Beneath the Radar
An Interview with Ed Lovette
Interview by Gila Hayes
Network members commit a fair amount of time and money to training to defend against violent crime. Generally, their trainers advise them to do all in their power not to go to guns unless absolutely necessary, but often that’s said in passing without much actual instruction about how. It goes without saying that slipping beneath the predatory criminal’s radar is best, yet it is assumed that folks just naturally know how to fade into the background. Not so!
Years ago, I met Ed Lovette at an event hosted by SIG Academy in NH and was impressed by his common-sense instruction. Lovette is a retired CIA paramilitary operations officer, who also served as a captain in the U.S. Army Special Forces and worked for a decade in domestic law enforcement. [Photo: Right–Now retired, Ed Lovette enjoys hunting and other quieter pursuits than in his military and CIA careers. He now volunteers to keep schools safe and is working on the third update of his book on the snubby revolver.]
How, I wondered, had Lovette adapted the safety skills he used in hostile foreign countries, to the daily practice of safety in private life? Fortunately, Lovette very generously answered my questions and contributed a number of additional ideas about running beneath the radar. Our conversation follows.
eJournal: Thank you for helping with my questions on staying below the notice of criminals. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Lovette: Although I am retired, my experience started out in the military. I had the great good fortune to serve in Special Forces. They take operational security very seriously as you can imagine. As an example, we were preparing for a deployment and during the pre-deployment briefing we were strongly advised (ordered) to maintain a low profile in the country we were being sent to. Shortly after our arrival one of my teammates decided to ignore this directive and in very short order he found himself on an airplane back to group headquarters.
In my Agency experience, we wanted to avoid anything! For us to get into a confrontation, especially an oral confrontation, was a disaster on several levels and not just to us personally. If we were no longer the invisible person out there trying to make the mission happen, we couldn’t gather the information or complete the particular assignment. We could blow a mission with national security interests for our government. We had to be awful good at staying out of trouble.
When I got out, I was asked to give some classes and it dawned on me that I had never taught private citizens. I did a whole bunch of research on these particular issues, so I’ve looked at all the different sorts of situations that you can get into. I think that is where your interest and mine overlap.
eJournal: I agree. Is blending in a lifestyle or as you retired and returned to private life, did you apply that career skill only situationally?
Lovette: It is a lifestyle. It would be like me asking, “Why didn’t you carry a gun today?” And you answering, “Well, I didn’t think there would be a problem.” That doesn’t work, and this is the same. You have to commit.
The minute you leave the house, you need to start paying attention. You can self-check yourself on that and pretty soon, you do it automatically. That is what I mean when I talk about “turning on” and “turning off.” Col. Jeff Cooper used to talk about instantly going into Condition Yellow when you put on your gun. Because you may not be able to carry a weapon under some circumstances, I’ve added that when you leave the house and lock your door to go to work, you need to “turn on.” You can’t let disruptions interfere–whether that is a fight with your wife or trouble with the kids or anything else that happens. You have to cut that off and turn on your awareness to see what’s going on around you.
eJournal: Are we sufficiently fortressed inside our homes that we can “turn off” the awareness inside the home?
Lovette: The importance of the home is that it lets you decompress. I realized when I came back from an overseas assignment that it would literally take me several days to decompress. I could feel it mentally and in my body. The importance of the home or the hotel room is that it gives you that chance to shut off, to decompress. You simply can’t run with this sort of energy and effort for 24/7. You get sloppy and you start making mistakes, just like anything else when you get tired.
eJournal: Well, that’s a reality check. We’re taught to be continually aware, to have your head on a swivel to scan and not miss cues. We fail to talk about the energy needed to maintain that. We fail to talk about recharging in a safe place so that when we go back out, we’re sharp again. I have never heard anyone address the necessity of down time.
Lovette: You mentioned how people are taught the “head on a swivel” for awareness and I have to say, I think it is very bad advice. I don’t know why people are teaching it. Instead, if you’re walking down the street and you want to see what is going on behind you, the simplest thing to do is, number one, just stop and look in a shop window like you were looking at the merchandise; use that window’s reflection. You can do the same thing with the window glass when you are getting in your car. Use your car windows to see if anyone is getting too close behind you.
The second thing is to actually go into the store and go in deep enough that you’re not going to be quickly noticed, then turn and look through the glass behind you. If there is somebody up to something, they may stop and scratch their head or mutter to themselves, or finally, they may come in the store.
eJournal: That’s a nice tactic that also gauges how dedicated they are to reaching you.
Lovette: That’s a fact. If you’re sitting in a shopping mall for example and there is a loud noise–if there is a reason that you can turn around, that’s fine, but otherwise, I’m not comfortable with obvious scanning.
They even teach turning to look in all directions on ranges–you shoot and then you look behind you. If I am in that situation, I would much rather get my back up against something. Is there something I can get against really quick? A wall? A refrigerator? I don’t care what it is, if I can get my back up against it, that takes part of the approach opportunities away from other people.
eJournal: Something that’s related is the great body of conflicting advice given about making eye contact. This ranges from looking strangers in the eye so they know you identified them to the opposite idea that eye contact will challenge them to fight. Can eye contact be too aggressive and be mistaken as a challenge?
Lovette: I think it can, and if you’re armed and depending on all the other factors, you may want to do that because it may be what it takes to shut this person down. But there is another way if the last thing you want is a confrontation. The best way I can describe it is like a glance. You look at them just long enough to let them know that you see them and then you look at something else. A lot of the time, if you take that element of surprise away from them, it just is not going to be fun anymore because they’ve been spotted.
That is pretty easy to practice. Some people call it a soft focus. The best way I know to describe the glance is like using a flashlight—you don’t shine it in their eyes, you just swipe the light across their face. That glance is like that. It is “on” for a couple of seconds and then it moves on to something else. It is long enough for them to know that they have been seen but not long enough challenge them.
eJournal: Criminals need victims and we’d rather not be chosen. What characteristics do you think affect victim selection?
Lovette: The determining factors I’m seeing seem to be race, sex or age. Those are the things I think make somebody vulnerable to an attack.
eJournal: That’s ironic since it doesn’t work for us to evaluate threats based on age, gender or race. How do we gauge how big a threat a stranger might be?
Lovette: I tell people not to look at the person by their race, age or sex. Instead look at the person’s actions and look at their interests. If they seem unnaturally interested in something that causes you to wonder what in the heck are they doing, that is all you need to see right there. Someone needs to follow up on what that person is doing. That is not profiling! You are just acting on what you are seeing and what the person is doing. You don’t care about their nationality.
eJournal: Perfect! Reporting the action eliminates worry that authorities suspect we’re racists calling about someone of another race walking through the neighborhood. You’ve taught us to describe actions that suggest preparation to commit a crime.
Lovette: Say, “Here is what they were doing; here is where they were.” You are looking for something that is out of place; you are looking for actions that are out of place. That is the guideline.
You see teachers standing outside the school waiting for students on school buses to either come in or load up and leave. The teachers need to watch for someone standing around the bus loading and unloading area who is unnaturally interested. We have found over time that in a lot of these cases, the person the teacher reported was a sexual predator looking for vulnerable children. Without somebody telling the teacher what to look for, that teacher might not have noticed. Now, having been told what to watch for, teachers can attribute some sort of meaning to what they saw and report it.
eJournal: So, applying this to the average citizen’s daily life, let’s say one of us comes out of the Post Office and walks to the car. Applying the standard of “what does not belong,” what might we detect early enough to avoid getting caught by a predator?
Lovette: Back in my daily life at the Agency, we knew that if something was going to happen to you, it would happen near your home or the office because they had been watching you. That’s not quite what you asked about, but it sets up my answer.
I don’t know where you live, I don’t know what the neighborhood is like, but without knowing anything about that, I bet you a nickel that when you get in your car and you drive to where you turn on to a major road, you know everything that is supposed to be on the street you just drove down. What will stand out is what shouldn’t be there. That is what you are looking for! You might ask, “Why is that car parked there? There are two guys sitting in it. Are they waiting for someone to come out to go to work or is there something wrong?”
Once you turn off a busy road where a lot of activity makes it difficult to tell if something is going on and you turn in to your neighborhood to go to your place, it gets pretty easy to tell if there’s somebody watching. That is the difference. Those are what we call chokepoints. That’s where you begin to see what’s out of place.
You are looking for what’s unusual. In your example, you come out of the Post Office¬–this has happened to me. I start walking toward my truck and about two lanes over I see this guy who looks like a scarecrow. Well, sure enough, he comes toward me just like he was on a string. I have enough time to see him coming and I’m able to set myself up so that if anything is going to happen, at my advanced age, I will be able to do what I need to do. I can’t turn my back to get into my truck until he goes away. Of course, he wants money and so I talk him out of it.
It is going to be the same if you see something unusual. In this example, normally if someone goes to the Post Office they are going to get out of their car and go do something. They aren’t just going to stand there, right? That would be an indicator. You’d ask, “Is that person waiting on somebody?” Then you would have to run down your check list and look around and see what else is going on.
Once you get to a certain age, you know subconsciously what is normal; it doesn’t grab your attention. What grabs your attention should make you ask, “What am I looking at? What am I seeing?” That is all you need to do. Don’t make any more of it than that. Avoid paralysis by analysis. You don’t need to see where something goes or what happens later.
eJournal: Another facet of that paralysis plagues folks who find it hard to trust their instinctive “Something’s not normal” warning. We get mired down in concerns that “it’s nothing” and we fear looking foolish, especially if we wonder if we should report it to 9-1-1, just leave the area, or stay extra alert and go about our business. Have you any advice on how to determine the severity of a “That’s not normal!” observation?
Lovette: While some of this is dependent on your “gut check,” ordinarily, you’re not going to see something extreme right away. Most of the time, you’re just seeing something that’s out of place. Obviously, you’d know to call if you saw somebody being assaulted in a parking lot.
This may not apply exactly, but if we saw something around our home, or office, or on the way to work that we thought was unusual, we would write it down in a database–the date, time, our names and a description of what we saw. Everybody in that office could access that database. Over time, if there was something there, we would start to get a pattern, and then we would say, “See? I wasn’t imagining this after all. There is something going on here.”
I have been working with my local school district to put this kind of system together. Right now, we’ve been putting first aid kits in the classrooms, but the guy I’ve been working with knows where I’ve been and yesterday, as he and I were getting ready to leave the school, he said to me, “You know, one of the teachers was telling me that there is a car that parks over here every day and the people just sit in it. I don’t think she’s reported it to anybody.”
You would think around kids that reporting it would be a no brainer so we are going to get a reporting system in place. That is an example of what you are talking about and it still is a problem. Sometimes the police contribute to it if they won’t respond or they make you feel kind of silly for bothering them.
eJournal: No one wants to be the little boy who cried “Wolf!” People second guess their intuition and are embarrassed to have reported a problem where there was none.
Lovette: Exactly. A book I recommend is Gavin deBecker’s The Gift of Fear. In it he said women are way more sensitive to the intuitive part of this than men. I have found that to be true. I tell people if you are out with a wife, sister, whatever, and she says, “I think we have a [safety] problem,” get the hell out of there. If you are in a restaurant, for example, get up, pay the bill, do whatever you have to do to leave. You may never find out what it was but don’t waste the only heads-up you may get that something’s not right. The bottom line? If you see something, and you stay out of trouble at that moment, maybe that is the best you can do. You saw it and you didn’t walk into it.
eJournal: We’ve talked about keying on unusual behavior in others. What about our own behavior? When we were planning this interview, you commented about the vulnerability created by using smart phones in public. Let’s talk about that and to start that topic, let me ask, what does catch the eye of the predator?
Lovette: Clint Smith has a pretty good description. He says, “If you look like food, you will be eaten.” Walk with a purpose and look like you are paying attention to what is going on around you. Go to the mall or other public place and look at people and you will see it and the exact opposite, too. A real concern of mine is for young mothers. Take a young mom with a small child or several. She is absolutely clueless to what is going on around her because all of her attention is focused on these little kids. That is the exact opposite.
A buddy of mine said it best. You need to be “Walking tall while feeling small.” You need to look like you know what you’re doing; you’ve got a purpose; you are paying attention. The way you walk shows that you are in shape. They don’t want to mess with that. They’ll look for somebody easier– the young mom, the old lady using the walker, the old guy with the cane.
eJournal: Those examples make me wonder, how much of the “walking tall” projection can we fake? We are all one twist of fate away from being the disabled person using a walker.
Lovette: That’s situational and yet it seems to me that walking tall works more often than not. They do not want to mess with anybody that is not easy. They will tend to go for somebody that looks a little easier. The problem you may have is doing all that but being in a location where there is just nobody else around. Everybody else has gone into the store. That dynamic may change this. Then, he and his cohorts will stand out, as well.
eJournal: Yes, what about multiple assailants?
Lovette: If you recognize that there are more of them, you’re in big trouble. It is that much harder for you to do anything about it if there is no one else out and about who is paying attention. It is especially bad if you’re not armed. There is only so much you can do.
There are a couple of ways to prevent that. When you pull up to where you are going, before you unlock the car and get out, look around. When you come out of somewhere and you are going to walk across the parking lot, especially in the evening, before you leave the comfort of the store, just take a look around for anything that is unusual.
If you can see where your car is parked and there is a van parked next to it that wasn’t there when you parked, I’d be thinking, “I don’t like this, not even a little bit.” Now more than one thing is bad; it is a series of things. If that van’s sliding door is next to your driver’s side, all they have to do is slide it open to snatch you. There’s probably nothing that makes me more uncomfortable.
Location is a factor. Where I live, I don’t hear about street crime happening like I did when I was working in big cities. Some of what we talk about is going to be more or less applicable based on where you live.
eJournal: My next question is about the opposite of being targeted where you are alone. Are there skills from your overseas experience to help ordinary citizens move more safely through crowded areas where we’re packed in shoulder to shoulder with crowds of strangers? Those situations make me very uneasy because it’s hard to see if one shows an unusual amount of interest in you or is closing the distance. How do you operate in dense crowds?
Lovette: I have faced this in big cities, mostly when we were overseas. In addition, the problem with being in the middle of the crowd is what happens if something spooks them. If you fall down, they are just going to run over you. I started getting comfortable with being either on the store-side or the street-side of the crowd. That way if anything happened, I could either step into the street between two parked cars or I could step into a store front. I was not in the middle of the crowd.
Crowds really become a problem if you are on the third floor when a fire starts and you have to go down the stairs. The very best I could ever come up with is to get to the edge of the herd, keep your back to the wall and maybe hang on to a rail and then at least you have to take care of only one side of yourself.
eJournal: We’ve covered a lot of behavioral issues–both in what we do and what we watch for in others. You said that criminals profile for race, age and gender. I would like to ask if in today’s social environment clothing and appearance is less of an issue than it used to be?
Lovette: It used to be you always considered clothing. I’ll throw out some examples. Let’s say you live in a decent neighborhood and when you get up in the morning, you have got to wear a dress and heels and your husband has to put on a tie. Then there’s somebody who lives down the block who works at a tire place and they have to wear their tire uniform or somebody else works at a fast food place and they have to wear their fast food uniform. So, the question is: does clothing set people off any more? I do not think so; I think we are used to seeing people wearing different things.
I think what will set them off is being the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood. For example, it would be foolish for me to try to do something, whatever it might be, in a black neighborhood, an Indian reservation, Chinatown, or Minneapolis/St. Paul’s Somali neighborhoods. That will get you into trouble, but I don’t know that anyone pays attention anymore to what you wear.
One thing I’d like to add before we move off the subject of clothing: when we talk about clothing, for some reason, we all tend to forget shoes. My bottom line is no matter how you dress, you should wear shoes that you can either run or fight in. That’s why women may sometimes wear their high heels only at the office. They may not look as fashionable as they’d like on the way to work, but they change shoes when they get to work. People walk by here all the time in flip flops and that sort of thing and I don’t think it is a good idea.
eJournal: What about the things we carry–brief cases, purses, backpacks, courier bags? When you have to carry a laptop or other gear, how do you prefer to carry it?
Lovette: The first thing I want to ask is do you have to carry any of it? I will give you an example. When we were overseas, I found passport cases that you could wear around your neck. I got some for the ladies in my family and when they weren’t traveling, they put some money in it and they did not carry a purse. On the flip side, when I had to go in to work every day, some days I had paperwork that I had to carry plus we had to carry handheld radios so that we stayed in contact, so I used a shoulder bag.
You have to do a personal evaluation and ask, do I really need to carry this, and if the answer is yes, as much as I don’t like purses, I would almost always favor a purse or shoulder bag over a briefcase. The reason I don’t like briefcases is that they tie up your hands.
eJournal: Some of us who have to take work home on laptop computers went to backpacks for the hands-free result, but the back pack is not without its own set of issues.
Lovette: With the laptop you can get some shoulder bags that aren’t terrible. If you’ve got to carry something like that I would really like for you to have your hands free. I’m not going to tell anybody not to use a backpack, but I have an issue with them. This started when I was still working for a living and it has continued now that I am involved in how to counter an active shooter.
In a lot of the terrorist incidents overseas, they carried backpacks because it was the easiest place to put their explosives if they weren’t wearing a suicide vest or belt. We are seeing the same thing with active shooters because that’s where they put their guns and their magazines. That doesn’t mean that everyone that wears a backpack is a suspect, I just don’t want to have that image. Doesn’t your backpack cause you problems if you have to go to the Post Office or the bank? I don’t know the answer to that.
I am in a school every couple of weeks and every kid in there has a back pack. Some schools are forbidding them or they have to be clear or mesh. We are in transition. Keep an eye on the issues of backpacks. It may become more of a problem in some circumstances.
eJournal: Well, if our goal is to just go about our business unnoticed, we need to understand what draws attention so I’m glad you mentioned it. Do you have any educational resources that would help me and our readers pursue further studies on threat detection?
Lovette: I have a list you and your readers might like. In the book Defensive Living that I wrote with Dave Spaulding, the first four chapters spell out what you need to know, what you need to look for and how to get up to speed looking for it. Bill Langlois’ Living in the Age of Fear is another good book because Bill writes so anybody can understand. He doesn’t try to get technical.
Another book is Ayoob’s most recent book, Straight Talk on Armed Defense. Get it for Craig Douglas’ chapter. Up until sometime last year, Craig Douglas had a DVD, Principles of Unarmed Combat; the real good stuff was in about the first half hour. Not only does he talk about all the street skills but he shows you what to do about common issues. If somebody’s starting to approach that you don’t want to get close, how do you deal with that? One is circling, where you’ll have a guy in front of you trying to distract you while another one is trying to slip around behind. Those kinds of things. It is just excellent. He is the best, in my opinion. The chapter he does in Straight Talk covers it, but to be able to see it on the DVD, that makes all the difference and it speaks right to the heart of what you and I are talking about.
Do you know Chris Bird? The seventh edition of his book The Concealed Handgun Manual covers this. John Benner and I taught this information in his Active Shooter Response for the Private Citizen that Chris attended. The first chapter in the seventh edition of his book is all about situational awareness, and in that class John Benner and I took it a step further when we talked about criminal surveillance and terrorist surveillance.
eJournal: My copy of Defensive Living is copyrighted in 2005, so I am compelled to ask how much of what we need to know about avoiding danger consists of timeless principle and conversely, are there details that change with the times?
Lovette: That is a good question. In what Dave and I wrote, quite frankly we used a lot from others like Colonel Cooper, and that, I think, is timeless. I tried to wrap my head around it and I don’t know how well I did. When you look at actual crimes, be that a purse snatching or a sexual assault, I have a feeling that has changed. I’ll give you an example.
I live in a small, growing community where we have a lot of black-on-black crime. It also seems to me a real high percentage of these crimes is connected to narcotics. That’s a change, so yes, when you see the crimes that happen, the dynamics have changed. I am not going to say that we don’t have the car jackings and purse snatching crimes, but where I live, that is not the big thing. I think in a bigger town you may see more of that.
eJournal: If there’s one key lesson about safety we should learn, what do you think that is?
Lovette: I want to go back to one of our very first words, because it is one that I like: “Blending.” I think that is really, really key. If you wonder how to dress, dress to blend in with everybody else. You want to drive a car that looks as much like everyone else’s. You can actually find studies of what are the most popular cars and car colors. There are things you can do that will help you become less visible.
eJournal: What are other things that identify us that we should avoid making public? Perhaps we could talk a little about removing “target identifiers” – and I think this goes deeper than throwing out the “Don’t honk, I’m reloading” bumper sticker your brother-in-law thought was funny.
Lovette: I don’t know why people put those out there. I live in a town with two Marine bases, so you see all the time “I’m a Marine” or “Retired Marine” and I’m not so concerned about that as I am about the person who has the H&K sticker in the back window of his pickup.
I say that because one of the reasons for blending is to strengthen the element of surprise. If you look like you are just trying to get through the day but you have your shootin’ iron, your knife, your OC and whatever else you can carry without falling down, and they try something that you simply cannot get away from and you surprise them, wham, suddenly that puts the fight in your favor. They are mentally prepared to do whatever and damn it, you just aren’t playing along.
eJournal: Yes, becoming less visible is the ideal. I have become fascinated with the gray man idea and am not finding much of use to teach me how to do it.
Lovette: Well, it is a matter of dedication and commitment. Blending is a lifestyle. Once people get into it, it really is not that hard to do. Well, like I say, that’s how for the last part of my working life we had to live. I really saw the value of it. It sounded a lot better than getting shot at.
eJournal: We also should not forget that, as you noted when we started talking, your ability to blend in had even larger implications than your survival—you also affected national security issues, safety of other agents and a lot more. The reason you became expert at these skills had much larger implications than being robbed or suffering a beating. While most Network members will not carry those responsibilities, their safety still is important to a lot of people. Thank you for great instruction about these security issues.
Readers will likely already be familiar with our interview resource through Ed Lovette’s work as a magazine columnist, as well as author of the popular book The Snubby Revolver, which he tells us is in the final stages of revision for a third edition. He is also co-author of Defensive Living with Dave Spaulding. Both books are highly recommended.
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