A big part of “situational awareness” is managing distractions. Here’s what happens when you don’t.
Rancho Cucamonga is an upper-middle-class city in California, known for it’s nouveau riche attitudes and lifestyles. It’s home to people who’ve made a decent amount of money (by California standards; anywhere else they’d be seen as quite wealthy) and like to show it off. You’ll see lots of expensive automobiles and nice homes, and the city’s overwhelmingly Caucasian residents are quite secure in their lifestyles. Critics would say they’re insulated from the realities of life.
Despite the high incomes and matching cost of living Rancho Cucamonga has a dark side as well. Whenever there is wealth there are people who prey on it, and they need a place to live too. This is why, at the fringes of most well-off cities, you’ll find the seedy and the opportunistic. For one 7-11 clerk in Rancho Cucamonga, the seedy and opportunistic found him.
This video, released by the San Bernardino County Sheriff in an attempt to generate leads in the case, shows a typical warm evening in the desert east of Los Angeles. The store is empty and the clerk steps outside for a cigarette. Smart phone in hand, he walks head-down out of view of the camera. A short time later an adult male on a bicycle comes into the frame, followed by the clerk who is intent on his phone conversation. The two stop and the clerk, phone still to his ear, apparently tries to talk with the man on the bicycle. The latter’s body language suggests that he’s feigning a pocket search for money.
At this point another adult male walks into the scene and quickly places himself between the clerk and the man on the bicycle. The clerk, trying to maintain conversation with both his telephone and the man on the bicycle, doesn’t appear to take any notice of the approaching pedestrian until the walker is directly in front of him. A few seconds later the second man, moving extremely quickly, thrusts a knife into his abdomen and appears to steal the clerk’s precious smartphone. All three exit the scene, the wounded clerk running across the parking lot and the two conspirators return the way they came.
What went wrong?
While criminals attack at all times of the day, a lonely convenience store at night is a ripe target for thieves of all kinds; there’s a reason they’re derisively referred to as “stop-and-robs”. Stepping outside to indulge one’s habit should be accompanied by vigilance, and allowing oneself to get involved in something other than watching the immediate environment is almost an engraved invitation to a predator.
As I said at the beginning, situational awareness is all about managing distractions. You only have so much awareness to spread in your environment and allowing something like a phone to monopolize a large portion of your awareness is a recipe for disaster. In an environment that you know ahead of time has an increased risk for violence, you cannot allow yourself to become overly distracted by (or even fixated on) something relatively inconsequential.
Managing distractions is situational. Inside of a building, where you have advance notice of something entering your space, it’s often an acceptable risk to allow yourself to be distracted. In your home, for instance, you might have locked doors, alarm systems, and barking dogs to alert you to the presence of someone who shouldn’t be there and to prevent them from getting in. Those external detection and deterrence features mean that you can take some of the awareness you’d normally use to keep tabs on what’s going on outside and devote them to your book, your kids, your spouse, or even the football game on television. That’s appropriate to the environment.
On the street, in the dark, with a lit cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other, isn’t the environment where you can afford that luxury. The clerk’s first mistake, then, was allowing himself to become distracted by his cell phone. Even when he made the first contact with the man on the bicycle, who is clearly there to set up a diversion and lower the clerk’s guard, he allowed his phone to continue to be a distraction. The combination of distraction and diversion made it almost ridiculously easy for the man with the knife to get into very close proximity and stab the clerk. Self defense is much more difficult when you have a blade in your belly.
The clerk’s second error was not recognizing the diversion. Criminals set up diversions specifically to keep people off balance, to keep them from thinking about what’s coming next. Savvy criminals are incredibly adept at using social conditioning to keep people from asking those internal questions: “why is he here?” “What does he want from me?” “Why did he come to me to ask for the time/a cigarette/directions/gas money?”
Finally, though I should probably have listed it first, is the mistake of allowing himself to be seen with a valuable object in an area where valuable objects are likely stolen on a regular basis. I know this sounds a little like blaming the victim, but flashing wealth (even wealth as ubiquitous as an iPhone) in some areas is almost asking for trouble. Should you be able to walk where you want, carrying what you want, without expectation of attack? Yes, in a perfect world that would be true. But we don’t live in that perfect world; we live in the world that is, the world where being casual about what you have and what you show can be a criminal attractant.
You’ve no doubt heard admonitions to keep valuables out of sight in your parked car; the same holds true in some areas for displays of wealth. In an area like Rancho Cucamonga, where displays of wealth are common and expected, it’s reasonable that even someone of modest means like a convenience store clerk would want to do the same. It may be the bait which attracted the sharks.
What about a defense? Would a concealed handgun (a CCW is hard to get in California, so we’re speculating) have made the difference? By the time a knife is that close and moving that fast you’re beyond any sort of preventative steps, and likely — unless you’re very well trained — beyond any valid response. Watch the video and see how quickly the clerk gets stabbed, loses his phone, and runs away.
Is this a defensive shooting situation? In legal terms yes, but in tactical terms probably not. You need to control the weapon that’s hurting you in order to create the time and/or space to be able to employ your defensive firearm. Going for your gun before you’ve done that may not have a positive outcome. In this case, his defensive opportunities had dwindled before the knife entered his abdomen. His improvised response of running away was, given the circumstances, likely the best one. It certainly kept him from being stabbed again, which is the best outcome he could hope for at that point.
Stay safe in public. Manage your distractions; don’t let them manage you. Watch for unusual approaches from strangers, particularly those which seem relatively petty (as opposed to “my wife was just hit by a car, please help us!”) Keep your valuables to yourself — you never know who’s watching. Finally, the ideal time to mount a defensive response is when you still have the option to do so.
-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-