The Dangers and Solutions to Small Crime Part 3 Assaults and Pickpocketing

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We’ve covered burglaries and identity theft, now it’s time to move on to my personal favorites: simple assaults and pickpocketing. Why my favorites? Because although the official estimates put the number at roughly 4 million incidences per year, these are actually the crimes you can most easily protect from.

The number are fairly meaningless anyway, because FBI doesn’t track them and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, by their own admission, only venture into an educated guess. A lot of these crimes go unreported. I mean how many people would go to the police if they get a punch in the face or don’t find that 50 dollar bill they knew for sure it was in their back pocket? See what I mean?

But how are these crimes easy to prevent? Let me explain.

There are a few techniques which can greatly help with a lot of situations in life, but are absolutely invaluable when it comes to this sort of encounter. Today we’ll cover 3 of them: situational awareness, deescalation and, perhaps the most important, image projection.

Let’s take each.

Situational awareness

Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? It’s a term the military really likes, but is actually really simple. You see assaults and petty theft don’t occur magically out of nowhere. There’s usually a build up involved. Recognizing the early signs puts you in the position to avoid the entire incident.

With assaults the signs are usually obvious. Perpetrators are in an agitated state, eyes shifting from person to person looking for eye contact and fixating for more than it’s usual once they lock in. Additional signs include tense shoulders, a tendency to “occupy” more space than usual by stretching their arms and legs.

The most important sign though is the sudden deviation from common courtesy norms. There are literally hundreds of small gestures we do everyday when we interact with people: shifting a bit in the chair if a person comes to sit next, holding the door for one extra second to let someone else get through, a small nod when someone else let’s you go through a door first. As I said, literally hundreds. The people who do not abide to these rules are high risk and you should avoid being in their immediate proximity.

As for pickpockets, you need to look for a very different set of signs. They usually try to blend in. Nonetheless, there are a few giveaways.

Typically before a pickpocket moves in, he will scan the crowd. However, the focus will be on the pockets and bags first and only then on the eyes to check the mark’s awareness. Another sign is the apparent lack of respect for personal space, despite respecting all the other small gestures. Finally, pickpockets usually use props: empty bags, maybe a piece of clothing in their arms to mask their act.

Again the proper response is to put some distance between you and him/her. By the way, a lot of pickpockets are actually women, so keep that in mind.


The second fancy term of the article. If you’re a policeman, nurse or social worker you’re most definitely familiar with it.

So what is it? Essentially it’s a set of techniques aimed at defusing a conflict. Sounds simple enough.

It is actually once you understand the dynamics involved. The most common misconception is that in order to defuse a conflict you must first convince the other guy to stand back. This comes much later in the game. The first person you have to convince is yourself.

Think about it. The most readily available element in a confrontation is yourself. So what are you supposed to do? Well the first part is self-observation. What are you actually doing?

You have perhaps heard of the “fight or flight” response. The truth is a bit more different. In a conflict we actually go through 4 stages: freeze, flight, fight and fright. Lots of F’s in there. The point is that your natural response is not necessarily the best response. Going against it can be extremely hard.

So let’s take each type of conflict:

With assaults, your first instinct will be to back off and verbally escalate through the tone of your voice. The proper reaction would be to keep a low, calm voice and keep your posture relaxed. As for the conversation you have several options: non-response (aka just ignore it), deflection (aka change the subject) or empathy (aka understand the other’s problem and make him/her talk about it). There’s no universal recipe, you should adapt to each situation.

With pickpockets, deescalation works the other way around. What you want to signal is that he or her has been spotted. This can be usually done through eye contact. Just maintain a quizzical look and stare for more than it’s socially acceptable. If that doesn’t work, you could try coded language: essentially telling him the pickpocket that he’s been spotted, but without alerting the others (that might put you in physical danger). It could be something like: “Slow day, huh?” or “Any problems mate?”. A slight humorous approach usually works best.

Image Projection

Oh boy, now we’re in psychology’s turf. Image projection is nothing more than the sum of your nonverbal cues and what sort of image do they show. So let’s take each in turn:

With assaults what you want to avoid is the submissive position: head down, hunched, legs or arms crossed. What you want to do is look calm, confident and alert. That means: head up, straight back, neutral look on your face, quick, casual looks around, and arms/legs in a comfortable, but slightly sprawled position.

With pickpockets the situation changes because they usually check for 3 things: alertness, potential payout and ease of access. This means that the previous advice still stands, but you need to also pay attention to other factors: avoid having headphones on, avoid displaying jewelry, keep your bag with the flap towards you and the bag itself in front of you. Also avoid keeping stuff in your back and lateral pockets. An experienced pickpocket can instantly know how much money you have simply by gently bumping your pocket.

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