Threat Perception – Do you see what I see?

“He has a weapon!”

Those words were screamed in my direction as several people immediately began fleeing the pile of bodies in a parking lot in Stockton, California.  I remember thinking at the time, “That’s awfully vague.  What kind of weapon?  A penknife, or a 44 magnum?”  It would have been nice to have more specific information as I was struggling to control a drugged up career criminal.  As it turned out, it was neither.  The weapon was a Ka-Bar combat knife like those issued to Marines back in the day.  I got a good look at it because after the suspect spun in my direction, the blade was a mere 12 inches from my face.

Later, when the police picked up the unconscious man and carted him off to prison, again – my new thought was, “I could have totally shot that guy.”  Well, I could have if I had my gun.  Due to the nature of the assignment, I was not armed at the time.  It was the first time in my civilian career that I would have been legally justified in applying lethal force.  Of all the days to not be carrying a gun, this was a doozy.

As days passed and this incident was replayed in my mind over and over again, I began to realize that the incident should have never happened.  I had become complacent, arrogant in my approach.  I missed the signs.  My ability to perceive a threat properly had been diminished by my arrogance.  I had been through this type of arrest a couple of hundred times and walked away without a scratch.  I had neglected to follow my instincts and actually see what was transpiring.  I didn’t perceive the threat.  This was nearly 25 years ago.

People who spend their lives around dangerous things, whether they be a high voltage electrician, race car driver, firefighter, cop, or soldier, develop a threat meter.  They may go about their day in a fairly routine fashion and then, suddenly, they are calling a full-stop and taking extra precautions as they deal with a specific scenario.  They are able to read the signs of the threat.

He has a gun!  That may not necessarily be a big deal.  The big deal is the level of threat.  A rookie cop may freak out and begin shooting at the mere sight of a weapon.  (Consider the case of the customer killed in WalMart recently who was holding an airsoft rifle, taken from the shelf)  A soldier, who is surrounded by people with weapons on a near daily basis, may look at that same situation and realize that the person is not acting threatening with the weapon but simply holding it.  Experience matters in these situations.  The more frequently you encounter a threat, the more likely you will be able to properly discern a real threat from an error in judgment.

Recently, I was alone, armed, in a questionable neighborhood, walking down the darkened hallway of a rather large, low-income apartment complex.  Suddenly, from around a corner at a distance of about forty feet, three young men emerged, talking amongst themselves in an animated fashion.  One of the young men, the one in the rear, was swinging a pair of Nunchaku through the air very dramatically.  Nunchaku, a weapon developed in Okinawa that was derived from a farm implement designed to thresh wheat, is commonly referred to as “Nunchucks” or “Numchucks.”  I will refrain from ridiculing those who use the improper terms and get back to the story.

So, there I was, and this is no shit.  I’ve always heard that is how a good story should begin so, in keeping with the tradition, my story begins thusly.  The young men approached, taking up the majority of the space in the hallway.  I neither diverted my path nor turned around seeking an alternate route of escape.  I simply continued walking and allowed the three guys to move to one side and allow me to pass.

How many anxious and paranoid people would have drawn their weapon and assumed the worst of that situation?  How many times out of 100 would that very real scenario turn deadly?

No, I’m not kidding.  Nunchaku.

For a moment I wondered if I should stop and give the young man a short demonstration on the weapon to ensure he didn’t injure himself during his play time but I decided against it.  I walked on, turned down the other hallway, and proceeded to my destination.  Reason being, I perceived absolutely no threat from any of the young men.  They did not display signs of aggression or agitation, their body language didn’t reveal any nefarious intent, and they didn’t possess that look that we begin to associate with impending violence.  You can see it in a person’s eyes.  You really can.  I’ve seen it many times.  Once you’ve encountered it enough, you can tell when a person is preparing to flee, or fight, or possibly both.

I suppose most people should count themselves fortunate for not having to develop this ability to perceive a threat.  I consider it an unfortunate symptom of our relatively peaceful society.  Most of us have lost many of those instincts that have preserved humankind for thousands of years.  Listen to your gut!  If you are feeling fear or anxiety, there is often a very real reason for it.  Your ancient instincts are trying to tell you something.  Those of us who have refined those instincts after many years of facing dangerous situations, are less likely to misread a scenario, or perceive a threat that isn’t real.  It gives us a few more options on any given day.  The more you face a situation, the more quickly your mind processes that data and informs your actions.

Again going back – 20 years this time – and a frightened young man pulls a filet knife from the cargo pocket of his BDU pants and begins waving it in my direction.  “I WILL F*&#$IN CUT YOU, MOTHER F^%!@R!”  The threat was presented.  The threat existed.  The sense of real danger did not.  I rushed toward him, causing him to drop the knife and flee, running much faster than I was capable.  He escaped.  I recovered the knife and turned it over as evidence.

I perceived no threat from that man.  I knew he did not have the wherewithal to actually attack me with that knife.  He didn’t have “the look.”  If I had drawn my pistol and put three holes through his chest, I would have been hailed as a hero.  Hell, maybe even gotten a key to the City, which would be useless, and I wouldn’t want it anyway because it was Tracy, California.  It would have been a clean shoot.  Justified.  End of story.

I just didn’t need to.

As the nation contemplates the use of force by our police officers, the militarization, as they call it, of our police forces, and the ramifications of an individual’s actions when confronted by police, I would like you to keep one thing in mind:  the criminal ALSO needs to understand threat perception.  They must also consider what actions will be taken by the officer confronting them.  If that criminal thinks an officer will only respond with a level of force commensurate with their own, they are a fool.  They fail in their perception.

Don’t be an idiot.  Your chances of being shot diminish considerably.