A Crash Course in Surviving Street Crime : Safety: A police officer says ‘you’ve got to be prepared’ if you don’t want to be a victim. His first piece of advice: Be a ‘tough target.’


A violent crime is committed in the United States every 17 seconds.

There is an aggravated assault every 30 seconds.

One in five women in the nation will be raped at some point in her life.

--FBI Uniform Crime Report, August, 1991


The statistics alone are enough to get anyone’s attention. But, says veteran Chicago police officeJ. Bittenbinder, that isn’t enough. And, he says, it isn’t enough for people to rely on the police for protection against predation at home and in the streets.

“You’ve got to play it all alone out there,” says Bittenbinder, a homicide-violent crimes detective with 20 years on the Chicago police force. His solution? “You’ve got to have a plan. You’ve got to be prepared.”

Bittenbinder, who has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Prime Time Live,” has taken his message to public television with “Street Smarts: How to Avoid Being a Victim,” a one-hour crash course on street survival, which includes developing a four-part plan:

* Be a tough target. For example, two people live in identical apartments sharing a common back-porch area. The only difference is that one tenant has purchased a very large water dish with the words “Killer” stenciled on it and placed it outside her back door. “Which one is likely to get broken into?” Bittenbinder asks rhetorically.


And: Three women are walking down a street: “Barbara” has her purse over one shoulder, is carrying a newspaper with that hand and has a raincoat over her other arm. Her purse is bouncing along her hip. “Tess” has her purse slung across her shoulder and chest, with the purse flap on the inside. “Rita” carries her purse the same way, except she wears her coat over it.

You know whose purse the goof is going to take, says Bittenbinder. The only thing better to do, he says, is to carry your wallet and other purse items in a fanny (or waist) pack.

Being a tough target also means being aware of what is going on around you. Bittenbinder points out that predators are always looking to see what’s going on. Victims, on the other hand, tend to look down at their feet while walking. “If you don’t want to be a prey, then look like a predator,” he advises.

When driving or riding in a car, keep your purse on the floor, behind your legs and knees. Putting the purse on the passenger seat (when driving) or on your lap (when a passenger) invites the “smash and grab,” where the thief smashes the window, grabs your purse and runs. If your purse is large and bulky, then put it against the fire wall, under the dashboard of the passenger side of the car.


If another car bumps your car, do not get out and do not roll your window all the way down. Bittenbinder says you are required only to show your driver’s license, not to exchange it with the other person. “Just hold it up against the window,” he suggests. Then, he says, when you get to your destination, call the police and report the accident.

If your car is disabled, Bittenbinder says you should get your sunshade and write: HELP! CALL POLICE! on it, then put it in your back window. Under no circumstances, he says, should you get out of the car: “Someone will see the sign and call for help on a cellular phone or CB radio.”

If a person starts pounding on your car, he says, “start the car, put it in gear and slowly dri-i-i-ve away,” adding that you should go slowly enough for the aggressor to get out of the way.

When you return to your car while out on business or shopping, be sure no one is lingering beside it. If someone is, Bittenbinder says, go back to the store or your office and report ait.


When you go to the bank, Bittenbinder says, go to a counter away from the window to fill out the withdrawal or deposit slip. He warns that criminals often watch through the window and, when they see someone filling out a savings-withdrawal slip, “that’s when the bells go off.” They follow you out to your car, jab an ice pick into a tire and, a few blocks later, when the tire has gone flat, offer to help, then commit the robbery.

* Deny privacy. “Go toward the light. Go where the people are,” says Bittenbinder. Deny the criminal a private place in which to commit the crime. For example, if you’re preparing to get on an elevator and the door opens and you don’t like what you see, “don’t get on.”

If you’re on an elevator by yourself and a shady sort gets on, get off. If someone starts to attack you on an elevator, push all the buttons except the red one that stops the elevator. No matter what, says Bittenbinder, “you do what it takes to keep the emergency stop button out .” Always stand beside the buttons when you’re on the elevator so you have access to them.

Also, the detective warns, stay out of stairwells: “If you want to exercise, go to the gym.”


“Don’t let anyone take you anywhere, " he insists. “Not into a store room, a car, anywhere. Never allow someone to take you away.” If someone is going to rob you, he doesn’t need to take you somewhere else to do it. The only reason to take you to a “secondary crime scene,” as Bittenbinder defines it, is to do you further harm.

If someone grabs you, then grab his or her thumb and break it, he says. If he grabs you by your coat, “no matter what kind of fur it is,” shrug out of it and flee.

If the person has a gun? Break and run, says Bittenbinder: Victims are hit only about 2% of the time.

When riding in a cab, get the driver’s hack license number and let the driver know in a roundabout way that you have it: “Oh, 2712, that used to be my street number.” Or, “Oh, 2717, I think I’ll play that number in the lottery tomorrow.”


Buses? Sit across from the driver, rather than behind the rear exit.

* Attract attention. If someone tries to grab or assault you, make noise. Shout “Help! Help! FIRE!” says Bittenbinder. If you yell “Help! POLICE!” someone in a house might decide it’s not going to affect them, that they don’t want to get involved. “Help! FIRE!” means they should feel themselves at risk and come outside and maybe get involved.

“Always yell,” advises Bittenbinder, because the criminal can’t take the chance that someone might hear and call the police or take action themselves. If you see someone else being attacked--whether you’re in your car or in your house, wherever--yell, “Leave that person alone! I’m calling the police.”

* Take action. The initial contact between criminal and victim is when the criminal has the least level of control, says Bittenbinder. That’s when the target should take action.


For example, if someone is trying to rob you, take out your money (one possibility is to keep a $5 bill and a couple of ones in a money clip), say “This is all I have,” show the money, throw it in one direction and run the other way, shouting “Help! Fire! Help!”

Most of the time, notes Bittenbinder, “he’ll go for the money, not you.” Bittenbinder prefers chemical mace to using a gun, knife or one’s hands to defend against rape and other assaults.

Mace works, says Bittenbinder, “because you use it.” If fleeing is an option, he adds, it’s always your best option. You are responsible for yourself, Bittenbinder stresses. The time to develop a plan is now, when you are calm enough to make decisions, so you will know how to act.