by Forrest Sonewald
One of TDI’s Lead Instructors, Forrest Sonewald, recently retired from a distinguished 25 year career in law enforcement. We asked Forrest to address lessons learned as a police officer on the job that we could apply to every day lives. Only Forrest could draw on his knowledge of Iceland’s Codex Regius, written in the 1270’s to offer timely advice today:
Awareness for the Street
Awareness, by definition, is having knowledge of or cognizance of something. When I entered the Police Academy in 1989 the subject of awareness came up frequently. This was for two reasons. A good officer was one who paid attention to their surroundings as it was our job to detect crimes that had been committed and if possible prevent others from being committed. The other was officer safety as being in uniform left no doubt as to who you were or what would happen to the bad guys when you showed up. In twenty five years as a police officer there were numerous examples of awareness and the lack of it.
Example one– I am driving in my cruiser though a parking lot during day shift and observe a vehicle parked in front of a convenience store facing out with the engine running and the driver staring straight ahead. I parked my cruiser in the back of the lot, turned on my dash camera, and waited to see what was going on. While waiting, I observed a number of customers entering and exiting the store passed the vehicle. Within minutes, a male exits the store in a hurry with a large overstuffed bag, enters the front passenger side of the waiting vehicle and the vehicle pulls off in a hurry. I performed a traffic stop and observed that the front and rear seats were full of merchandize from the convenience store as well as other stores throughout the area that the two had visited. The two were arrested and charged.
Example two– I was off duty and going to dinner with my wife. As I was pulling into the parking lot of the restaurant, I observed three females, approximately two hundred yards away in a nearby mall parking lot, walking towards the restaurant, continuously looking over their shoulders behind them at a male following them who appeared to be talking into a cell phone or portable radio. I parked and began walking to the entrance of the restaurant. At the entrance I observed that the females were about to cross the street dividing the parking areas and asked my wife to get us a table and that I would be in in a minute. I began approaching them and could hear the male advising the females to return to the store and the females protesting that they had done nothing wrong. I was able to approach the females unnoticed as their attention was on the male to the point that I startled one of the females. Being in plain clothes I held my badge up and announced I was a police officer and requested that the females follow the males instructions to return to the store. While the females argued their innocence, four or five local police cruisers arrived and the females were taken into custody. When I entered the restaurant my wife asked what was going on and how I had managed to pick up on it at approximately two hundred yards away.
Example three– I have experienced the same thing as others working double shifts, behind on sleep, nursing the cold or flu. I would look around at some point and it would take me a second to realize where I was at and how I got there. I would try to prepare for these days as best I could with coffee, mints, and meds, but they still happened. Nobody stays dialed in all the time and rest is just as important as exercise to help us maintain that awareness level.
Questions, comments, and concerns.
How do these examples apply to everyday tactical awareness? In the first and second examples I was able to observe what was happening and realized that something wasn’t right. This is usually the point where someone says “ya Forrest, but your a cop, that’s your job”. My job for twenty five years was to enforce the law. It was because I paid attention to my surroundings that I was able to effectively and safely do that. Being aware of your surroundings is everybody’s responsibility.
Lessons for the average person.
The comment I heard most often from victims was that their attacker “came out of nowhere”. The reality was that they were not paying attention which allowed the bad guy to approach them from a position of advantage, usually from behind. A study was done by researchers Betty Greyson and Morris Stein, Attracting Assault victims Non-Verbal Cues- Journal of Communication, 1981, who showed a film of people walking by to criminals in prison and asked them to pick out the people they would victimize and the people they would avoid victimizing. The criminals selected all the people in the video that were not paying attention to their surroundings as ones to victimize and selected the one that were paying attention to their surroundings as people to avoid. Most people, even ones that insist that they are aware of their surroundings don’t pay attention to anything outside of an approximate twelve foot circle around them. Do we want the bad guys at only twelve feet from us when we notice them or would we be better off seeing them further off giving us greater time to form a plan and prepare ourselves for different actions?
How can the average person pay better attention to their surroundings?
Col.Jeff Cooper assigned awareness levels color codes.
White– Unaware and unprepared. The only area where we should be in condition white is when we are in a secure environment like our homes. A place secure enough to go unconcious(sleep).
Yellow– Relaxed but aware of your surroundings. This is the level you should be in at all times outside of your secure environment unless you’ve identified a potential threat or threat.
Orange– Identification of a potential threat. You’ve identified something as a potential threat and are prepared to take action. From here, you can go to a higher or lower level or awareness depending on the potential threat’s actions.
Red– Identified threat. It is now time to fight, flee, freeze, posture or submit.
The only level above white that can be maintained indefinitely is yellow. This is simply a level of awareness that allows you to be aware of your surroundings.
These are not new concepts folks. Iceland’s Codex Regius, written in the 1270’s, contains a section on practical behavior-
All the entrances, before you walk forward,
you should look at,
you should spy out,
for you can’t know for certain where enemies are sitting,
ahead in the hall.
In order to be better aware of our surroundings we need to make the actions associated with it a habit in our daily lives. Do you look outside before you leave your house to see what is going on before you open the door? Do you look into your neighbor’s yard to see what’s going on? Do you always take the same path to work everyday and are you aware of the vehicles around yours? Do you know any alternate routes? Do you check the parking lot before you exit your vehicle? Do you look in through windows into the office or store to see what is going on inside before you enter? When you’ve entered, how many people are there and how many exits(doors and windows)? If you detect a problem at any point, what actions are you prepared to take? The most important question- Is your life worth paying attention to your surroundings?
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