Working as a security or law enforcement professional, you face an increased chance of interacting with people who will try to do you bodily harm. There are a number of signs to look for when dealing with a suspect or patron that may indicate an physical assault is imminent. While these signs are especially helpful for those of us in the security & law enforcement fields, they also pertain to anyone who regularly deals with the public, and especially for men who frequent bars, pubs and concerts, since the majority of assaults on men involve alcohol.
Last week I wrote an article on The Importance of Instincts in Threat Assessment. Today I’m going to further explore some of the signs you can use to spot a potentially assaultive situation before it occurs. So when the hair goes up on the back of your neck, here are a few of the warning signs to look for that someone may get assaultive. Keep in mind that most of these on their own don’t mean someone is going to attack you, but a combination of these factors can be a strong indicator of an imminent attack.
1. Crossing Your Boundaries
Someone gets inside of your personal space, perhaps lays an hand on you, or an arm around your neck. While in the context of a loud bar or music show, it’s natural for someone to get close in order to be heard, the usual behaviour is for people to lean in close. If they step into your space, put an arm around your neck, or grab your arm and pull you into their space, they may have aggressive intentions.
2. Isolating You
This is pertinent for both physical assaults on men, or sexual assaults on women. Attackers will often try to separate you from your group. This can take the form of entering your space to talk to you, forcing you to step back, away from your friends, or the attacker may intersperse themselves between security guards slowly talking someone into a corner. In the example of security guards, they may approach the lone guard at a door, or the guy at the end of the barricade at the concert, someone who can’t easily receive backup.
3. Intoxicated or Under the Influence
Ignoring mental illnesses, someone who consumes alcohol is more likely to become aggressive and assaultive than someone who is sober. Verbal de-escalation tactics that often work on a sober individual can sometimes frustrate and aggravate a drunk person. If someone near you is consuming a large amount of alcohol, it’s good to keep aware, as aggressive behaviour can follow. When it comes to drugs, people can have negative reactions, “tweak” or freak out pretty unexpectedly. It’s harder to see something like that coming, so context is important. If you’re at an event where drugs are likely present, or if you see someone passing pills, etc around, then there’s a potential for unexpected behaviour.
4. Verbal Cues
Not everyone who talks aggressively will get aggressive. There’s a reason there’s a saying “his bark is worse than his bite.” That certainly doesn’t mean you should ignore what someone is saying to you. If someone says, I’m going to mess you up, then listen and act accordingly. Likewise, if someone is talking a mile a minute, and just stops talking, that’s a sign as well. For security professionals this is especially important. People generally can’t talk and do at the same time. If someone suddenly stops talking, it’s because they’re thinking of doing something, like throw a punch, or running away.
The other verbal cue is a sudden change in “mood.” If they go from threatening to punch you in the face to apologizing and saying “put ‘er there man,” in a matter of seconds, it’s likely they’re trying to put you off guard. It generally takes a couple of minutes to talk an aggressive person down, and you should see a gradual shift in their mood. A sudden change is often a prelude to a sucker punch.
5. Body Language
I think everyone’s heard that the majority of communication is non-verbal. Clenched fists, puffed chests, chin out, dropping into a stance, or pulling up to their full height are all signs someone is preparing for a physical confrontation. The eyes can also be a good sign, as people may avoid making eye contact, or try to pierce you with a glare. You should also be mindful of hands that disappear behind the back or reaching for pockets or the waistband as they may be reaching for a weapon. For the most part, your instincts will pick up on an aggressive stance, so if you feel uneasy about someone but can’t explain it, it’s probably something non-verbal you’re picking up.
So, should you be walking around with this list in your pocket and taking stock of everyone’s behaviour? No. It’s all about context. As a security professional, I regularly work around people who are consuming alcohol and potentially drugs, and when I’m in that environment my awareness is obviously quite high. But I routinely have people grab my arm and pull me in close to get my attention in a loud bar because their friend needs medical attention, or come up to me while I’m alone, because they need directions to the bathroom. But if someone I don’t know walks up to me and without any other warning signs says they’re going to punch me in the face, I don’t assume it’s a joke.
So regardless of whether you’re on the job, out for a post work drink with friends, or just taking the bus home, listen to your instincts, and if you notice these warning signs, then take action to keep yourself safe. Awareness and self-protection are a balancing act. You don’t need to walk around in fear, just keep in mind your context and environment.
Have any stories where the warning signs got you out of trouble? Please share them in the comments.