Capitol Hill Style: Safety Tips for Women

Thursday, August 4, 2011 by Belle

Safety Tips for Women

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This weekend, I received an e-mail from a reader who was mugged at gunpoint near Stanton Park in the middle of the morning rush hour.  The police told her that street crime in the area around Capitol Hill is up, and that people, esp. women, need to be more careful.

As you may have gathered by my occasional post and tweet about my Father, he is a bit of a safety nut.  Since I was in elementary school, he has been teaching me to be security minded.  So I thought I might share some of his tips with all of you, since as my reader pointed out, this blog reaches a lot of single, independent women who could benefit from such advice.

Don’t Make Yourself a Target.  Like a lion can smell the wounded gazelle, muggers prey on the weak.  So the question becomes, what makes a person a target?

Being drunk.  Never stumble home alone.  Buy a cab, ask a friend for a ride to your door, or have a sober male friend walk you.  Not a drunk friend, a sober friend.  

Headphones.  In the age of the iPod, lots of women listen to music when they walk.  But a person wearing headphones is an attractive target because it’s easy to sneak up on her.  

Right now, you might be saying, “But Belle, I always listen at low volume so I can hear what’s going on around me.” Even if you can hear them, they think you can’t, so you’re still an attractive target.  Your white iPod headphones might as well be a sign that says, “Please rob me.”

Same goes for being on a cell phone.  Your call can wait until you get home.  When you’re walking alone, you need to be paying attention.  No talking or typing, just walking.

Piles of bags.  A woman who has been out shopping and is loaded down with bags is a very attractive target. Piles of bags encumber you, which makes you unable to run away or defend herself.  If you have more than one or two small bags, take a cab.

Sidewalkers.  Resist the programming that says you have to stay on your side of the sidewalk.  If you’re alone, always walk in the middle of the sidewalk. This keeps you further away from someone who might jump out from behind a parked car or an alley way.  The couple of feet may not seem like a lot but an arms length is more than enough to gve you time to run away.

Walk the Right Way.  When I’m walking home, I walk fast.  Crazy woman on a mission fast, and I don’t do it because I like the exercise.  I do it because when you’re alone, on the street, in a big city (and yes, no matter how gentrified your neighborhood is, this is still a big city), this is not the time to bounce about enjoying the day.  

You want a leisurely walk?  Buy a treadmill.  You want to stay safe?  Then pick up your feet and hurry up.  

Also, don’t walk with your head down, moping along.  Your posture shouldn’t say, “I’m tired and weak and a loser who wants to be mugged.”  Instead, puff out your chest and stand up straight.  Walk with ease and purpose, like the kind of person who isn’t a target for bullies and muggers.  You might not think these little things matter, but anything you can do to signal that you’re not an easy mark is a good thing.

Stay Vigilant. You should always be aware of your surroundings.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  Who looks out of place?  And especially, what’s happening behind you?

When I walk down the street, I’m always glancing at my reflection, and not just because I’m vain.  I don’t have eyes in the back of my head, but windows and car mirrors are a great way to see what or who is on your six.  And if it’s a sunny day, sometimes shadows work too.  

Be unpredictable.  First off, I never take the same route home two days in a row.  And I never leave for work or come home from work at the same time.  Don’t keep to a strict routine, change it up.

Also, if I’m walking and I think someone has been walking behind me for too long or if someone comes up behind me suddenly, I’ll do something unpredictable.  I might cross the street for no reason.  I might go into a shop or a coffee bar. If there’s traffic, I might suddenly signal a taxi even if it’s just a short fare.  Or if I see something up ahead that makes me wary, I’ll yell a couple of obscenities, like I forgot something, and turn back around the way I came.

Assume the Worst. Bottom line: You are programmed from eons of evolution to sense danger.  If the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and your adrenaline starts pumping, don’t tell yourself there is nothing to be afraid of when your physiology says that there is.  If you think you are in danger, react like you are.

Sound paranoid?  You bet it is.  But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Six years ago, I was walking home from the Metro when I noticed that a man had followed me out of the station entrance.  He was walking behind me, matching my pace.  I sped up, he sped up.  I slowed down, he slowed down.  He was completely freaking me out, and I knew I needed to lose him like a bad boyfriend.

I saw a man and a woman walking about a half block away, so I stared calling after them like I knew them.  I actually yelled fake names like I knew them.  They thought I was nuts.  But the second I reached them the man suddenly turned around, complete 180, and walked back towards the Metro.  I then explained the situation to the couple and asked if I could walk with them for a bit back to a main road where I caught a cab.  

I don’t know who the man was or if I was actually in danger, but his behavior was suspicious and that was good enough for me.

Carry Pepper Spray.  The very best kind of pepper spray to have is Kimber Pepper Blaster.  It sprays foam at 90mph, maximizing impact and minimizing the chance of blowback.  Having caught some pepper spray blowback once upon a time, I can tell you that this is a very good thing.  It would be tough to run for your life with tears gushing from your eyes and your throat closing up on you.  

But no matter what kind of pepper spray you buy, there are three rules for owning pepper spray.  1) Carry it with you. Too many women own it and it sits in a drawer at home.  2) It must be accessible.  Don’t let it get buried in your purse. And if you’re walking at night, carry it in your hand.  3) Spray first, ask questions later.  If you feel threatened, trust your instincts.  If it turns out to be nothing, pepper spray is non-lethal so you won’t have killed anyone.

The District of Columbia has several laws regarding pepper spray. And while I could go on forever about how the incompetent nitwits in the D.C. government and their ridiculous rules create a defenseless class for criminals to prey on, I won’t.  Instead, I will just tell you that if you are going to carry pepper spray you need to register it with the local police per D.C. law.  

Usually, the vendor who sells it to you will have you fill out a form and forward that to the police.  If they don’t, you need to go to the police precinct and fill one out.  If you don’t, you could face a fairly hefty fine.  

Also, if you work for the federal government, you should know that technically pepper spray is prohibited in the Capitol and all federal buildings.  I’ve been stopped one time in seven years.  In that instance, I showed my ID, explained that I lived in a bad neighborhood and the nice Capitol Police officer let me go on my way.  But I know of one other staffer who was asked to throw hers away when she entered the Capitol proper.  So, I don’t know how much the rules are really enforced.

If You’re Mugged.  If someone approaches you and threatens you, and there are people around, scream, yell and draw attention to yourself.  Don’t yell, “Help.”  Instead, yell, “Fire.”  I promise everyone will look at you if they think you’re alerting them to danger that impacts them.  Don’t be afraid to look crazy, just draw as much attention to yourself as possible.  

Maybe someone will help you, maybe they won’t.  But more than likely, your attacker will take off.  It’s not worth the hassle for him.

If you’re alone and there’s no one around, and someone demands your wallet, do not hand him your purse.  Instead, throw it away from you and run.  I’d say toss it about ten feet to his right or left, close enough that he can get to it, but far enough that he’s got to walk away from you to reach it.  This will maximize the distance between you, and give you time to make a break for it.  

Then, once you’re sure that you’re safe, call the cops immediately.  Don’t wait.

Also, I tend to carry my phone and my keys in my hand.  That way, if someone demands my wallet, I won’t lose them too.  Everything else is easily replaceable.

Need more safety tips?  Check out this website.  Also, this post was allegedly written by a cop, and is a good read regardless of its provenance.  

Make sure to send this post to your friends.  

0 comments :

  • No Drama Momma

    Excellent advice, and thanks for the heads up re: pepper spray. I always carry mine, and had no idea it needed to be registered!

  • Kelsey

    When I was studying abroad in Belgium a police officer came in and spoke to all of us. A tip he gave were to carry your keys with the keys sticking through your fingers(like wolverine).

    I also did the run to walk with a married couple thing a few times when I was there.

  • Mary

    I was recently mugged on a Metro train full of people. I was reading my Kindle (which I no longer have) but, even though surrounded by people, no one helped when a man threw me up against the wall, took the Kindle and tried to take my bag as well. Luckily I was at least able to keep my purse and it was a good wake-up that, even when you think you're in the safest part of your commute, you're not. You've still gotta keep alert.

  • BL

    Great post Belle-

    I'm live on the Hill not too far from Stanton Park too- very scary and I am so sorry to hear about the incident your reader had. You mentioned relying on your instincts and I cannot agree more. For some reason, they are usually right in these situations. If you haven't read it already, I really recommend the book “The Gift of Fear”. It's all about how to recognize the source of your own intuitions and is a must read for any city girl. I found that once I understood my own intuition, it removed that element of paranoia. Thanks for the post! It is a great reminder to not get into unsafe habits.

    The one other piece of advice when leaving for home on your own.- I always make sure someone knows that I am leaving and I always call someone to either let them know I am home or to check in with a friend, mom or dad etc. That way, if something happens, there is a phone record of where you have been.

  • P

    These are all really good tips and I appreciate them! When I was in college I lived with friends in a bad area and we used to risk being mugged during the walk from the street parking to our apartment, so we'd have a friend come out and stand on the porch and yell back and forth with us till we got there. We never got mugged!

    Also, it's hilarious to imagine you yelling obscenities while walking down the sidewalk.

  • Amy

    Thanks for this post, Belle! Your posts are always useful and entertaining, but this one is especially noteworthy.

  • Rachel

    As someone who has been mugged twice (once in San Francisco and once here), I appreciate these tips–and they are things that every woman should think about when she is in a city. Carrying my keys in my hand was crucial both times, since it meant I could easily make it back to my car/apartment.

    One thing I would add to Walk the Right Way and Be Unpredictable is that it's okay to walk in the street, especially if you're walking alone in the evening. You're more visible AND might give off a little bit of crazy, which aren't bad things.

  • JH

    All good advice… having been recently mugged, I always wished i had paid more attention to advice people gave me about living in an edge-of-sketch neighborhood in DC. Particularly the dangers of walking with headphones in (my ipod was torn out of my coat pocket). Although I don't appreciate the fact that I had to learn a lesson the hard way, I am now more aware then ever about my surroundings. And there were a few nice folks who pulled their cars over and got out to make sure I was OK, etc after it happened–so there are good people out there.

  • Molly

    I totally agree with Rachel above about walking in the street. If you MUST walk by yourself, do this. Sidewalks are rarely well-lit and have plenty of obstacles that are potentially detrimental to you.

    Also, I, too read “The Gift of Fear” when I first moved here. It's an excellent book – although, unfortunately, about two months after I read it I was jumped and beat up at about 7pm at the Mt. Vernon metro stop by about 5 females. I was sitting on a bench at the end of the platform and the girls came down the escalator and were being LOUD and obnoxious. They were making me feel a little unsettled and I should have moved because my instincts were telling me they were trouble. But I didn't because I was being stubborn. While they were attacking me I was screaming but no one did anything, not even inform the station manager. The girls ended up running away and out of the station and even after, no one asked if I was ok.

    I guess this brings me to another point: if you see something happening, interfere as safely as possible. Start yelling nonsense, yell that you're calling 911, anything. Trust me, nothing is worse than the feeling that no one cares you are being beat up.

  • Sugar Scientist

    Thanks for the tip on registering pepper spray. Do you have any other information on this? I just tried poking around the MPD website but saw nothing — is there a form to fill out, or do you have to go in person? Do you have to bring the pepper spray with you? (I just tried calling my local MPD office but couldn't get a hold of an actual person, and thought perhaps you could answer these questions if you already went through the registration process). Thanks!

  • Charleigh

    I've taken a couple self defense classes before. Rather than yelling “fire” yell “Fight!” Yelling “help” may make more people wary that danger is around, but yelling fight! people think it is just two people fighting and there isn't much risk of them being involved. Also, thanks to fight club and school/bar fights, everyone always runs over when they think a good fight is going on. Seeing a woman in trouble they will be more likely to step in.

    Another thing I learned, as what happened to Mary on the metro is that everyone always thinks someone else is going to step in to assist or call 911. What you need to do is make eye contact with one particular individual, or point to a person and say “you! Call 911″ That then makes them responsible.

    Also, Kelsey had it right with carrying your key's wolverine style. Also, never let a gentleman that comes up to you in the parking lot assist you with your groceries or putting other items in the trunk. He could throw you in and drive away with you. If you do get stuck in a trunk, kick out the tail light and stick your arm out and wave like mad. He won't be able to see you, but other cars behind you will.

    If attacked, go for the nose, temple, jugular, or groin. If he grabs you from behind pinning your arms, kick your heel back into his shins.

  • w

    Great post Belle! I live on the Hill, and I was wondering if you knew whether there was a write up in the Post or anything about the mugging you reference. Thanks!

  • Belle

    Sugar- I filled mine out at MPD HQ. It was funny because the person at the front desk didn't know that you had to, but if you Google DC pepper spray laws, it clearly says you have to. She had to ask a supervisor, but we eventually got it registered.

  • Nina

    Thanks for this post Belle. I just moved into DC from the exurbs. I love it, but I've gotten complacent about safety while out in the boonies.

    Upon turning 12 every woman in America should be given The Gift of Fear and Taking Charge of Your Fertility.

  • Kit

    Another recommendation for “The Gift of Fear.” I actually just finished reading it last night and what it says about intuition and what to watch out for is so valuable. Thanks for the post on this, Belle!

  • R

    Thanks for the great post from you (and your dad, basically). I don't live in D.C. but doesn't everyone benefit to consider personal safety.

  • V

    My two cents: Ditto on the carrying your keys between your fingers. I've always been told it is better to surrender your wallet/purse as stated above because you can replace their contents but you cannot replace your life. However, I also support women taking the kind of self-defense classes where you learn how to get out of wrist-grabs, choke-holds, etc (and for more advanced people, how to disarm guns/block knives — for me, I got my knowledge from Krav Maga).* I don't know how many TV shows/movies I've watched where I've screamed “TWIST THE OTHER WAAAAAY.” Knowing this also helps you during unwanted advances in bars/clubs/etc. One last note: I've a friend with pepper spray that contains black light spray paint or something like that — I guess to help identify whodunnit — which I think is awesome.

    *Note: Being from the South, I also advocate women knowing how to handle a gun and shoot one if necessary.

  • Nomie

    Thank you for this post – I've bookmarked it since I'm working on moving from my (small and sleepy) hometown to Boston and could definitely use the tips!

  • The Slapdash Sewist

    I was going to recommend The Gift of Fear but I have been beaten to it! It is an excellent book. I should probably re-read it. I am small. I feel like that's enough of a handicap, and I do everything I can to counteract it. Agreed with NEVER walk with headphones. Also, have your keys in your hand as you approach your front door, and scan the area to make sure nobody will pop out at you. One of my friends was mugged while fumbling for keys on her front porch.

  • rlc

    more pepper spray questions — if i live in maryland or virginia but spend lots of time in dc, do i still need to register? is it just being able to carry pepper spray in dc that makes me have to register? what's the fine for not being registered?

  • Courtney

    Great post Belle! Other suggestions are wear shoes you can run in if you have too. High heels will turn you into the equivalent of a wounded gazelle. Also someone told me if someone suspicious comes near you act “wet cat crazy”, meaning go ballistic and crazy if some one tries to get near you. Forget appearances. If you've ever tried to give a cat a bath you get the idea. I always keep my keys in my pocket (if I have one) so if my purse gets stolen at least I can get home.

  • gingerr

    I was on a train where a group of kids swiped a girl's Kindle. She was standing near the door and they grabbed it at a stop then jumped out the door. Idiots they ran on to the elevator, which took a few moments to close, and the girl – who was pretty plucky- ran into the elevator and grabbed it back. They were all Black. If the gal had been white I'm sure she, like me, would never have attempted such a bold move.

    It was odd because I'd noticed those kids. They swept onto the train, talking quietly to themselves, moving up and down the car. Then they fell slient, most likely because they'd spied th girl.

    It's always a good idea to keep an eye on the surroundings. If they know you see them they'll move onto someone who is blind to what's going on.

  • R

    Belle I don't know if you're still checking this, but what do you think about giving money to homeless people? I never do, because opening my wallet in front of a strange man on the street seems like just asking to get mugged. But on the other hand, I feel pretty horrible and selfish saying no, especially when the person is clearly in bad shape. Thoughts? This could be the subject of a Friday discussion post in itself.

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