Saturday, 1 February 2014

Self-Defense and the Law

I think that any discussion about self-defense should also include a brief foray into the legalities surrounding it. While it is always important to defend yourself, I get the impression that there are people who are confused as to what actually constitutes "self-defense" in the legal sense of the word, and what is necessary in order to (hopefully) successfully put a self-defense plea forward in a court of law.

Some things to keep in mind: 

  • Claiming "self-defense" is an affirmative defense, meaning that you are agreeing with the facts of what you did. It's important to remember that if your plea doesn't work, you've essentially pled guilty. 
  • The burden of proof is on the defense (that's you!). You need to show beyond a reasonable doubt that your course of action was appropriate for the circumstances in order to safely resolve the situation.
  • Beyond that, you may have to explain why lesser actions would not have worked, why you felt threatened, and why any reasonable person would have believed that they were in danger if you have to go to court. 
  • If you stayed when you could have left after a verbal challenge or an argument, it wasn't self-defense.
  • You must be able to articulate that this person was a threat to you in three specific ways: 
    • Intent - that the Threat indicated to you (and you must be able to explain how you knew) that he/she wanted to harm you 
    • Means - he/she must have the means to carry out their intent (sometimes simply their size, their demeanour, their fists, etc. will suffice).
    • Opportunity - he/she must be able to reach you with the means (if someone shows intent and means, but are yelling at you from the street while you are inside your house, they do not yet likely have the opportunity to carry out their act of violence against you). 
  • After  you articulate how this person was a threat, you need to be able to demonstrate preclusion -- that you didn't have any other viable option (you couldn't leave, you couldn't talk your way out, you couldn't call for help, or help wouldn't arrive in time). You must be able to explain why force was the one option that would safely work. 
  • Self-defense situations change quickly the longer they go on, which means that the intent, means and opportunity will change, too; you may no longer be defending yourself at a certain point into the scenario. The goal is to end these situations as quickly as possible, and to seek help at the first opportunity to do so.
  • If you are surprised, this often automatically justifies a high level of force. 
  • If you are losing, then you aren't using enough force to resolve the situation safely for yourself. 
  • At the end of the day, it's important for you to get home safely. A police officer friend of mine once said that he would rather be judged by twelve than carried out by six, meaning that he'd rather face the courts for his actions than be dead and not even have the opportunity to do even that for not defending himself properly. Do what you have to do to survive any assault against you, but the key is to make sure that your response is appropriate to the attack (i.e. someone punches you in the arm and you go shoot them in the leg - that's not a proportionate response). 
I am not a lawyer, and this post is not intended to give you legal advice, but it hopefully will get you thinking about self-defense and the law. Every country and province/state therein have different rules when it comes to self-defense, so I strongly suggest that you read up on them and become familiar with the laws where you live.  

For further information and an interesting read on this topic Miller, Rory. Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected. USA: YMAA Publication Centre, 2011. 

Thursday, 31 October 2013

5 Halloween safety tips for the ladies

It's that time of year - the leaves are changing colours, the air is getting cooler, and Halloween is fast approaching. With Halloween, there are parties to go to, drinks to drink, and the chance to dress up. It is with increasing popularity that women are gravitating towards revealing and sexy costumes, so I think that this is a great time of year to keep in mind some important safety tips when you're out and about, enjoying your Halloween festivities: 

1. Watch your drinks - Keep your drink with you at all times. Walk around with your hand covering the top of your cup so that it deters someone from slipping something in it. If someone is going to buy you a drink, walk with them to the bar and have the bartender pass you the drink personally. If you have to put your drink down even for a second, just buy a new one (it's not worth the risk). Roofies are surprisingly easy to acquire and they're cheap. According to one American study, date rape accounts for almost 60% of all reported rapes (Vis-A-Vis, USA, 1992.). 

2. Buddy System - Do your best to party with a friend, and make sure that you each look out for each other. If your friend is taking an inordinately long time at the bathroom, go check on her;
if your friend appears as though she's had too much to drink or things seem out of sort, get her to safety; make sure that you each get home safely; go to and from the party together if possible. Also, where and when possible, take a cab together. There have been a surprising number of sexual assaults in cabs, especially of inebriated women. If you are drunk and by yourself, make an obvious phone call to a friend or boyfriend, "I'm going to be home in 10 minutes. I'm in a cab at Queen W and Dufferin St." Small acts like this can prove to be powerful deterrents. 

3. Cover up while in transit - I have no problem with wanting to dress in your sexiest costume, but just remember that there are inherent risks that are associated with choosing to do so. Firstly, while you will garner attention, you will also attract unwanted attention, which you need to be prepared for. I wish the world was different, but it isn't. As part of your preparation, do what you can to minimize this unwanted attention by throwing on a jacket or sweater over your costume while getting to your destination tonight. When you are in a controlled environment (i.e. the party), it is easier for you to rely on the help of friends, security, and (hopefully) other party-goers if you need help. 

4. Communicate boundaries effectively - If you're chatting with a cute guy, and it's the end of the night, and he is looking for more action than you are prepared to give, make sure that you communicate that appropriately and effectively. "No. I don't feel comfortable doing anything tonight." If he presses you, be firm and simply say, "No" with your voice trailing down at the end, to show that you mean business. It is important that the words that you say match your vocal pitch. If your voice goes up at the end, or shows flightiness or flirtatiousness, then he will disregard the words you are saying in favour for the pitch that you are communicating. Words and pitch always have to match, so if your words mean business, make sure that your pitch also communicates that. 

5. Put your phone and earbuds away - predators rely on the ability to exploit vulnerabilities, and the fact that your eyes are on your phone, or that you can't hear him approaching you from behind because you're listening to music puts him at a marked advantage. If you are traveling by yourself, it is especially important to put your phone away so that you can use your eyes to scan around your environs and know where people are in relation to you. Keep your ears open - do you hear someone walking behind you? Turn around and look. Many women ignore the urge to turn around and see who's walking behind them out of the misguided fear that they will hurt the man's feelings or seem silly for looking. It's always better to look - if he's a nice guy who means you no harm, he'll probably just feel bad for scaring you; if he's a potential threat, now he knows that you a) know what he looks like, b) can identify him in the future if you have to, and c) he no longer has the element of surprise working for him. 

Have fun, and be safe! 

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Why we freeze during an assault - the fear response

We've all seen it: a car comes racing down the road, a deer is in the middle of crossing, and rather than run to safety, it simply stands there, watching as the car gets closer to it. And...well, we all know how the story ends. 

Fear is an evolutionary survival mechanism, though it causes us to do some weird things, including freezing during violence. Chances are, it will probably happen, which makes sense because most people's last response is to fight.

  There are many reasons why people freeze though, so let's go through some of them: 
  • Too many stimuli - your brain is taking in so much information at a rapid rate that it is unable to process what it is seeing effectively. Because most people have never been in anything even approaching a self-defense situation before, your brain has no reference experience, and because of that, it takes your brain time to find its bearings. Unfortunately, in the time that it takes your brain to do that, you can sustain some serious damage. 
  • Disconnect between 9-5 brain and combat-brain - unless you are in the military or in law enforcement, very few people train themselves to be able to shift from their 9-5 brain into combat-mode at the drop of a hat. It sometimes takes some time to shift between your day-to-day mindset into combat mode. Unfortunately, the longer this takes, the longer your freeze will be, and the higher the likelihood that you could sustain injuries from your attacker. 
  • Ethical struggle - this is especially common in martial artists/military/law enforcement people. You may have trained for years, though capacity and capability are not mutually exclusive. Just because you've gone through the motion of how to break someone's knee over and over doesn't mean that when it comes down to actually doing it that you can go through with it. This ethical struggle often causes trained people to pause before defending themselves. An assault is not the time to work out your ethics; spend time well beforehand thinking about what you could or couldn't do in any given situation. Have a few go-to techniques that you feel comfortable relying on, and that you know that you could perform in the heat of the moment without the slightest hesitation. 
  • Evolution - running away from a predator can often trigger the chase-reflex in them. Part of the reason that you freeze is that this survival method helped our cave-dwelling grandparents survive some pretty terrifying predators, and this trait has been passed down to us. Your brain is on autopilot during a high-adrenaline state, and the only thing it tells itself during a freeze is, "this hasn't gotten you killed yet, so keep doing it." This type of behavioural looping pattern can also be seen during other phases of an attack, particularly when you continuously punch an attacker in the arm, for example, even though it's not doing anything to them. Again, your brain is simply saying, "this hasn't gotten you hurt yet, so just keep doing it." Unfortunately, behavioural looping can also get you killed if you fail to break out of the loop and do something different. 
Ways to break a freeze: 
Yell loudly to break a freeze and get the attention
of people nearby who can help
  • Talk yourself through it out loud - paramedics often do this in the early stages of their career, and talking yourself through what you are trying to do can be the trigger to ground you back into the reality of the situation: "Strike to the face hard, strike to the sternum", etc. 
  • Yell, move- Loudly vocalizing or moving parts of your body (like in kicking) can sometimes bring you back to the present moment and out of the freeze. You'd be surprised how conscious you can feel during a freeze, so tell yourself to do SOMETHING! Yelling, of course, has the added benefit of hopefully drawing attention to what's going on, and having people either come over to help, or at least call the police. 
Further reading: 
Miller, Rory. Facing Violence. New Hampshire: YMAA Publication Centre, 2011. 

Monday, 12 August 2013

Improvised weapons for self-defense

Following my post on which weapons are legal for self-defense , I thought it would be a good idea to discuss how to improvise your own weapon for self-defense purposes. Let me state that for any of these items to work in a self-defense scenario, you need to be brutal in your strikes, and hit like you mean it. You are in charge of your own safety, and you may not have many chances to strike or use your improvised weapon, so you need to make them count. 

Purses are both fashionable and functional
Improvised weapons: 
  • Your purse/backpack/briefcase- use your your bag to hit your attacker. It can help create space between you and him, and you can get some good momentum behind your swings. Can also be used as a makeshift shield against knife attacks. 
  • An umbrella - a fairly common item that many people have with them on occasion. Not only can you swing it around like a baseball bat, but you can always use it like this, too:

    • Throw things at your attacker's face - purse contents, loose changes, garbage, etc. It won't do much damage, but it can certainly be a great distraction and hopefully deter further attempts to engage you.
    • Rolled up magazine - Not only can you strike someone with the rolled up magazine, but the end of it makes a great weapon. When a magazine or newspaper is rolled up, the ends become quite hard and makes a formidable improvised self-defense tool. Use it to thrust into an attacker's throat, his temple, his xiphoid process, etc. 
    • Chairs, trash bins, etc. - pick them up and point them towards your attacker to create space between the two of you. If he comes forward, strike him with the object. Alternatively, you can always knock over things that are around you to create space and hopefully slow up your attacker if he's chasing you.
    • Your drink - whether it's a scalding hot cup of coffee from Tim Horton's or a cold water bottle from the gym, your drink will not only act as a good distraction, it could potentially really harm your attacker (scalding coffee to the face probably doesn't feel too great).
    • Ballpoint pen or a pencil - the sharpened end can be thrust into soft tissue 
    • Books (especially hardcover) - can cause some serious damage. Strike to the face, smash into the nose, etc. Bonus points if it's this book you're using:

     Consider carrying the following:
    • A kubaton - developed in Japan and popularized by the LAPD, kubatons are legal, non-lethal and can really pack a wallop.They're relatively inexpensive, and can be found on amazon, ebay and other places online, as well as in some martial arts supply stores. They are lightweight, attach to your key chain and are used easily by anyone. The point provides penetration to soft tissue spots, though there are other uses for the kubaton, as well. If you take a self-defense course or kubaton course, you'll learn that you can use the shaft of the kubaton to roll across joints and cause some considerable pain. You can also use the shaft of the kubaton across joints to get control of the attacker, or to help with takedowns, among other uses. Lastly, if all else fails, you can even just hold onto the kubaton and hit your attacker with the keys at the end.
      Kubaton key chain
    Further suggestions for improvised weapons are always welcome below! 
    Stay safe. 

    Tuesday, 30 July 2013

    What to do if you are threatened with a weapon

    You are being threatened with a weapon. 
    Not a great situation to find yourself in. 

    People consistently ask me, "What do I do if someone has a knife and they want my purse?" 
    "Even you? With all your training? You would give him your purse?"
    OF COURSE! I value my life and my health, and I don't think that wrestling someone over my phone is worth possibly being injured or disfigured for the rest of my existence. 

    Avoid any opportunity to engage or fight off someone with a weapon; it's simply not worth it: 

    • Everything can be replaced - your phone, wallet, credit cards, car, etc. None of this
      stuff matters in the long run. It might be inconvenient to replace, and it might cost you money; however this is still a small price to pay in comparison to the long-term effects of bodily injuries and disfigurements. 
    • You will more than likely get hurt - this is the reality of attempting to fight someone wielding a weapon, especially when you have little or no training. Stab wounds are extremely serious and cause a frightening number of deaths; their wounds can be difficult to treat, and the rate of infection is high. 
    • Run away if you can, and comply with your attacker if it is reasonable for you to do so 
    There are only three general circumstances that I would suggest fighting back against an attacker with a weapon: 
    • You are going to die if you don't 
    • You are with someone who is going to die if you don't 
    • Your attacker is trying to get you into a car or van to take you to a second location
    If you are forced to fight off an attacker with a weapon, there are a few things to remember: 
    • You're probably going to get hurt if you do fight. The goal though is to minimize your injuries, and to attempt to have non-vital areas suffer the injuries (i.e. outside of the arms vs. inside of the arms, where there are all sorts of important arteries that could cause you to die if they were to be cut). Fortunately, the adrenaline that will be coursing through your body will help you to avoid feeling some of the pain if it's not a vital cut, and allow you to keep holding your ground or to run away to safety. 
    • Always cover your head and neck 
    • Shield your body with the outside of the arms, not the inside 
    • Do what you can to run away and get to a safe place where you can call for medical attention (run towards people!) 
    • Keep moving, don't stand still and make yourself an easy target 
    • Be as vocal as possible to attract attention from passersby 
    • Use improvised weapons to inflict damage to your attacker, and to also create space between you and your attacker (knock over chairs, garbage bins, use pieces of rock or sticks - anything around you that you can use to shield yourself or cause damage) - more on this next week. 
    Undoubtedly others will think differently, and I welcome your thoughts and opinions below. 

    Stay safe! 

    Tuesday, 23 July 2013

    Which weapons are legal for self-defense?

    Many women ask me my opinions on weapons in self-defense. 
    There are tons of pepper spray
    and mace products for women.
    They're illegal in Canada. 
    "Should I carry a switchblade?" "Should I carry a knife?" "Is it legal to have mace?" 

    The answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO

    Firstly, and most importantly, many weapons that people think are legal to carry are, in fact, illegal:
    • Mace/Pepper SprayIllegal - In Canada, any product with a label containing the words 'pepper spray', 'mace' etc. or are otherwise originally produced for use on humans are classified as a prohibited weapon. Only law enforcement officers may legally carry or possess pepper spray.
    • Dog Spray/Bear Spray - Illegal - these chemicals are regulated under the Pest Control Products Act. While it is legal to be carried by anyone, it is against the law if its use causes "a risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm to another person" or harming the environment. It carries a penalty of up to a $500 000 fine, as well as a max. jail time of 3 years.
    • Switchblades - Illegal - In Canada, switchblades are illegal to sell, buy, trade, carry or otherwise possess. The Canadian Criminal Code defines the switchblade as, "A knife that has a blade that opens automatically by gravity or centrifugal force or by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device in or attached to the handle of the knife." Different subsections of the code describe possession offenses and penalties. Belt-buckle daggers, push-daggers, finger-ring blades, and innocuously concealed blades are also Prohibited Weapons in Canada under SOR/98-462 Part 3. If you are found to be in possession of a switchblade, you can get up to 5 years in jail, and your weapon seized.
    • Knives - Legal - There is no length restriction on carrying knives within the Criminal Code of Canada; the only restriction is for concealed carry. Every person commits an offence who carries a weapon, a prohibited device or any prohibited ammunition concealed, unless the person is authorised under the Firearms Act to carry it concealed. The general rule is that if your knife is regarded as a tool (i.e. Swiss Army knife), police are generally ok with it; however, if they feel that the knife is for self-defense or for fighting, they will take it from you and charge you with possessing a dangerous weapon.
    • Nunchaku (homemade or store-bought), shuriken, brass knuckles - Illegal

    Brass Knuckles 


    • Fixed blades - machetes, khukuris, swords, bayonets - Legal
    • Tasers and stun guns - Illegal  
    Now that we understand what weapons are legal, and which are not, let me advise you to NOT carry a weapon. Keep in mind that if you introduce a weapon to an altercation, it has the potential to be used against you, particularly if you are no adept at wielding said weapon (...and even if you are!). 

    Secondly, if you introduce a weapon into an altercation, there are legal implications (including the possibility of losing the ability of claiming self-defense).  

    If you are keen to carry some sort of protection device, I'm going to be writing about improvised weapons next week. 

    Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    The Costs of Domestic Violence

    Violence touches us all: "...the energy of violence moves through our culture. Some experience it as a light but unpleasant breeze, easy to tolerate. Others are destroyed by it, as if by a hurricane. But nobody - nobody - is untouched." (1)

    Even if your own life experience has been free of violence, you need to understand that violence is still a very real part of your life. Not just in the media, not just through your relationships with people you may know who have experienced violence, but even as a taxpayer: 

    "Many physically and sexually abused women in Canada suffer from multiple physical health problems directly related to intimate violence. Women harmed by such violence seek medical care more often than do non-victimized women, to such a a degree that in Canada the measurable health-related economic cost of violence against women is roughly $1,539,730,387 per year."  (2)

    Consider the amount of work that goes into seeking medical attention for domestic violence: 
    Click to view larger image 

    If you live in the U.S., the costs are considerably higher. as the picture to the right demonstrates. This is a huge drain on taxpayer money, which could, of course, be spent on so many better things and could improve our respective countries in myriad ways. This is also why it is so imperative to focus on prevention. As women, it is not only important to learn self-defense, but to learn how to read the red flags in your partner, and to have enough confidence in yourself and your self-worth to walk away from any relationship where your partner doesn't treat you the way (s)he should. 

    But, there are costs beyond the actual financial drain on our economy. The fact is that women who are abused are also at a higher rate of being murdered by their partners.  Aside from death, there are other long-term physical health consequences of abuse: suicide attempts, chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular disease, substance abuse, pregnancy/loss of an existing pregnancy, and a wide-range of reproductive concerns among other problems. 

    Even though domestic violence can be a politically divisive issue, it really is important for everyone to understand that it affects everyone. The goal should be to keep healthcare costs for domestic violence down by focusing not only on prevention for women, but on better education for men. 

    Folks, no one should ever touch anyone. If you are dating someone who feels that violence is the way that they need to get their point across, it's time to find a partner who is better at communicating, and who respects you enough to treat you appropriately. 

    Stay safe! 

    (1) deBecker, Gavin. The Gift of Fear. New York: Dell Publishers, 1997, p. 8.
    (2) DeKeseredy, Walter. Violence Against Women: Myths, Facts, Controversies, Toronto: UofT Press, p. 95.