Also see: JFP Crime Blog
When I lived in the Washington, D.C., area, I knew a woman who was repeatedly on the receiving end of crime. She was mugged in the subway, had her purse snatched at a bar, was attacked and raped walking home. I didn't know her well; however, it was hard not to feel badly for her. On the other hand, I couldn't help but speculate on what drew criminals to her, making her a victim of crime not once, but over and over again.
Personally, I've had three different homes burglarized in and around D.C., always in broad daylight when I was away from home. It's an awful feeling to come home to, but I learned from each incident how to better protect my home. Along the way, I also learned that criminals are opportunists: They will pick the easiest marks and avoid defenses and people who look strong, even if they're not.
Here are some tips for keeping from becoming the next crime statistic.
On the street or in parking lots:
• Be aware of your surroundings and the people around you. Know where the exits are. Paying attention is your No. 1 protection against crime.
• Stay alert and trust your instincts. If a situation doesn't feel safe, it probably isn't. Don't shrug it off or give in to embarrassment and get hurt. Stop talking on your cell phone until you're in a safe place.
• Avoid potentially dangerous places and situations. Avoid deserted or isolated areas including alleys and unlit, lonely corners. Stay where other people are around you. Don't be the last to leave by yourself.
• Keep your eyes up. Notice how you walk; if you're looking at the ground, you're not looking to see who and what is surrounding you. Keep your head up, your spine straight and walk with confidence. Practice.
• Use the buddy system. Safety comes with numbers: Two people are a lot less likely to be victimized than one person, alone.
• Change your route. If you feel threatened, don't be embarrassed to change your direction or go back the way you came to safety. Be prepared to run if you have to.
• Never get into a vehicle with someone you don't know—yours or theirs.
• Have your keys ready. Whether you're going to your car or your front door, don't stand around digging in your purse or checking your pockets. Get to your door, and get on the other side. Once in your car, lock your doors and get moving.
• Get loud. Do what you must to get attention. Pick up a rock and break a car or store window. Scream "Fire!" as loud as you can. People may not readily respond to cries of "Help," but everyone wants to look at the fire or see why that glass shattered.
• Give away everything but your life. Nothing you own is worth dying for. If a mugger wants your purse or your keys, hand them over.
• Run. Women, be prepared to kick off your heels and hike up your skirt, if necessary. A little misdirection can help you get away: "Hey! What's that over there!"
• Fight. You have the right to protect yourself, so if all else fails, claw, kick, punch and bite. Aim for your attacker's eyes first, then his groin. Use the element of surprise, and mean business when you strike. Fighting back may give you just enough time to get away.
In your home:
• Look for points of vulnerability. Most home invasions happen during the day, when people are at work and neighborhoods are empty and quiet. Burglars look for easy opportunities and easy entrances and exits. Clear away tall bushes from around ground-floor windows, for example.
• Lock doors and windows. Close your garage doors. Use supplemental or auxiliary locks on glass doors. Make sure your locks work well.
• Make your house look occupied even when you're not home. Put a few lights on a timer, for example, when you're traveling. Have a trusted neighbor or friend pick up your mail, or have the post office hold it for you. Have someone park a car in your driveway on occasion. Keep exterior lights on at night over doorways.
• Know who's knocking before you open the door. If in doubt, don't open it, even to help someone. If necessary, offer to call 911 through the closed door, and then follow through.
National Crime Prevention Council (http://www.ncpc.org)
"Personal Safety Tips for Women" on http://www.abcnews.go.com.
"Personal Security—At Home, On the Street, While Traveling" on the U.S. Department of State website (http://www.state.gov)
"The Top Ten Things Every Woman Should Know about Personal Safety" on http://www.powertochange.com.
"Police Positive" on http://www.womenshooters.com.
How Stuff Works (http://www.howstuffworks.com) a subsidiary of the Discovery Communications.
Should I Use Pepper Spray?
Darren Laur, a police officer with the Victoria Police Department and the head instructor of Personal Protection Systems Inc., writes on the website Power to Change (powertochange.com) that pepper spray can be a useful tool if you already have it in hand. In other words, fumbling in your purse for your spray can make you more vulnerable, he says, at least momentarily. He also says about 15 percent to 20 percent of people will not be incapacitated by pepper spray, even with a full-face shot.
"Never depend on any self-defense tool or weapon to stop an attacker," he writes.
Laur and his wife, Beth, teach self-defense and, in 1999, published "Total Awareness: A Woman's Safety Book."
Should I Learn Karate?
Learning how to defend yourself may be a good investment, even if you're never attacked, and it just makes you feel stronger and safer. Laur says that a good self-defense course "should include simulated assaults, with a fully padded instructor in realistic rape and attack scenarios to allow you to practice what you learn."
Avoid "watered-down martial-arts techniques" masquerading as self-defense courses, he says. Most martial arts require a long-term commitment before practitioners can use them for effective self-defense.
Should I Get a Gun?
Again, it depends.
A gun, like pepper spray or any other self-defense tool, is only as good as the person handling it. If you decide to get a gun for self-protection, police experts stress learning how to use it, maintaining it properly and practicing frequently.
"I would recommend as much training as you can possibly get," Carol Krancich, a police officer in Tacoma, Wash., told the Women & Guns website. "I don't think you can train too much."
Bellevue, Wash., police officer Marcia Harnden agreed, saying gun owners should get proficient, practice at least once a month if not more, "and then know your safety (rules) inside and out."
Other advice includes shopping around to find the right firearm, making sure guns are not accessible by children, and keeping your finger off the trigger until you're ready to fire.
What about a Taser or Stun-Gun?
Remember "Star Trek" phasers' stun setting? Captain Kirk would "shoot" an attacker, who would fall to the ground unconscious. That's the premise behind today's Tasers and stun-guns: non-lethal defense tools that use electric shocks to temporarily immobilize attackers.
Tasers shoot probes attached to a hand-held device by fine, insulated wires. Taser probes deliver an instant shock that continues for about five seconds. Stun-guns must be held in contact with another person to deliver its shock, and are similar in concept to cattle prods. Both Tasers and stun-guns can cause the person hit to lose neuromuscular control, often leaving him or her writhing on the ground. The effect is short lived, and doesn't cause any permanent damage, but is painful enough to stop most attackers and give you time to get away.
The effect of stun-guns depend on the power of the gun, how long you can keep the gun in contact with your attacker and even his or her physiology.
"If you use the gun for half a second, a painful jolt will startle the attacker," HowStuffWorks.com reports. "If you zap him for one or two seconds, he should experience muscle spasms and become dazed. And if you zap him for more than three seconds, he will become unbalanced and disoriented and may lose muscle control. Determined attackers with a certain physiology may keep coming despite any shock."
Tasers have an advantage in that they are effective at a distance, up to 15 or 20 feet away. Their disadvantage, however, is that you only get one shot. Most models also have standard stun-gun electrodes, just in case you miss.
"While these weapons are by no means infallible, they can save lives in certain situations," HowStuffWorks states. The key, as with any tool, is training, practice and maintenance. No weapon is useful if you don't know how to use it or if you freeze up and can't use it when you need it.