Situational Awareness in All Moments of an Encounter

This is usually an ‘around the campfire’ sort of story, but I am going to tell it here because there are lessons to be learned. It’s about a situation that occurred around thirty years ago in downtown Seattle.

Your EDC items are just tools, not solutions. Solutions come from your best, most import and effective tool- your brain.

The Story

My friend Kevin and I got on like a house on fire, in part because of similar past experiences. Kevin was my size, at the time about 6’4″ and 230-240 lbs. On the evening in question Kevin, my girlfriend Casey and his girlfriend were sitting in a bar in Pioneer Square sharing a pizza. Neither Kevin nor I drink, but hey, this place had excellent pizza. The front window of the bar overlooked the pay-parking lot where Casey’s car was, in fact on the edge of the lot facing us. I noticed a middle-aged man with a large utility bag stopping next to her car. He was weaping jeans, a flannel shirt with a blue down vest over it. He stood there a moment, then set the bag on the hood of Casey’s car and knelt behind it.

Kevin had also noted this and we exchanged a look. I pulled out my phone, flipped it open and dialed 911. I handed it to Casey and said, “If anything happens press ‘send'”

Kevin and I got up and exited the bar and I quietly told him to act like I was saying something funny. We crossed the street to the corner and I made a gesture for him to turn right while I went straight, exchanging parting words. At the end of the row of cars I abruptly turned towards Casey’s car and the fellow behind it, striding purposely forward. Kevin stopped by the back of the car and turned toward him.

The fellow stood and looked at me approaching (and now quite close,) then shot a glance at Kevin and a look of sick realization came over his face. Kevin and I were 90 degrees apart and he he had nowhere to go. It was obvious if we wanted him we’d have him. I stuck my right hand out as I closed the distance, gave him a big smile and said, “Hi! I’m Mike Pearce and this is my girfriend’s car.” He took my hand starting to look relieved as I continued, “We were kinda’ curious as to what you’re doing?”

The relief vanished as he suddenly realized, ‘OhMyGod I gave him my gun hand and he’s out of the line of fire…

I retained my grip as he quickly explained he was a Seattle Police Officer, off-duty and waiting for his ride when he saw he needed to change the battery on his radio. He carefully used his left-hand fingertips to move the vest enough to show me the badge on his belt. I released his hand and relaxed my posture. He looked relieved and asked where we had come from, and I explained. He said he’d wondered who had boxed him in; it was obvious we’d given him a serious fright, and no discredit to him, either; I’d have been shaken too. I apologized for startling him; I actually felt a little bad.

He said, “Yeah, I looked up and realized I was screwed. Who are you guys?”

We were, well, nobody really. I said, “just concerned citizens.” He said he guessed it was good people were paying attention, and we wished each other a good evening and went back to the bar. A few moments later a car pulled up, he got in and departed. Naturally when we left we checked Casey’s car, but everything appeared fine, and that was the end of it.

The Lessons

Kevin and I had proper situational awareness, noticed an unusual circumstance and responded. We had back-up in place in that our girlfriends were watching and ready to contact police in an instant if things went badly. We never crossed each other’s line of fire, never adopted a threatening posture, did not show aggression, did not display a weapon or even indicate that we were armed. We were spaced so that he could not engage either of us without leaving the other free to respond. We maintained awareness of our target and surroundings until we parted ways with the officer.

The officer made a lot of mistakes, the first of which was behaving in a manner that could be construed as suspicious. It’s likely he didn’t want to announce to the world that he had a Police radio, but it would have been better to either open the bag and replace the battery inside it or, better yet, wait until his ride arrived and do it in the car. Secondly he did not maintain situational awareness, and did not realize he was under threat until it was too late.

OK, let’s not be too harsh on this fellow. He’d worked a long day and there is a natural tendency to relax at the end of shift. He was preoccupied, perhaps focused on getting home. It’s perfectly normal, completely understandable… and if we’d been bad guys he would have been dead.

The third mistake was shaking my hand. This not only gave me his gun-hand, it put him in a position where his left hand couldn’t reach me, and he couldn’t employ his legs without significantly shifting his stance. Shaking my hand removed all his options for a rapid physical response. If he’d tried to correct this Kevin could have intervened. A more appropriate response would have been to raise his hands slightly palm out. This would have displayed that he posed no threat while keeping his options open. OK, he didn’t have any good options, but bad options are better than none at all.

What he did right was to not over-react. He realized he was not in control of the situation and responded in a way that would not make things worse. Sometimes the bad guys have you cold, and there’s nothing to do but wait for your chance. By acknowledging this and acting accordingly he kept the situation from escalating, and it all worked out in the end. I don’t know if he reasoned this out, but it was the right reaction regardless. There’s a maxim in martial arts; ‘Never pursue a failed technique.’ In other words if it’s not working don’t try to force it to work. In this case for him to try to assert control over the situation would have fallen into this category.

The Take Away

Maintain situational awareness. Do not do things that look suspicious or attract the wrong kind of attention. Do not relax too soon (shaking my hand.) Sometimes all you can do is roll with a situation and wait for your chance. Last and very much not least don’t panic! Sometimes a situation is not what it might at first seem.

If you are in the situation Kevin and I were do your best not to inspire panic. Maintain a non-threatening demeanor. Don’t play with your food; keep the pace fast and get to reassurance as quickly as possible to diffuse the situation. This isn’t about power, or ego, or being a badass; it’s about resolving the situation as quickly and painlessly as possible while everyone remains safe.

Be careful and stay safe yourself in these uncertain times.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 September 2020

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1 thought on “Situational Awareness in All Moments of an Encounter

  1. Bruce Baillie

    The Colors of Situational Awareness. I first learned of it as Chapman’s Academy awareness dictum. Later it was told to me Col. Cooper of Gunsite came up with it. I know Chapman was an instructor at Gunsite for a long time. Regardless of its history, simply said we all can and should operate our daily existence in condition yellow. And it seems you do.

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