OffBeat: Situational awareness and ‘reading the signs’
From The WON by Sara Ahrens-After years of working as a law enforcement officer, I have a heightened sense of situational awareness and have honed my skills so that I can quickly identify indicators of crime problems. My exposure to high-crime areas has mentally wired me in such a way that I naturally identify dangerous people, areas and situations. There are often multiple indicators that suggest an area is suffering from chronic crime problems. It is never prudent to draw a conclusion on an area’s level of danger based on just 1 of these indicators. Rather, it is a combination of factors that point to danger. These factors may include heavy foot traffic, the types of businesses in the area and also the signs posted in the area. For the purposes of this column, I will cover 1 component of analyzing an area’s danger – reading the signs.
Reading the signs
Probably the best way to analyze an area is to pay attention to the signs that are posted in neighborhoods, business establishments and on private property. Whenever a municipality, business owner or home owner gets to the point that they have to post a sign in an attempt to deter criminal behavior, they are probably at their wits’ end with the problem. Frustrated city officials, business owners and homeowners will often post signs out of sheer desperation.
The danger signs are always there … but do you see them?
“No loitering” signs are many times posted to prevent groups of undesirable people from congregating and “hanging out” for long periods of time. Signs are posted in hopes that they will prevent these groups from planning and implementing criminal activity. When a “no loitering” sign is posted on a city street, business premises or private property, it is usually the municipality’s attempt to deter crimes like drug dealing, prostitution, public drinking, public urination and panhandling.
“No loitering” signs are warnings that someone is violating a city ordinance, which is punishable by fine.
A “no trespassing” sign is different than a “no loitering” sign. “No trespassing” signs prevent unauthorized individuals from entering and remaining on the premises of the posted property. These signs are generally placed on apartment buildings that may be subject to high foot traffic, a behavior typically associated with drug houses. Signs also are placed on buildings that are habitually burglarized, like abandoned and vacant buildings. These properties are posted so that the police can stop anyone on the premises without contacting the property owner. Abandoned properties can serve as “flop houses” for drug addicts, prostitutes and the homeless.
Boarded up homes are ideal settings for the homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes. They also attract property thieves.
If you find yourself in an area with posted signs that direct citizens to report drug activity, you should be aware that it is an unsafe area. Imagine seeing a sign like that in your neighborhood! In very bad neighborhoods it is not uncommon to see drug hotline signs on every single city block.
Areas with high drug crimes have an equally high rate of violent crime that is associated with the trade. Drug crime inevitably leads to an increased number of shootings and stabbings.
If you see a sign telling you to report drug activity, it’s posted because there is a problem that police are unable to control.
Pawn shops, payday loan places, massage parlors and cigarette shops
Individually, each of these categories of businesses does not necessarily mean that an area is dangerous. If, however, you see more than one of these kinds of businesses in a concentrated location, it is an indication that you are in a potentially dangerous area that is plagued with crimes driven by a drug problem.
Specific businesses thrive in high drug crime areas, such as the following:
- Pawn shops – they exist in areas of high drug crime because addicts will sell their possessions for cash, or steal possessions to pawn.
- Payday loan businesses allow addicts to get money in advance, in essence, allowing addicts to buy drugs on credit.
- Massage parlors are fronts for prostitution. An overwhelming majority of prostitutes are drug users; so, whenever you see a massage parlor, know that you’ll likely find drug activity.
- Cigarette shops sell products that can double as drug paraphernalia. These products might not raise suspicion for a normal citizen, but to a trained eye, they are indicators of drug crime.
Massage parlors are storefronts for prostitution.
There are many factors to consider when determining if an area is dangerous. Drug crime lends itself to a multitude of other criminal activity, and therefore any sign that a drug problem exists in an area should raise a big red flag. Pay attention to foot traffic, pedestrian behaviors and businesses, but most of all READ THE SIGNS … they will tell you all you need to know.