Trust your instincts.
This morning brought us another tragic report of a Texas prosecutor being shot -- this time along with his wife (story here). This victim was the District Attorney of the office where another prosecutor was shot two months ago. That attorney had reportedly been in fear for his life, and began to carry a gun for protection. While it is still unclear whether or not these two shootings are linked, one thing seems clear: Mark Hasse (the first victim) had good reason to fear for his safety. I generally do not advocate paranoia, but I also think that you should listen to your gut when it tells you that something is amiss. Humans' instincts are better at detecting danger than we often realize. If you feel like trouble is coming, be prepared for it.
Being in an up-in-your-face shouting match with someone can be very uncomfortable, but it is not necessarily life-threatening. Because such a situation may escalate to physical violence, you should avoid it and walk away if possible. If this is not possible, then stay calm and observant, and try to defuse the situation.
First, assume a non-threatening but still defensive posture. Take a small step back with your dominant foot (it's the same side as your dominant hand) and hold your hands open in front of you, with the palms facing your antagonist, at about chest height. Speak calmly with the person, and do not shout back (though you may have to raise the volume of your voice to be heard). This will allow you to be on guard without being provocative, and give you a bit more distance.
Keep your eyes open for signs of an imminent attack. These may include the person's face going from red and flushed to pale white or a sudden dilation of the pupils (signs that the sympathetic nervous system has engaged), clenching the fists or turning to the side (both signs of an intent to strike), suddenly looking around (for witnesses), or suddenly becoming quiet. If any of these things happen, or any other abrupt change in behavior occurs, be ready to fight.
When you should hit the floor
Sometimes, the floor is the safest place to be, and other times, it can be the least. If you are in a closed area (such as court or an office) and you hear gunfire, you should drop to the floor with your feet pointed towards the source of the shots. This will minimize the area where you could be hit, and reduce the exposure of your most vital areas. If you are in an open area (such as a park) and you hear gunfire, you should seek cover if possible (and not just concealment -- read more here), and then drop to the ground if necessary.
In arm's-length combat, however, you should avoid the ground if at all possible. It is common to hear that "90% of all fights end up on the ground." This "statistic" comes from a study performed by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1997 (read more here), and is not at all accurate. While it is true that being trained in ground combat techniques can help minimize injury when you find yourself on the ground, you should not prefer this scenario. I know some martial arts instructors who will teach their students to take an opponent to the ground and then join him* there. I would strongly advise against this. Putting an assailant on the ground is a great idea, but you should keep your feet if you can -- this makes it easier to escape or to capitalize on your opponent's disadvantaged position. In addition, your assailant may have friends nearby, and voluntarily "going to the ground" puts you at their mercy. By all means, learn to fight on the ground, but use those skills only as a last resort.
* I tend to use the masculine pronoun in these posts simply because most attackers are men, and not to be sexist or as a traitor to my own gender.
I have some far-flung governmental clients whose meetings I have to regularly attend, and I have a fair amount of work in Tucson (about 120 miles away), so I spend a lot of time on the road. Given that amount of time, it is a certainty that I will encounter some driving hazards (and I have!). I thus feel that it is important for me to drive as safely as I can, to account for those hazards -- both human-made and natural.
When driving, you should remember all of the safety rules that are taught in driver's education or defensive driving courses -- stay 3 seconds behind the car in front of you, stay alert, keep an eye on the traffic around you, etc. But these rules may not help you in a serious road rage incident or deliberate attack on you or your vehicle. To prepare you for these scenarios, consider attending a tactical driving course. Such a course will give you skills that you will not obtain from a typical driving course. You should be able to find some by searching for "tactical driving course" in your area.
Use your environment.
All of the items in a courtroom, conference room, waiting area, office, or any other location can generally be divided into two groups -- obstacles and weapons. The dividing line is basically whether or not the item can be readily lifted.
Desks, heavy chairs, railings, the judge's bench, and such are obstacles. You will have to move around them if action is necessary, and they can be useful in impeding the movement of an assailant, providing hard and sharp surfaces to throw an assailant against, or possibly even as cover or concealment.
Pens, clipboards, briefcases, light chairs, and such are weapons. You can move these items to suit your purposes. These items can be used to attack an assailant, to block an assailant's attack, to trip an assailant, or to cause distraction. Unfortunately, all of these uses are available to an assailant as well as to you, so be careful around moveable objects, and consider all the different ways they can be used.
The next time you are in court, a conference room, someone's office, or whatever arena you visit in your practice, look around at the items in your environment and consider these uses.
There was a story on NPR this weekend that discussed in passing how stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, when experienced constantly, can have serious health effects (you can learn more here). What caught my attention, though, was the discussion how your body reacts to the threat of imminent harm -- it shuts down non-essential functions (such as digestion) and prepares for action. One way it does this is by reducing weight, by voiding your bladder and bowels. This usually happens only when the urgency of action is great, or when trauma is experienced, such as a gunshot wound.
I think the take-away lesson from this report, though, is that you should take care to avoid this becoming a problem. If you feel the need to eliminate, then you should. Don't wait until it becomes urgent -- by then it may be too late! This will keep you healthier (see, for example, here), and ready for action. Perhaps more importantly, though, it will help you avoid messing yourself.
Yesterday's post suggested that you should take advantage of training from the Red Cross that will be useful for emergency situations. This includes First Aid and CPR, both of which should be learned by everyone.
After you have your certification cards, though, be careful about the situations in which you use those life-saving skills, as you could actually be jeopardizing your own life. Any time you administer aid to another person, you expose yourself to him or her in a compromising position. If an in-custody criminal defendant collapses to the floor, for example, restrain the impulse to rush to his aid, as it may be a ruse to obtain an improvised weapon or a hostage. This is not to say that you shouldn't help those in distress -- just be careful and alert when doing so. In risky situations, proceed only when you can ascertain that it is safe to do so. If you can summon others to provide help (and to watch your back), this is best.
Angry self-represented litigants and criminals with vendettas aren't the only ones who might cause us harm. Mother Nature and negligent people can hurt us, too. Don't lose sight of less nefarious hazards in your zeal to prepare for gunfire. A good resource to be prepared for such risks is www.PrepareMyBusiness.org, which will help you assess and plan for a wide variety of risks. Although it is aimed primarily at small businesses, its risk assessment and disaster planning tools are applicable to any legal office, including government offices. FEMA's site (www.ready.gov) also has lots of good resources. Finally, the Red Cross offers several different classes that can help you prepare for emergencies, and can even offer training to organizations. You can find training opportunities in your area here.
Be vigilant even at home
Colorado's Department of Corrections director was shot at home as he answered the door (story here). This sad incident underscores how those working with the law are targets for violence, and the importance of being wary even where you feel safest.
Avoiding verbal confrontation
Yesterday I was searching for a passage from the Tao Te Ching that I think is helpful (it's chapter 15), and I came across a martial arts blog that lamented the culture of non-violence in America. Sure, you shouldn't be violent, it said, but we've gone too far -- now you can't even stand up for yourself and get into a shouting match with someone without being accused of "making terroristic threats."
Such an attitude is more likely to cause problems than to solve them. As people become more prone to expressing their animosity with gunfire (such as in the Mark Hummels tragedy), having a "you gotta stick up for yourself" mentality can lead to violence, rather than avoid it. I prosecuted a disorderly conduct/threats case once in which the defendant claimed that, as a trained martial artist, he felt justified in telling a store loss-prevention officer, "if you don't get away from me, I'm going to f**king kill you." This, he claimed, was a response to concern about the person following him in a crowded store.
If you are concerned for your safety, do not seek a confrontation with the person(s). Seek safety and assistance. Engaging an unknown assailant -- even verbally -- should be a last resort, because you do not know how that person is armed, trained, or influenced by drugs or alcohol. Sure, it may sting your pride to "back down," but that sting hurts less than a bullet.
Chris Wencker is an attorney in Arizona specializing in litigation and government representation. He has an abiding interest in the safety and security of all legal professionals.
By Chris Wencker
Photo used under Creative Commons from G0SUB