Surviving a Mugging

(By Alan Danaher -- Getty Images)
By Julia Feldmeier
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Saturday after Thanksgiving was 60 degrees and cloudless -- a happy, swing-your-purse, skip-down-the-street kind of day. It wasn't a day to be mugged a mere 20 yards from my apartment building.

So when a man grabbed my purse while I was strolling down 15th Street, I was shocked. An afternoon mugging? At least wait until it's dark.

I resisted. I screamed and yelled. I tugged with the weight of my body, my purse straps looped over my arm -- and I hung on even when shoved to the ground, the back of my head snapping against the sidewalk. It wasn't until I was dragged five yards toward my attacker's cohorts -- four of them in all -- that I felt scared. And when the force of the tug of war pulled me back to my feet and my forehead slammed into a metal signpost, more scared.

But let go of my purse? I wouldn't. And I probably couldn't, given how tightly my elbow was locked around the strap.

What felt like 10 minutes was less than one, and neighbors finally came rushing out, scaring off the would-be thieves. To my rescuers, I responded as any mature adult would: By sitting on the ground, shrieking. Mascara dripped down my cheeks and the McIntosh apple-size bump on my head throbbed. I filed a police report and called my parents, who immediately began searching the real estate ads for apartments in their upstate New York suburb.

I won't be moving home, but I will be a little more guarded walking the streets of Washington -- at any time of day. To find out how to better handle such attacks, I spoke with Carol Middleton, the 30-year veteran director of the DC Self-Defense Karate Association. Here are some of her tips on staying safe:

Let go! Middleton is a karate black belt, and yet when she was mugged 10 years ago, she quickly acquiesced. Later, she learned that her attacker was notorious for firing his gun at the first sign of resistance. "That's not everybody's modus operandi, but you never know," she says. "The safest thing to do is give up your property. It isn't worth fighting for." Still, for many of us, the natural reaction to someone snatching a purse is to pull the other way. Middleton says you can prevent this by being mentally prepared: "Think ahead of time, 'If somebody tries to grab my purse, I'll give it to him.' "

Conceal your belongings. Purse-snatching is a "crime of opportunity," Middleton says -- and though bags may be cute and purposeful, they're also conspicuous. Middleton recommends keeping your belongings in a fanny pack (gulp), which is more hidden and hands-free than a purse. A more fashion-savvy option: slim bags with straps that go across the body. In cold weather, try hiding your bag inside your jacket.

Stay alert. Attackers love the element of surprise, Middleton says, so distractions like talking on a cellphone or listening to an iPod make you a more likely target. Ditto if you're walking slowly (or, conversely, walking quickly in a fearful manner), or if you look lost.

Carry cash. Middleton calls it "martyr money": $30 to keep in your wallet in the event of a holdup. It's an easy way to avoid a more prolonged, and costly, holdup at the ATM machine. "You're safer if you give them the money and don't say anything incendiary," Middleton advises. "Just be completely neutral and cooperative. Even be respectful: 'Yes, sir, it's all yours.' "

As a precaution, inventory the contents of your wallet, so you can quickly cancel credit cards. Another option is to stash the cash in a fake wallet, throw it, then run in the opposite direction. But make sure you say something like, "This is all I've got," Middleton says, and make it believable. In addition to the martyr money, put some false credit cards in the wallet. "Give them something that will at least slow them down so you can run away," she says.

Ditch the pepper spray. At my parents' insistence, I went out and bought a small vial of pepper spray called "American Defender" ($15 at Ace Hardware), but I'm terrified to use it. With good reason, Middleton says. People who carry mace or pepper spray "are more likely to get attacked -- carrying it makes them believe that they're somehow less vulnerable," she says. You should be trained before using pepper spray and mace, Middleton says, and the sprays don't work against the usual determined attacker. Muggers know there's mace out there, she says, "and they're ready for it. It's going to get in your eyes, too, and you're going to struggle with it more, because they're prepared and you're not."

Keep keys handy. People commonly get mugged outside their car or building door while fumbling for the key, Middleton says, so she advises her clients to keep their key in hand, pressed between thumb and forefinger. In the event of a physical attack, the key can be used as a self-defense tool, to be jabbed in the attacker's face -- though Middleton advises this approach only for physical attacks. Property attacks, after all, should never be resisted.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company