An Interview with Claude WernerWerner C

Rarely does life-threatening danger just come “out of the blue.” More often, simple problems escalate into dangers. Approaches by panhandlers and other unknown people may or may not herald violence, so the benefits of observing possible threats and staying out of range cannot be overstated.

With over half a million people considered homeless today, most Network members have had the experience of being surprised by a panhandler and wondered afterwards how they got that close without being noticed and what to do if the stranger had been physically aggressive or violent. A few months ago, the Tactical Professor, Claude Werner, blogged about a benign encounter of this nature and the lessons learned ( His comments were a good tune-up and I was very pleased when he agreed to answer additional questions about being aware and avoiding panhandlers and other loiterers. We switch now to our Q&A format so readers can enjoy this chat with Claude, too.
(Photo, right, by Tamara Keel.)

eJournal: I regularly read your Tactical Professor blog because it so often addresses personal safety issues for ordinary people. I was reminded again of how well you teach awareness when you recently blogged about stopping a panhandler from entering your personal space. Through specific situations, you teach your readers about alertness, a topic the review of which will benefit everyone. May we start by defining our nomenclature? Is situational awareness a concept that’s no longer valid?

Werner: Our industry for some reason doesn’t like the term, but situational awareness is a broad term that is used in the aviation industry, in the maritime industry, in firefighting and even in surgical procedures. When we have this broad consensus that situational awareness is a perfectly acceptable term, there’s no reason we shouldn’t use it.

eJournal: Some have decried the idea that we “manually” change our level of alert based on the situation. What say you?

Werner: Think of a jet aircraft. During take off, they call the cockpit a quiet zone. In other words, anything that is not essential to operating the aircraft is simply not done. Comair flight number 5191 crashed in KY about 12 years ago after they turned on to the wrong runway. It was too short and they crashed. One of the reasons the FAA cited for the crash was because the crew was talking about things that didn’t relate to flying; it is on tape. 49 of 50 people on board flight 5191 were killed; the copilot was the only one who was not killed.

There is not supposed to be any casual conversation in the cockpit during take off. When a plane is taking off or it is landing, the crew is very alert and very focused on its tasks. When they get to altitude, they put on the autopilot and they drink coffee and relax and do things that don’t require a high level of attention. That is a very clear example of how it is perfectly common to ramp up and scale down our attention based on the level of detail required.

In his Sunday night lecture at the elite Rogers Shooting School, Bill Rogers cites something we have all done. We are driving along and not quite paying attention to what we are doing, but because we are experienced drivers, we are paying enough attention to be reasonably safe. Then a little bit of rain hits the windshield or we see brake lights starting to appear ahead. At that point, we say, “Well, maybe I need to tune up my game a little bit here, turn on the windshield wipers and pay a little more attention to what I am doing.” It is the same concept. Something has triggered us to make us realize, “Well, maybe I need to keep my awareness up.”

eJournal: Can we apply those examples to avoiding violent crime? In daily life, what are we scanning for?

Werner: There is a military concept called Areas of Interest versus Areas of Influence that is part of the process of Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace. An area of influence is the area around you that you can directly act on with your organic resources. We as private citizens have our own areas of influence. How far away can we be heard or how far can we shoot or deploy other weapons, if we need to? For instance, a pistol has a longer range than a can of pepper spray. That is our area of influence.

On the other hand, we have an area of interest that extends as far as we can see but it isn’t just what we can see. When I drive to the store, before parking I drive around the parking lot; I do not go to the closest open spot nearest the door. I’m looking around, asking, “OK, what is going on?”

When we have our focus outward, we may see something in our area of interest. The criminal’s area of influence is generally very similar to our own, so if he is in our area of interest but not in our area of influence, the same probably applies in reverse. To the extent that we stay out of his area of influence, we have a relative degree of safety.

eJournal: Self-defense firearms training sometimes includes having the students perform a visual scan. It is common to see heads whip around so quickly that how much information is actually being taken in is questionable. How do we avoid that bad habit?

Werner: In most cases, people are just going through the motions. One solution is the game that smart cops used to play, where, for instance, they would go into a doctor’s office, walk in, sign in, make their appointment, sit down and immediately close their eyes and describe in their head every single person in the room.

eJournal: A version of Kim’s game?

Werner: Yes, just for practice because these things are just habits from practice. So when you get in the habit of looking for things, you look for things unconsciously. When you step out of the door of the Publix and you look around, you are not just bobbing your head around. You look and go, “Hey! Who’s that jamoke over there?”

eJournal: You are looking for specifics. Your observation habits are more than a Kim’s game, where we might describe a shopper with cart, a woman with a cane, a man walking with a toddler, a driver in a pickup waiting for parking. Is that more or less general than what you are talking about?

Werner: It is both. There are things that I am looking for in specific. Then there is a more generalized level of alertness that I will go back to that asks, “What does not fit in this picture?” One of these four things does not belong here. What is it? Well, people in parking lots tend to be moving. When somebody is not moving, just hanging around, that is a little unusual. There may be reasons: it is not always nefarious, in fact it probably is not. Someone who is not moving is more likely to be nefarious than somebody pushing a cart full of groceries back to their car.

eJournal: What’s the leading reason people miss what is happening in their area of interest?

Werner: If, because of circumstances, we position ourselves where we can’t be situationally aware, we are setting ourselves up for failure. By good positioning, we’re trying to stack the deck in our favor and with a little bit of luck, we won’t even have the interview. The experience with the panhandler that I wrote about at was an interview. If there had been some way for me to avoid the interview completely, that would have been best solution of all.

Now, I have certain options that other people might not. I have a weapon in hand as soon as I am in a transitional space–the space between the cashier and my car. I always walk around with pepper spray in my hand. With a cone type of pepper spray dispenser, you can just wave it in the air and create a wall of unpleasant chemical people have to walk through to get to you.

Instead of the panhandler coming toward me, let’s say it was two guys who, although not obviously armed, looked pretty bad. If I said, “Hey, stop, don’t come any closer,” but they kept coming, I would create a wall of pepper spray, let them go through it while I back off. In that example, they are at the far end of my area of influence. They might actually be in my area of interest, but then they have to enter the area I’ve now left–formerly my area of influence.

eJournal: You’ve taught eJournal readers in the past about the importance of positioning and I’d like to direct readers to an earlier interview you gave since it plays a big part in observing and avoiding potential dangers. How does that advice dovetail with awareness?

Werner: I think of situational awareness and positioning as the flipsides of a coin. We position ourselves so we can be aware. It is a loop. As a result of our awareness we may move to another position to enhance our safety.

Access is corollary to positioning. In the military sense, we refer to defense condition changing based on the situation. Our physical readiness posture adjusts to accommodate our interpretation of possible attacks. Here’s an example: as a positioning thing, I’m notorious for parking with my driver’s door next to the cart corrals so that no one can pull up next to me. It is an old habit of mine that I’ve had for a long time. Once, I came out of a store and there was a guy standing right at end of the cart corral next to my car. Well, this was just odd! I looked at him, and asked, “Just hanging around?” and he said, “Yes, I’m waiting for somebody.” So I thought, “That’s fine,” because I always have my pepper spray in my hand when I walk out.

I’d already ramped up my ability to deploy, so if he had done something, I would have hosed him with pepper spray right away. He didn’t do anything, so I just opened my door, got in my car, quickly locked the doors, started the car and drove away.

The way I had positioned myself facilitated awareness. In the military there is a concept called points of likely cover. Where can somebody hide? If I was right next to another car, it would be easy for somebody to establish what I call a rise from the ground ambush, where they’re ducked down below a car.

That actually happened to a friend of mine. He always checked around his car before climbing in. Once, he walked around and from 30 feet away saw two guys hiding on the right side, so he called, “Get out of there” and they ran off. In most cases, when criminals realize the jig is up, then they are just going to go look for somebody else.

eJournal: Your friend’s practice of checking around his car raises a question. Is a safety check of that kind something we just do out in public or do we also check in the drive or garage at home before getting in a car?

Werner: No, it is a habit; we do it every time. Awareness is not an isolated concept; rather we make it part of a set of procedures or habits. A very simple example: how many times do you see people talking on their cell phones while they are at the cashier at the grocery store? Let’s say that person pays in cash. Is it possible for them to talk on the phone and watch the cashier count out their change correctly? My guess is, probably not.

After getting their change, they’ll continue talking on their cell phone, get in their car, turn the car on, back out of their parking spot and never miss a word! I’ve seen two low-speed crashes that way, because they couldn’t see and weren’t aware.

Think about this: We are always aware of something. It is simply a question of our focus. Are we externally aware, or are we internally aware–thinking about what is going on inside our head? It is not that we aren’t aware; it is a question of what we are aware of. The conversation we are having? Our worries about what is going on with our children? Can I pay my mortgage? Or does that guy out there look kind of goofy, and do I want to avoid him in the first place?

eJournal: How do you cope with several things simultaneously vying for your attention? What is your strategy while you have to split your attention to deal with the task of paying or getting in the car?

Werner: There are some things you just cannot do and one is splitting your attention. A couple of years ago, a lady was in the parking lot of an upscale Target in a relatively decent neighborhood at about 9:30 in the morning on a nice, clear day. She parked very close to the entrance, and was taking a child out of a car seat when a guy came up and ambushed her.

Witnesses later said he had been scanning the parking lot but at the time, they didn’t know what he was looking for. He saw this woman drive up and choose one of the spots reserved for mothers with babies – that’s a watering hole! When he saw her get out and unbuckle the child from the car seat, which is quite an involved process, he jumped. As I recall, she got the child out, but the guy pushed her down on the ground, got her keys, and off he went!

eJournal: Moms still have to get babies out of car seats, so what’s the answer?

Werner: The problem is one of task fixation. There are logical stopping points in everything that we do, if we think about them. For instance, when I come out of the store, I stop for a minute. In the military, when patrolling, we called it a security halt. When you’re going out on patrol and you leave the wire outside an encampment (I cannot say how it is for urban operations because my time was in the jungle), you got just a little ways out, and then you stopped and you conditioned your eyes and your ears to the sights and the sounds of the battlefield.

Well, that is what I do now when I walk out of the store. I stop just outside the door and I put my sunglasses on. While I am putting my sunglasses on, I am looking around to see, as one of my friends says, “What is wrong in my right world?”

If there is a person standing around close to my vehicle, I might elect to just stand there and do something like clean my sunglasses while I see what is the deal. If this person continues to just stand around then I start to make choices about what I want to do. That stop allows me to say, “What choice do I want to make here?” Do I want to go out to the car but continue to keep an eye on him? Am I going to have my weapon in hand? I will.

If I was a woman, I might go back into the store and say, “Hey, can I get one of the baggers to push my cart out?” I wouldn’t even have to say there’s some sketchy character out there, just say, “I’ve decided it would be nice if I had one of the baggers to push my cart out to my car with me,” or something like that. There is no grocery store that will say no to that customer service request.

How long does it take, first to stop talking on the cell phone, and second of all to actually look around? Ten seconds? If your life is so busy that you can’t spare ten seconds for your own safety, you need to declutter your life or something.

eJournal: I’m interested in the way you selected options from a pre-determined menu of choices once you spot a person who puts you on guard. Please tell us more about setting up this menu of choices.

Werner: A misunderstanding of John Boyd’s concepts is the idea that decisions are made in the moment. That is very rarely true! Unfortunately Boyd’s work has been overshadowed by everyone’s preoccupation with the OODA loop. People who say Boyd’s work is about decision-making have not read his first work, the Aerial Attack Study.

Up until 1959, when Boyd wrote his Aerial Attack Study, many thought flying airplanes in combat was a seat of the pants thing. The brilliance of John Boyd’s work is in showing that using the F-100 Super Sabre and its weapons, 20 mm cannons and Sidewinder missiles, there was a discrete number of possibilities for both attack and defense. There were four possible attack patterns at that time for an F-100 against Russian bombers entering U.S. airspace. Learning what those possibilities were and how your weapons fit in, dictated a fighter pilot’s response to every situation.

Nearly 60 years later, the Aerial Attack Study is still considered the manual of fighter combat. That study says that in the moment, what we have is choices, not decisions. If we’ve thought about things ahead of time, the decisions should already be made. In the moment, we just pick from a menu of options, we make a choice, but we are not deciding.

eJournal: The distinction between decisions and choices seems pretty subtle. What’s the difference?

Werner: Let’s talk about a restaurant menu. A person has already decided whether they are a vegetarian or a carnivore. Some people decide not to eat meat, so when they pick up a menu right off the bat anything that contains meat is off their menu choices. That leaves three or four choices. All they’re doing is saying, that choice looks good, so I’ll have that.

They are not deciding. They are choosing. I think we instructors are not yet effectively communicating that terminology to our students.

eJournal: Can you apply decisions and choices to your example of a guy loitering near your car in the parking lot?

Werner: Applying this to the parking lot example: I already have decided what my choices are–

  • I could just go to my car anyway;
  • I could walk around him;
  • I could go back into the store and ask for some help.

In that moment, I might say, “It is raining right now, and I really do not want to have to deal with him and these groceries. I am going to go back in to the store.” At another time, I might say, “Today is nice and sunny and it’s easy to keep an eye on him, plus I only have one bag of groceries, so I’m just going to go out to the car. If something untoward happens, I have my one word sentence, ‘NO!’ and if it progresses past that, well, then my pepper spray will be a spicy treat for him.”

eJournal: Deciding you will act and creating menus beforehand eliminates the common excuse that people get tired of always having to be focused on avoiding hazards.

Werner: Once again, we are always “on.” It is just a question of what are we focused on. Are we on an internal conversation in our head or on our external environment. The hard part of it is the decision-making, which if we’ve made the decision ahead of time, then we have taken out the hard part and the exhaustion.

eJournal: This sounds parallel to Jeff Cooper’s teachings about the mental trigger: if that person does X, my response is Y. Is the decision that precedes the menu choices along the same lines?

Werner: It is, although Cooper’s codes are poorly understood. Let’s just reiterate that Cooper’s codes really are not about awareness. On YouTube there’s a 25-minute lecture that Cooper himself filmed, and in it he says, the codes are not about awareness, they are about your mental state in preparation to take life.

Those are corollary and that is another set of decisions that should already be made. They do influence what we do. If we see a person just standing around smoking and not doing anything or if it’s two guys who appear to be having an amiable conversation in the parking lot, we are going to be in a little different Cooper state than if we can’t see a person’s hands or if they have something in hand that could be used for a weapon. I need to be ready to give this guy a spicy treat or maybe shoot him or maybe not. Maybe I will just keep an eye on him and make that choice a little later on as things develop.

eJournal: What’s important is that you can react quickly because you’ve thoroughly thought out which situations cause you to start drawing options from which menu.

Werner: I was talking to a friend just this morning about the difference between the fight at three feet and in and the fight at three feet and out. To master the fight at three feet in, you had better be in pretty good physical condition and have some physical skills or you are probably going to lose. That is just the way it is. It requires a lot of training and a lot of ongoing practice. We need to recognize the fact that our area of influence is a lot further than three feet in and we need to have our triggers set a lot further out.

eJournal: Aversion to conflict makes us let situations get out of hand that might have been stopped early by a firm “No!” Sometimes it goes so far that shooting is all that’s left on the menu. Too often, folks don’t recognize that they’ve been targeted before the criminal is too close. What’s the trick to seeing the situation early enough to avert it?

Werner: It is not a trick; it is practice. That is all it is. It is simply practice. People need to practice being rude. Sometimes you have to switch. You were a nice person one second ago. Now, you have to be rude and say no. You don’t have to be mean about it but you do have to be firm and say no.

I didn’t even realize I did this until it was pointed out to me during a brief conversation a while back, but when I’m in the grocery store my choices are, “No, I don’t want that,” or “No, not that steak.” Am I mad at the steak when I say “No, not the steak; I want the pork chop?”

eJournal: [laughing] You are practicing decisiveness in a mundane area of life. You aren’t worried you might choose wrong, you are just making a choice and acting on it without waffling.

Werner: That is a way to practice keeping our emotions under control while we are setting our boundaries. Then when someone asks, “Can you help me, blah, blah, blah?” I have practice saying, “No.” Just no; that’s all. I practice saying no on a regular basis.

We need practice to recognize our boundaries, and I mean that in a very physical way. Put a tape measure on the ground and learn to recognize what somebody looks like at 10 feet, at 12 feet, at three feet and at 25 feet. Or if you want, you can do it by a car length: a car is about 20 feet long. Practice to recognize what a person looks like, physically in size, at that distance and understand that is one of your boundaries.

Specifically, I think a good boundary distance for people to recognize is eight feet because that is the maximum range for most pepper spray. If you are going to get your pepper spray into operation, eight feet is the place to do it, because you either have a stream that actually has a range of eight feet or you have a cone which will create that wall that is about two or three feet wide from about four feet out to about eight feet. So if people recognize physically what those boundaries are, then they know, that is the trigger.

People need to practice distances. It is not a trick, it is just practice and practice establishes correct habits.

eJournal: Your focus is more on proxemics than recognizing ruses criminals use to close the distance. Put another way, anyone within that area of influence has the possibility of turning into a problem.

Werner: Yes! I don’t really care what the person’s deal is; I just don’t like people in my space. I admit it! I just don’t want them there. I will cross into the next row in a parking lot to go around people because I want two cars between me and them, unless a person has a reason to be in my space.

eJournal: Well, that removes concerns about making an inaccurate assessment—either missing the indicators that the person has bad intentions or reacting incorrectly to an innocent person. In your response pattern, it matters not. All we ask is, are they too close?

Werner: I can’t judge someone’s intent anyway. I can look at their appearance and statistically, I can say, well, the chances that some older gentleman in a business suit is going to attack me is much less than a young guy who is not well-dressed. My risk analysis of those two circumstances is different, but I don’t really care one way or another. If I don’t let either into my space then neither can hurt me. The older guy could be a con artist, but let me tell you, if I let some old guy con me out of a hundred bucks, I’d be really unhappy about that!

eJournal: It seems to me we’ve been discussing awareness on two levels–the generalized “what does not fit in this picture?” and then a more informed kind that recognizes harbingers of violence. Are these the same or does the latter call for more study and analysis of criminal behavior?

Werner: Yes, but I don’t expect everyone to understand that, and frankly, I don’t know that it is that important to everyone. For example, a little thing of mine is armored trucks. I don’t go into a store if I see an armored truck outside because armored truck robberies almost always start with gunfire.

We had one close to my old place in Atlanta. Right off the bat, the first thing they did was kill the guard. Well, I don’t want to be around that. When I drive in, if there is an armored truck, I will sit in my car for five minutes and wait for them to go because they are rarely there very long and once they go, then I can go in.

Choosing to walk in the other lane to walk around a person just standing around does not require any specialized level of attention, just understanding basic principles of how close are you and can this person easily get into my space or am I going to put them into my space if I walk past them. I am not going to do that. I am going to go down the next lane and walk around them. By walking down the next lane I am going to avoid it entirely. That is what I want.

eJournal: Thank you for this thought-provoking discussion. You’ve given us a lot of great ideas to practice and I appreciate learning from you.

Claude Werner is a retired Army captain, with 10 years service in special operations. His background combines extensive work in the military, self defense training, and white collar financial services communities. This eclectic experience base gives him a view of self defense equipment and techniques that is more attuned to the needs of people with median lifestyles than some segments of the industry. Enjoy his informative blog at

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