Sunday, February 20, 2011

Personal Security – What’s Your Risk? (Part 2)

               I stood peering over a fence post in my backyard to the darkness beyond.  I listened closely, but couldn’t hear anything – now.  I shivered from the cold as I waited.  A few minutes before, I had been inside, working at my desk, when there was the sound of gunshots right out back.  I had immediately turned off the lights in the room and ran upstairs.  My wife had shut off the lights in our room and was peering out back.  It occurred to me that our walls were not very good cover, only concealment.  My wife called the police while I ran back downstairs and outside.
               Sadly, this wasn’t the first time we’ve heard gunshots, but these were close.  As I looked for any movement in the field behind my home, I felt the temptation to jump the fence and head into the field myself.  I knew, though, that I would be exposed in the ribbon of light crossing the street and that the police would arrive soon and I would be stuck explaining who I was, when they could be looking for whoever fired the shots.
               As I waited, I thought of all the times that my wife or I had needed to call the police and we are the type who prefers to deal with problems ourselves whenever possible.  Once again, I wished that we could move to an area not so prone to criminal activity and thought about how our direct environment has an impact on our lives and safety.
               In the last post, “Sleeping With the Enemy?”, we discussed the first part of personal safety and taking a look at the individual risk that we are all exposed to.  Primarily, that is the people around us and the things that we do, something that I call our lifestyle risks.
               Today, we are going to look at other risk factors that have an impact on our safety.  First we will look at environmental risk.  Environmental risk can include a number of areas, but mainly pertains to the area around us, the crime in our neighborhood and the kind of activity that goes on near our homes.
               Look at your home and your neighborhood.  Start with how you feel about your safety.  If you don’t feel safe, your instincts may be warning you about something that you have picked up on subconsciously.
               Are there vacant lots, empty buildings, or abandoned businesses around you?  Any areas not maintained or that show a lack of caring can attract criminal activity.  If the bad guys feel like a property is not cared for, then they may feel like they can get away with whatever they want there. 
               Look at graffiti as well.  It can be “artwork”, but can also be used to send messages.  A dollar sign may indicate drug dealing.  Some graffiti may be used by gangs to mark their territory.  In general, the less ‘artistic’ the graffiti, the more likely it is being used for some more nefarious purpose.
               The other part of your environment is looking at the actual crime happening around your neighborhood.  You can “CSI” your house.  That is not as hard as it sounds.  Most police departments have crime information, even crime maps that allow you to enter your address and look at exactly what type of crime has happened around you.   Often, you can adjust these online crime maps by distances or time period to get a better picture of crime in your area.
               There are also some generic crime statistics or ratings available for whole cities or towns.  The problem with those types of sites is that they will give you a crime rating for your entire city, not just your section.  So if there is a high crime area on the opposite side of your city, but your area is generally much safer, these city-wide crime rates combine or average everything for one score.  This doesn’t really tell you much about your actual neighborhood.
               Even if your local police don’t have a website with crime stats, you can get a great deal of information by calling.  Most departments have crime analysts or community service officers who can help you understand crime in your section of town.  In fact, community service officers are often available to come out to your home and do a mini security survey for free.  They will look at your landscaping, locks on your doors and windows and the lighting around you and give you a few recommendations on what they see.
               That is an overview of environmental crime concerns.  Let’s take a look at work and the related hazards.  Some aspects are comparable to your environmental assessment, looking at some of the same factors on your drive to work and at your work location.  Is there graffiti in the area, or on the drive there?  Do you pass through high-crime neighborhoods?  What about the area where you actually work?  Again, your local police department can help to get a realistic assessment on crime in the area.
               Different industries or different types of jobs will have different risks as well.  For example, if you work alone, carry cash and are out amongst the community, such as a taxi cab driver, you are at a much higher risk of being robbed.  Other industries, such as healthcare, have higher risk of being the victim of assault.  ER staff members deal with substance and drug abuse, as well as mental health patients, which increase the risk of violence behavior. 
               The other aspect of your workplace is violence from co-workers.  This is something that we see every now and again in the news.  Ex-employees coming back and extracting revenge after a bad termination is one example. 
               So how does your company handle terminations?  Do they let people go with dignity or aggravate the situation?  We’ve all had people who have rubbed us the wrong way and know how we are treated can really affect how we feel or how we respond.  How does your company deal with individuals?  Also, having a risk assessment team can help when looking at workplace threats.  Threats can come in very different forms, such as vague, implied threats up to very direct and specific threats.  The more specific a threat, the more seriously it should be taken, although not all aggressors will make a threat before acting.
               Does your company have strict policies prohibiting harassment in the workplace and threatening behavior?  Are those policies enforced?  Be careful about zero tolerance policies – that does not have to mean maximum punishment in every case. 
               Workplace violence is a complex issue and one that will be covered in future posts to look at different aspects, including domestic violence situations spilling over to work.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sleeping With the Enemy?

               Not long ago, I was preparing a talk on personal safety and security and I came across an interesting statistic.  This tidbit of research stated that only 12% of violent crime occurred at the hands of strangers.  So according to that study, most victims of violent crime knew their attacker, knew the suspect, rather than being attacked by an unknown stranger.
               At first, this may strike you as unlikely.  After all, the news always seems to be full of the attacks on the innocent person walking to their car, or the abduction by stranger.  But as happens all too often, our risk antenna is focused on the wrong threat or in the wrong direction. 
               Throughout my time in law enforcement, the majority of assaults were between people who knew each other.  Of course, there was the usual bevy of bar fights between relative strangers, but most assaults and disturbances were related to domestic violence or between roommates, neighbors etc.
               The same is true of many other crimes, such as identity theft.  Often, those closest to us are the ones who have access to our credit cards, check books or other identifying information and are the ones who carry out some form of ID theft.  And, of course, it is those close relationships that can build up the kind of tension that can lead to violence in some people.
               So how does this affect your personal safety and security?  It means that to really protect yourself, you need to look beyond the usual crime tips and look at those closest to you.  Locking your doors or windows won’t help if the person you should fear already has the key. 
               Your personal security needs to start with a close risk assessment or look at the people around you, as well as the some of the external factors that could impact your safety.  I like to think of three areas to look at for your individual risk assessment, your IRA so to speak.  The first is about your lifestyle and that includes the people closest to you and those closest to them.  This also includes some of your ‘lifestyle’ choices or the things that you do.  The next is the environmental factors around you, your neighborhood crime rates, for example.  The last is work.  We spend a large part of our lives at work and cannot ignore the risk related to work, from the crime around our work locations as well as industry or job-related risks.
               The first area is lifestyle.  Start by looking at the potential for violent behavior of those around you, including relatives.  You’ve heard commercials for mutual funds or other financial products and the announcer always includes a statement to the effect that past performance does not guarantee future results.  However, with violent individuals that is not the case.  Past violent behavior is a very clear indicator that there will be future violent behavior.  It is very rare for someone to “just snap” and suddenly become violent without warning.  Police officers use this concept daily, when responding to calls or dealing with suspects.  If an individual or a location is known to police due to past violence, they will go into those scenarios at a higher state of alert and with cover officers.  Dispatchers use software to track previous calls to a location and radio previous disturbances to responding officers so they don’t walk into a violent situation unawares. 
The next factor to consider is substance abuse, either drugs or alcohol.  This is another leading dynamic that adds to the risk of violent behavior.  Mental health issues are yet another factor that increases the risk of violent behavior.  Within the healthcare industry, there is a higher risk of being a victim of an assault than many other professions and the risk increases dramatically when dealing with mental health patients.  ER staff faces the greatest risk due to the firsthand contact with intoxicated or high suspects, who, too often, end up in the ER because of their own violent behavior and the related injuries.
Your IRA should focus around the following questions.  We could score the answers and tally up a number to rate your risk, but that could be misleading as any one risk might be so severe or dangerous that a low score could be misleading.
1.      Within your household, including spouses, parents, siblings or even children, is there anyone who has a history of violent behavior?  What about substance abuse?
2.     Think of the visitors or neighbors or close friends who are routinely around your household.  Do you know of any violence by any of them, including violence against pets or animals?  And substance abuse?
3.     Expand your perimeter a bit and think about the friends of friends, especially the spouses or boyfriends and girlfriends of your closest friends.  Note any violence there or substance abuse.  Sometimes, it may not be obvious, but aside from visible injuries, warning signs could include changes in personality or increase in illnesses or absences from work.
4.     Aside from the people, the things we do can increase risk.  Review your own activities and lifestyle.  Do you travel to or through isolated areas alone or do things like go jogging alone, especially at night?  It sounds obvious, but too often people do ignore those risks and expose themselves to attackers, especially, in these cases, attacks by strangers.
This is a good start to a better understanding of personal security and safety and some of the danger signs right around us that are so easy to justify or ignore.  In a future post, we will look at the other two areas, environmental factors and work-related dynamics. 
The key to security is to increase your personal awareness to threats around you.  Conducting a review may get you thinking about people or circumstances that you’ve overlooked in the past or ignored.  Stay aware to stay safe.