How to keep a criminal from harming you (hint: your phone is friend and foe)

Miami Beach self-defense class teaches moves against crime

Officers teach how people can protect themselves to lessen the risk of becoming a crime victim. The best case scenario: striking an attacker and then running.
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Officers teach how people can protect themselves to lessen the risk of becoming a crime victim. The best case scenario: striking an attacker and then running.

Most people are guilty — getting distracted by a cellphone, not looking to see if someone is following you, walking alone at night.

And while those actions may seem harmless, being clueless of danger signs around you can be the difference between life and death.

“It’s the world we live in,” said Natalie Buissereth, a spokeswoman for the North Miami Police Department.

While South Florida officers stress the importance of calling 911 for help, they say people can protect themselves by learning self-defense, gun safety and and other crime prevention measures.

“When you feel like your life is threatened, you have to do everything you can to protect yourself,” said Miami-Dade police Detective Daniel Ferrin.

Crimes overall may be down — in Miami-Dade county violent crimes dropped from 60,404 in 2014 to 57,458 in 2015, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — but you can still be a victim.

“We have to look out for ourselves,” said Miami police spokeswoman Frederica Burden.

Avoiding a bad situation could be as simple as walking an extra block to avoid a dark corner. Women can possibly avoid being an easy target for a purse snatching by tucking their purse under anr arm or keeping it close to the body.

“If a criminal really wants something they are going to go after it,” said Miami Beach police officer William Collado.

Ferrin said if the confrontation is about property, it’s never worth more than your life.

“Don’t fight over merchandise. It’s never going to be worth it,” he said. “It’s just property. Leave it behind.”

A common theme among safety experts is to warn people against keeping their head buried in a cellphone.

“You don’t have to be fearful. You don’t have to be paranoid. You have to be aware,” said Miami-Dade Sgt. Joseph Bermudez. “Anybody is vulnerable to an attack.”

Knowing where you are, who is around you and when to run can help avoid a confrontation.

Experts say to trust your instincts. If something looks wrong, call it in, said Miami-Dade Maj. Hector Llevat

“We always want you to err on the side of caution if you feel threatened,” he said. “Let us determine that it’s no big deal.”

Here is a look at different options for protection: gun safety, self-defense and safety gadgets.

Gun Safety

Getting a gun is a personal decision and a big responsibility, safety experts say.

“With great power, comes a great responsibility,” said David von Matt, a chief instructor for Miami Gun Classes. “You have to understand what you are getting into.”

Miami Gun Classes, among several South Florida options, offers a concealed weapons course (if someone plans on carrying a gun) or one-on-one instruction on how to shoot, care for and store a gun.

Von Matt said he usually starts his classes with five basic rules of handling a gun:

▪ Always keep a firearm pointed in a safe direction. Never point a gun at anyone or anything you don’t plan killing, shooting or destroying.

▪ Always keep your finger above and clear of the trigger unless you are ready to shoot.

▪ Always keep a gun unloaded unless you are ready to use it.

▪ Always know where your bullet is going before you shoot. Is there someone or something that may be behind your target?

▪ Treat all firearms as if they are loaded.

“Having a gun is your constitutional right, your personal preference. Our only take is if you’re going to make a choice you need to be proficient in its use and the laws when carrying and using,” Miami-Dade Sgt. Joseph Bermudez said.

Research shows that one in three Americans own a gun. According to the National Rifle Association, more than 125,000 certified instructors teach about a million gun owners a year.

Beyond knowing how to use a gun, experts say knowing how to properly clean and store one is just as important.

“You don’t just buy one for show,” said Miami Beach police officer and range master William Collado.

Not knowing how to use your gun is not just pointless, it could be potentially dangerous if a criminal used your weapon against you.

You’d be surprised how often accidental shootings happen,” von Matt said.

In December, a man shot and killed himself in his Miami-Dade home as he showed someone how to properly clean a gun on a video call.

Von Matt said accidents can be avoided by knowing and understanding the rules. He also said that storage and keeping guns out of the hands of unauthorized users can help prevent a tragedy.

“Common sense is not so common,” he said.


It was the banging and the yelling that woke her up.

Melissa, 33, wasn’t groggy for long when she opened her eyes early that morning. She got out of bed and followed the source of the shouting.

She padded into the living room, where she was shocked to see a hand waving at her from just below the balcony of her second-floor Miami Beach apartment. There was a man outside, perilously perched atop a pile of lawn furniture screaming to be let in.

Thankfully, it was just an inebriated nuisance who mixed up apartments, Melissa, who didn’t want her last name used for security reasons, doesn’t want to hope for a case of mistaken identity the next time she’s in a dangerous situation.

“I was so petrified when I called 911,” she said. “I want to not be so reactive.”

Dressed in yoga pants and a gray T-shirt, she was one of six people attending a free Miami Beach women’s self-defense class — the 43rd since the program began three years ago.

What Noel Castillo, a Miami Beach police officer and 22-year law enforcement veteran, stressed the most was mindset. The three-hour class was heavier on technique than theory, with two hours on the mat and one in the classroom, but Castillo’s main message was that avoiding a dangerous situation is the best possible outcome. His metaphor of choice divides the world into wolves, sheep and sheepdogs.

“Sheep get herded from one location to another, oblivious of their surroundings and easy prey for wolves” he said, “The sheepdog, it looks like the wolf, can fight like the wolf, but with one difference — it works to protect the sheep.”

Awareness of the situation is the best way to avoid danger, Castillo stressed again and again.

If a confrontation is unavoidable, there are signs to watch for that indicate someone is going to get violent. If they stop talking, get an intense look in their eye or start glancing at your valuables (in what Castillo calls a ‘target glance’) watch out.

“They’re clicking to another mode — violence,” Castillo said.

If they adjust their clothes, clench their fists or set their dominant leg back, violence might be imminent.

“You need to be able to use the tools God gave you — your mind, your hands and your feet,” Castillo said.

To prove the point, Castillo and his co-teacher, Miami Beach police officer William Collado , led the class downstairs to a padded workout room, with piles of gloves, masks and chest protectors donated by Shaquille O’Neal, the former Miami Heat player who is a reserve police officer.

Castillo, who, according to an NPR show he heard, has the average stature of an American woman at five-foot-four and 140 pounds, can personally attest that these techniques work against larger opponents.

His class is designed to use the natural movements people make when they’re scared and trying to defend themselves. The strikes, with the palm, elbow and knee, all rely on preexisting muscle memory and cause the least amount of damage to the untrained person using them.

The best case scenario is one good strike to distract the attacker, then run away, he said.

For a final exam, Castillo suited up in a mouth guard, gloves, chest protector, elbow pads, a helmet and, of course, a cup.

Each of his students tried their best to pummel him for a minute. The newer fighters did their best to stay on their feet and land a strike or two. A few fighters with previous experience, like Cilia Mar’a Ruiz-Paz, exploded with a fury of hard hits and solid strikes.

As she strode away from the match she unwrapped her gloves and grinned.

“I almost broke a nail,” she said.


Having a tool to fight crime is useless if you don’t know it works.

Something as simple pepper spray, which is easy to find either online or in a drugstore, can end up causing more harm than good.

“If you carry anything you need to be trained to use it or it will be a liability,” Miami Beach police Noel Castillo said.

He advises buying three or four canisters of pepper spray. Make sure the wind is blowing the other way.

“Use a picture of your ex, your boss, whoever and tape it to a tree,” Castillo said. See how far it sprays.

Dab some under your eyes, because “it’s likely you’ll be getting some in your eyes when you use it, and you need to know how you’ll react to it.”

Pepper spray is a distance option. “Spray and take off,” he said.

Other crime gadgets including stun guns, panic buttons, whistles and personal Tasers come with the same basic warning: You need to learn how to use it before you get into a bad situation. Experts also say the gadget is useless if not easily accessible.

“If you are in a situation where you need it, you are not going to have time to look for it,” said Natalie Buissereth, a spokeswoman for the North Miami Police Department.

Buissereth also said that basically anything you have on you — keys, a pen, a nail file — can be used for protection against crime.

Experts say to make sure your tools are functional: Charge the battery for your panic button, make sure the nozzle on your pepper spray is unclogged and regularly test your gadgets.

Tools such as whistles and panic buttons are easy to use and could do what criminals hate.

“Scream and shout and make as much noise as possible,” Miami-Dade Sgt. Joseph Bermudez said. “Criminals don’t like attention.”

For example, officers say if you plan on walking or jogging alone at night, stick a whistle on your key ring and if you feel threatened don’t be afraid to use it.

“If they hear the noise they will probably run,” Buissereth said.

Some popular self-defense weapons, like a stun gun, do the opposite of what experts suggest: Bring you closer to your attacker

Stun guns are designed to work in close range, where the danger magnifies if the weapon doesn’t work as you expect it to. The company Taser, the brand law enforcement uses, makes a civilian version.

The point of a stun gun is that the darts hit your target, giving you 30 seconds to drop the device and run.

“Your No. 1 goal,” said Miami-Dade police officer Daniel Ferrin, “is to get out of the situation.”

What you should know

Here is complication of suggestions by several South Florida law enforcement agencies:

▪ Make sure you have enough battery life in your phone to make an emergency call

▪ If you are walking at night, stay on the sidewalk in the opposite direction of traffic so that the light is shining on you

▪ If possible, use an hands-free device for your phone so that you can remain alert

▪ When getting in your car with your hands full, try to put your packages in your left hand, so you can get in easily and place the packages on your seat

▪ If you feel like you are being followed, call police and drive straight to the closest station

▪ The fewest number of things in your hands, the better

▪ If you see someone suspicious, make eye contact — criminals don’t like to be seen

  • Use reflections off cars and windows to watch behind you
  • When you stop at a light, stay far enough away from the car in front of you that you could go around them if needed
  • If a service employee arrives, keep them outside until you call their boss and confirm their assignment/identity
  • Get a land line. They are less likely to fail during hurricanes and the 911 operator can pinpoint your location
  • Never accept a drink that’s already open or was prepared out of your sight
  • Have your house keys ready before you exit your car
  • Walk briskly and with purpose, with your chin up
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