless times and has probably saved lives.

When you are able to gather more people around youwho are willing to lend whatever assistance, all but the most determinedcriminal will skulk away. They have come to learn that the police or ambulance have been sent for, and that the attention of the good neighbors in the particular block will soon be focused on them. No lion will continue the stalk when every other herd in the area is on the alert and gathering themselves for a defense.

Common Sense Defense
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that, if you find yourselves the object of a stalker's attention is to never, NEVER lead them back to where you live. Although it's instinctive to return to the place where you feel safets, it's absolutely the wrong thing to do in this case. Many stalkers will not commit themselves to an actual attack the first time they fall in behind you. many simply want to pin down where you live, determine the apartment number, and assess the difficulty they would have in following you inside the next time -- when they are ready to follow through with the assault.

Often, the greater distance one is caught away from home, the more panicky and scrambled the thought processes become as they try to make their way back home or apartment, sinking ever lower into their Victim aura and giving their stalker an even greater sense of power. Try to think. Head for an area where there are people, lights. Look for a policeman . Do not allow yourself to get trapped in a confined space alone with the person you think is behind you. above all, don't show them where you live.

The awareness of being stalked reaches down throughthe psyche and tickles the most primitive responses. The sensation of being hunted by one, two, or even six other human beings can be almost paralyzing in its intensity. When that sixth sense kicks in and the hair on the back of your head bristles and stands straight up, it's time to look behind you. And if the same two fellows who followed you out of the bank or grocery store are still there, pretending not to look at you but always staying within striking diostance, know that there intent is not to strike up a conversation about the weather.

Change your route. It will not only make if more difficult for someone to plot your daily routine, but it makes life a little more exciting. If you change your route, you will see new people along the way, it will become a challenge, an adventure, and you may find yourself walking a little taller, head up and alert for anything unexpected. This new attitude may in itself be enough to significantly diminish an older person's chances of being targeted.

A little common sense also goes a long way toheading off a possible attack. Time and again in the roughest areas of the city, I saw women carrying purses on their shoulders, often with money, credit cards, and expensive sunglasses in plain view. I'll never forget the old woman who carried her shopping money in a clear plastic purse. She may as well have hung a sign around her neck saying, "Rob me, please."

The time to fight back, psychologocally, is before the predators get set on their stalk. You should be sufficiently aware o ftheir presence that you are able to cut off the attack on your own terms before thay have a chance to settle on you as the target of the day. But if you do find yourself being followed, there are a couple of tricks you can use to give your pursuers second thoughts about carrying out their attack.

When walking, at least on city streets, it is best to walk in the middle of the sidewalk to prevent an attacker from running ahead and then pulling his victim into an empty doorway or alley as they pass. It's also wise to avoid walking behindlarge parked vehicles, trucks, or buses that would obscure you from sight. There may be hundreds of people on the sidewalk that day but not one of them will ever see what happens to you once you are pulled down behind a bus.

Should you be confronted on the sidewalk, it might be a good idea to put your back up against a wall as soon as possible, swing around to at least visually confront your assailant, and verbally draw attention to yourself in as loud a manner as you are able to muster. Often, this will be enough to dissuade an attacker, and your position of advantage against the wall will prevent anyone from getting around you. seeing what they believe to be a helpless old man or woman "circling the wagons" and readying themselves in a defensive posture may plant enough doubt in a mugger's mind to make him think twice about taking that person on. In addition, a proepective victim's awareness factor has just increased one hundred percent and the victim aura has been diminsihed as well.

Another strategy to use is to check who's behind you by looking at reflections in store windows. stopping every so often to look over the window display of a store is a good way to catch your breath and have a quick look to see if the man in the baseball cap and windbreaker who left the grocery store when you did is still behind you. If he stops when you do, it may be confirmation that he's tailing you for a reason and that you should be alert to a threat from his direction. After you have ascertained that the man is indeed following you for no apparent reason, a long deliberate look in his direction may be enough to signal him that you know he's there.

Believe in Yourself
To win any possible conflict, you must have a genuine belief in yourself. You can't run scared. However, a truly dedicated criminal intent on robbing an older person at any cost will doubtless carry out his assault, confronting that person on the street or on the threashold of their home and leaving them with only a split second in which to prepare a defense. How a person uses this second, the fraction of time between and idle inquiry fot the apratment number of a non-existent neighbor or a request to use the telephone can determine whether the victim is actually robbed or in more drastic cases, hwether one lives or dies.

About the author: A former SFPD decoy cop he helped take muggers off the streets of San Francisco. Bill Langlois passed away October, 2000.

Reprinted with the permission of Harris Publications, for more info go to

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