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Neighborhood Incident         by Lyn Bates

Here's an email I received from a friend I'll call Harry who lives on a dead end street in a peaceful suburban neighborhood.

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Dear Lyn,

I'm interested in your thoughts as to how I should have handled a situation that occurred today.

An older woman who lives across the street called me to say that a "kid" she had never seen was slowly walking around the neighborhood, closely examining the homes.  (To her, anyone under 40 is a kid.)  There had been a series of burglaries in our area recently, and she was concerned because she had been burglarized in the past.  She asked me to check this out.

The person was in sight when she called, so I got a good description and a location.

I grabbed my coat and Agatha’s leash, figuring I could take her for a walk and check this person out. (Agatha is a lively 85 pound Labrador-and-something mix, friendly but capable of looking quite intimidating.)  I didn't take time to put on my soft body armor, but I did put my .45 in my coat pocket, cocked and locked.

Agatha and I walked along behind this person, who eventually went into one of the homes in the neighborhood.  I reported back to the lady across the street.  As it turned out, this “suspicious person” was visiting a neighbor, and just decided to take a walk.

I've been playing this over in my mind, wondering "what if".  I had no reason to expect violence.  I certainly had no intention of confronting this person.  I expected that it was just someone taking a walk.  In the worst case, I expected a burglar casing the neighborhood.  Whatever he was, I was just a guy walking his dog.

If this person turned out to be some sort of drug-crazed lunatic, I had Agatha, a persuader, and OC spray.  If those failed, I had the 1911 loaded with 230 grain CorBon .45 caliber hollowpoints and 2 spare clips.  I felt adequately prepared for the situation.

On the other hand, I wasn't 100% satisfied.  I hadn't had time to put on a holster, and I had never practiced drawing from this coat pocket. (This particular problem will go away once I get my fanny pack back.)  I didn't take the time to put on armor.  I didn't think the situation warranted it, although one can always think up possibilities where armor would be a good idea.

If the situation had escalated to where I had to use lethal force, I would probably be sued by this person's estate.  They could say that I grabbed my gun and went looking for trouble.  I'm not sure how to answer this concern.  When the lady across the street asked for help, I wasn't about to turn her down.  I could have told her to call the cops, but I hate the idea of the police descending on someone who is just out taking a walk.

I guess I was gambling on the person being innocent.  If he turned out not to be, I was gambling on my being able to stay out of any confrontation.  I'd just go home and call 911.  If I couldn't avoid a confrontation, I was hoping to be able to handle it without resorting to lethal force.  Between the dog, the Persuader, and the OC, I felt pretty well prepared with non-lethal alternatives.

The gun was there as a last resort.  I did not expect to need it. If I had needed the gun, I might have had a tough time explaining why I didn't just tell my neighbor to call the cops.  As I said, they might say I grabbed my gun and went looking for trouble.

These are all judgment calls.  What do you think of my reasoning?  Overall I guess I think I mostly did the right things.  I was out of the house in less than a minute.  I checked out the situation and reassured my neighbor.  I didn't bother anybody.  Everything I did was legal. 

What do you think?

Harry 

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Harry, I think you handled the situation very well!  There are a few of your decisions that you seem to have second thoughts about, so let's look at those in detail.

 1. Call the police or not?  I'd say that neither choice would have been wrong.  This is one of those gray areas.  We teach "call the police, they'd rather come to find no problem than come later after there was a big problem."  Nonetheless, most good citizens like you don't want to bother them unnecessarily with situations that turn out to be nothing at all.  In this case, you knew that your neighbor may have been overreacting and that the chances were very high that the person she saw was completely innocent.  On the other side, you knew that there had been burglaries in that area recently, so there was a greater-than-usual chance that someone really was casing the neighborhood.

If the suspect had been seen going into a house or garage, or going very near to a house (the better to see in the windows), then the balance would swing strongly toward calling the police.  But, given that he was only walking slowly on the street, that is barely suspicious behavior, so making a personal check before deciding whether to call for help was quite reasonable.

One intermediate alternative might have been to tell your neighbor across the street to watch you walking Agatha, and to call the cops if she saw you or the suspect do anything unexpected.  Or, if you had a cell phone, you could have added it to the other protective devices you took with you out of the house; properly set up, it would take just one button push to call your local police station if the situation suddenly warranted it.

2. Body armor or not?  Again, good arguments could be made both ways, and I don't think either can be said to be wrong.  It does take some time to get into body armor, and he very well may have disappeared before you could get out of the house wearing it; I don't blame you for not taking that time. 

 The expected outcome of the situation was that the suspect was innocent, the next most likely outcome was that he was casing the neighborhood, in which case he would certainly prefer to leave when spotted rather than cause a confrontation.  If he had been doing something more likely to be criminal, then taking the time to put body armor on would be more justified.  

Body armor doesn’t have to be worn under clothing; it can be hastily donned on top of your clothes and under your coat.  But that’s hard to remember under stress.

Remember that police wear body armor because they are very likely to be shot at by criminals who don’t want to be arrested, or who just hate cops.  Even if the suspect were someone armed and intending to break into one of those houses, he would not think of you as someone who was there to arrest him, but simply as a potential witness, so his safest course of action would be to leave without further calling attention to himself.  Since he would have so little reason to attack you, your decision not to lost time putting on body armor was reasonable.

 3. Holster or pocket?  Yes, a fannypack is the best solution here.  An in-the-pants clip-on holster, or a paddle holster, that can be put on without taking off your belt and putting it back on would be another quick alternative to the pocket.  But, given the choices available to you at the time, and remembering the time pressure that you were under to get outside before he disappeared, a pocket large enough to hold the gun easily was reasonable. A pocket is definitely better than jamming the gun unholstered into your waistband, where it might shift position or fall out if you have to run.

Now that you have experienced a motivating attack of “what-ifs”, you might want to spend some time practicing draws from the pockets of the coats you normally wear.  Or, as I showed in a previous article in W&G, you can shoot right through the coat pocket if necessary (though you can count on only one shot from a semi-auto because it will not cycle properly).

 4. Looking for trouble?  This is one of those charges that we all worry about, and are to some extent all vulnerable to.  There's no way of knowing whether that charge would be made or not; you can only ask yourself how you would defend against it if it were made.  

The fact that you have had quite a bit of training would be in your favor - you could prove that you were doing just what most other guys in your situation would do (check out a probably harmless situation because a neighbor asked you to), and you could prove that you were taking lots of steps that show your caution rather than aggressive intent (taking Agatha along, taking OC).  Besides, you'd have people like me to testify that you aren't the "looking for trouble" type.

If things had gotten to the point where you had to shoot, I suspect that the outcome of the subsequent legal proceedings would not turn on whether you should have called the cops at the beginning of the situation (it is quite clear that there wasn't a strong case to be made for that), but rather on how you handled yourself between the time when you set out to walk the dog and the time when you had to shoot.  If, during that period, you could have avoided the confrontation, or de-escalated in some way, then a case might be made against you.  But given the training that you have had and the self-education you have put yourself through, you probably would have done things right to avoid trouble.

 Other things to remember:

1. You weren't alone.  Agatha would probably look VERY intimidating to someone with criminal intent, so even if he were inclined to attack you, Agatha 's presence would likely have changed his mind.  And if he had attacked Agatha (to clear the way to attack you), you would have had plenty of time to react.

2. While it is good to think of what you might have done instead, don't make yourself crazy about it.  For example, for every scenario you come up with in which you should have put on body armor, I'll come up with one in which, if you had taken the time to do that, this guy would have disappeared from sight, broken into one of the houses, and murdered everyone there before he could be stopped.  Even the wisdom of hindsight doesn't always result in the knowledge that one particular course of action would have been the only right one.

3. You did good.  

I’m satisfied enough with your actions that the next time I see a stranger walking slowly around my neighborhood, I'm willing to give you a call and let you take care of it!

 


 This article appeared in Women&Guns magazine April, 1996,  Copyright 1996, Lyn Bates