What If You’re Assaulted in a Parking Structure?

Illustrations by Jordan Lance
The university is predictably quiet tonight, being a Friday night. One by one, students pack up as the time draws nearer for the library to close. Staff make the rounds at 10 to midnight, letting the remaining students know they’d be closing soon and to finish up what they’re doing. You shut off your laptop, pack up the books you had scattered about the table, and take a long sigh, wondering how difficult your upcoming midterms will be. Normally you wouldn’t be on campus quite this late, but you’re behind on your assignments and feel you have precious little time left to complete your work before you leave for spring break.

You say goodnight to the staff member who kindly holds the door open for you as you walk out the front door of the library. You head to the parking structure where you left your car, on the other side of the campus. You don’t like the idea of having to walk clear across the campus so late at night, but it was one of those days where parking was limited and you didn’t have time between classes to go back and move your car to a closer location like you often do.

After a brisk walk, you climb up the staircase to the third floor of the parking structure, approaching another parked car with tinted windows just sitting there idling. You find it a bit peculiar, but figure it’s another student, probably busy talking on the phone before they head out. Instead of hearing the car pull away as you pass it, it curiously shuts off. You then hear the sound of the door closing and footsteps walking away from it. The purposeful-sounding footsteps are getting louder and definitely those of a man. This is somewhat discomforting, but since you already rounded the corner to where your car is parked, you can’t see who it is.

Your car is now in your line of sight, but a strange man who looks a bit too old and disheveled to be a student takes notice of you, as if he’s been waiting for someone. You feel the hair on your neck stand up as he walks toward you, all the while the steps behind you are getting louder. The man in front of you stares right at you and asks in a gravelly voice, “I’m sorry, my phone died. Can you tell me uh … what time it is?”

The steps behind you get closer and you turn around to see a military-aged male in a hoodie with his hands hidden inside his front pockets. He stops when he sees you notice him. As you turn back around to the man asking the time, he shifts his gaze and now tries to force a smile that looks about as honest as a $3 bill. There’s no other noticeable activity or students that you can see or hear. It’s near midnight, and you feel like you may be getting prospected for a violent crime. You begin to shake a little, as this is the kind of stuff you hear about happening to other people on TV. What do you do?

The Scenario

Situation Type
Possible mugging, rape, or murder

Your Crew
You

Location
Local state university

Season
Spring

Weather
Clear; high 78 degrees F, low 66 degrees F

The Setup: You’re a student working on your graduate degree at a local university. Recently, there have been a few muggings and even a murder on campus. You often study late at the campus library, which is open until midnight, and frequently have to walk to your car across campus to a parking structure or another lot that’s quite far from the library. The campus has an explicit no-weapons policy and forbids firearms, claiming that its 24-hour campus security presence is sufficient to keep students and staff safe. You’re concerned with this recent string of incidents, especially since you often walk to your car alone and have rarely seen security officers patrolling the area.

The Complication: On a Friday night, you leave as the library closes at midnight and walk across to the parking structure. You ascend to the third floor where your car is parked, noticing that the structure is practically empty. As you head to your car, you pass a vehicle that’s parked about 50 yards from your car and idling. The windows are tinted so you can’t see inside, but you find it peculiar that it’s just sitting there running. You chalk it up to possibly being another student getting ready to leave.

As you approach your car, a middle-aged male walks in your direction. Meanwhile, you hear the car you just passed turn off its engine and the door open and close. As the man in front nears you, he asks if you have the time. You look down at your watch and let him know that it’s just past midnight. You hear something behind you, realizing there’s another male, perhaps a little younger, approximately 30 yards behind you. The male asking for the time is now only about 20 feet in front of you. Are you being set up to be mugged, physically or sexually assaulted, or potentially murdered? Or are these just two other students or staff who mean you no harm? You begin to sense that something is wrong, and the odds of coincidence are dropping fast. There are blue emergency call boxes in the parking structure that connect you directly with campus security, but one of the individuals is between you and the stairs to the closest call box, which is one level below you. What do you do?

Tactical Trainer Katheryn Basso’s Approach

A college campus is ripe for criminal behavior due to its plethora of easy targets — inebriated partiers, late-night scholars, and young, naive adults recently released into the world. Whether or not criminal behavior has recently increased on my campus, as a woman, I’m always aware of the potential for conflict. Before my first day of class, I do my due diligence to familiarize myself with the local area — location of police stations and hospitals, crime rates, and gang activity — as well as campus protocol and safety measures, such as the location of campus security guards and call boxes, and phone numbers for security escorts or emergency services. The more prepared I am prior to an emergency, the less likely I’ll freeze if a crisis ever occurs.

Let’s make a few assumptions before we get into this scenario. One, I have to stay at the library until it closes. Whether that’s because I need access to a special collection that cannot be checked out, or my roommate makes too much noise for me to concentrate — whatever the reason, I need to stay at the library until midnight. Otherwise, I’d rather study at home and avoid the potential threat. Assumption two: I couldn’t get a security escort that night. I’d definitely request an escort, if available. I don’t care how tough you are, what your skill level is, or how badass you think you are. One security guard with a radio and pistol significantly increases your chances of avoiding criminal behavior. Swallow your pride or impatience and make smart choices.

With that being said, let’s walk through the escalation of conflict in this scenario: avoidance, resistance, and combat.

Preparation: Conflict Avoidance

The only fight I’m 100-percent guaranteed to win is the one I’ll never have. Setting myself up to avoid conflict will be my best shot at getting home safely. Criminals tend to choose easy targets — individuals buried in their phones, unaware of their surroundings, or hindered in their movement due to age, injury, or footwear. They’ll choose someone they think they can overpower or outnumber; they’ll attack in areas where they have the least chance of getting caught. There are a number of choices I can make on campus to make myself a hard target and increase the odds of avoiding conflict:

Parking: It’s probably a universal rule on all college campuses that parking is never convenient nor in excess. Let’s assume that I’ll always have to park in an inconvenient spot far from my intended destination. As I drive through a parking garage, I’ll look for a parking spot closest to security features, listed in order of preference: cameras and lights, elevators and stairwells, and emergency call boxes. Again, the intent is to make myself a hard target. Even if I’m the last vehicle in a structure, a criminal is less likely to attack me if he’s being recorded on camera and illuminated under lights. If I can’t find a spot close to lights or cameras, I want to be close to an egress route. And finally, a call box. I list a call box last because it’d be quicker and safer to use my phone as I’m running to safety than to stop and expose myself to danger as I wait by a call box.

The Walk: So, I’ve parked my car under well-illuminated lights right next to that bubble camera the campus security installed after the many protests from students concerned about their safety. I have no idea if the camera works, but hey, neither does the bad guy. Now, I have to find my way to the library. I’ll choose a route that has as many people as possible — avoid shortcuts through alleys or under bridges, overgrown shrubbery, camera blind spots, Professor Jenning’s Botanical Garden, and so on. You know, all the places students like to meet up in the middle of the night for dirty deeds. Those are the places to avoid. Instead, walk on a well-lit and frequented path past camera towers and call boxes. Again, a call box isn’t an ideal stop if something goes bad, but it can be a good deterrent. As I’m walking in the early evening, I take notice of my surroundings. What are my danger points — the unavoidable spots I must pass where an attack would be, most likely due to a camera blindspot, broken lightpost, or blind corner? Are there any new structures that could conceal someone? I also look at the people along the way. Who are they? How are they dressed? Who are they with? Where does their interest lie? Are they walking with a purpose or out for a stroll? Identifying the baseline for this walk will help me identify an anomaly later.

The Equalizer: I get it — the policy is no weapons on campus. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t carry something to defend myself. Weapons are usually defined as a firearm, knife of a certain blade length, or baton. That leaves several sprays, alarms, and self-defense keychains that’ll still provide protection against an attacker. In case even these items aren’t allowed on campus, I’d choose to carry one in a nondescript or concealed form factor. Whichever I choose, I need to make sure I’ve practiced using it. The last thing I want is my attacker using my personal protection device against me. I’d carry the following:

  • Personal Alarms: I’d use a personal alarm more for audible stunning than in hopes of alerting someone of my predicament. Nowadays, people are so used to car alarms that they tend to ignore rather than run to these noises. However, unleashing it up against an attacker’s ear may give you an opportunity to get away.
  • Spray: Mace, powered by the phenacyl chloride (CN) chemical, is an irritant that utilizes pain to subdue its target. However, it’s often ineffective against animals and assailants under the influence or mentally disturbed. Therefore, I’d carry pepper spray; its main ingredient is oleoresin capsicum (OC). OC spray is an inflammatory agent that dilates the capillaries in your eyes and causes your mucous membranes to swell, resulting in temporary blindness, coughing, and choking. Some now squirt out foam to reduce spray back.

The Library: Once I’m at the library, I’d maintain my situational awareness. Is anyone lurking around? Is anyone too interested in what I’m doing and where I’m going? Is anyone waiting for me to leave? If so, I’d take this opportunity to inform the appropriate authorities.

On Site: Conflict Resistance

Situational awareness is the ability to identify a threat before it can harm you or your family. There’s a fine line between paranoia and preparation. Being observant of your surroundings doesn’t mean working yourself into an anxiety-induced suspicion that everyone is out to get you. The point is not to be complacent.

Observe: It’s now midnight, and I’m walking back to my car. My head is up; I’m walking with a purpose. My phone is in my pocket; I’m not listening to music. I’m using my eyes, ears, and nose to be aware of my surroundings. Do I see people lurking? Can I hear someone’s footsteps behind me? Can I smell cologne? My keys are in my hand so I don’t have to fiddle with my bag to find them and because they hold both my personal alarm and my OC spray. Again, it’s not about being paranoid, it’s about being prepared.

Orient: Since I’m aware of my surroundings, I’ll be able to identify an anomaly — an event that doesn’t conform to my pre-established baseline. Let’s say I previously established that the baseline for this part of campus involves students or faculty walking with a purpose to or from other buildings; it’s not an area where people congregate or sit and study by themselves. Since it’s a warm spring day, they’re in shorts and T-shirts. They have bags to carry their books or papers. They walk alone or in small groups from class. Their interest is focused on the path that leads to their destination or in conversation. With spring break approaching, most are relaxed, showing no signs of stress.

Decide and Act: If I see someone lingering by himself along a side of a building or beneath a tree, with layers of clothes on and no backpack or bag, this would be an anomaly. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a threat, but it does mean he doesn’t fit into the baseline. He may be someone trying to find a place to do drugs or meet up with his forbidden love interest. But he should still garner my attention and action. I’d have to determine if I should maintain my current course, alter my path toward the dorms or coffee shop that I know would still be open, or call the police. As long as his interest didn’t remain on me and he didn’t follow me, I’d likely choose to continue to my vehicle.

Crisis: Combat

In this scenario, I’m on the parking garage level of my car and missed my opportunity to alter my path away from the guy walking toward me and the creepy, idling car. I also messed up by looking down at my watch to check the time, so I’ll want to regain observation of the potential threat as soon as possible. As I find myself between two men, I’ll have to make a quick assessment of the man in front of me while also listening for the footsteps of the man behind me to determine if he’s a threat.

I’d look for signs of the front man’s fight or flight response: flushed or pale face, shaking hands, increased respiration rate. I’ll look at his hands: Are they holding something? Are they hiding something? I’ll listen for the man behind me. Are his footsteps getting farther away or closer? Is his pace quickening or staying the same? If the men show no signs of threat, I’ll continue to my car and drive away. However, if I deem them a threat, I’ll prep my OC spray and verbally tell them both to get back while I maneuver to their side where I can see both assailants.

This is the turning point. If my assessment was wrong, the two men should back up, perhaps call me crazy, and leave the vicinity. I’d rather be called crazy and stay alive than avoid feeling presumptuous and end up dead. If my assessment was correct, however, it’s time for 110-percent violence. If the two men lunge toward me, I’ll do everything I can to neutralize the threat, with a combination of OC spray and physical violence. Humans have three very vulnerable targets and only two hands to cover them, so I’ll look to strike their eyes, throat, or groin. Once contained, I’ll seek cover and protection: If I’m close to my car, I’ll get in and drive away, calling 9-1-1 in the process. If the men are between me and my car and the stairwell is close, I’ll make a run for it. My adrenaline will be spiked at this point, so I won’t be able to rely on my dexterity. But I can have my Google assistant call for help as I head toward a more populated area.

Conclusion

After being attacked or assaulted, people tend to play Monday-morning quarterback with the victim: Why did you go out at that time of night? Why did you park that far away? Why did you put yourself in a dangerous situation? In a perfect world, we’d only need to accomplish tasks in broad daylight with a police officer watching over us on every corner. Allowing fear of a potential attack to dictate our schedules is no way to live. However, making yourself a hard target — being prepared and situationally aware — greatly increases your likelihood of survival not just in this scenario, but at any point where you’re alone or with vulnerable companions.

Disaster Management Specialist Nila Rhoades’ Approach

Preparation: When dealing with potential attackers, one has to remember that mindset is critical. Good situational awareness can mitigate many different types of situations. In preparation for a potential attacker, I’d first familiarize myself with my campus’ weapons policy. While a “no firearms allowed” policy is usually a given, especially on college campuses, carrying a pepper spray, mace, stun gun, or Taser might be acceptable or a gray area in the policies — in which asking forgiveness might be better than asking for permission. That’s a risk versus reward trade-off that must be weighed heavily. Some may find it to be worthwhile to carry a concealed firearm, some may not. For some, it’d depend on the potential consequences, both legally and with the school.

If I can’t bring my firearm on my person, I’ll always have a knife. Granted, this is considered a weapon, but it can be hidden deep in my pockets or bag to avoid detection. Frankly, it’s much easier to conceal a knife than a firearm. I normally carry an Emerson Hattin, not only because that’s what I own, but because it’s easy to open and will give me a fighting chance against an attacker. The unfortunate side effect of edged weapons is that the threat must be within arm’s distance of me, which is always much closer than I’d like. I also always carry a good flashlight. My personal preference is a TerraLux TT5 which has a strobe option, but SureFire makes amazing lights too. This would allow me to not only light my path to my vehicle but also aid in threat identification. I could also strobe them if they get too close, which would hopefully make them reassess their life choices. Many flashlights also have a strike bezel if you need to defend yourself physically.

When I go anywhere after dark, I always park close, as close to the door as possible. Otherwise, I look for a parking spot next to a light. Being on campus and paying good money for a graduate degree, I have absolutely no qualms with asking the campus security for an escort to my vehicle. That’s their job — to ensure the safety of the students. Parking near a security camera wouldn’t particularly interest me. Security cameras, unless they’re being monitored constantly and adequately, only help to identify the suspect, not prevent the crime. Since security is provided by the college, I’d have to assume that they have limited staff and may be poorly trained. My own experience with campus security supports the mindset that I’m essentially on my own. However, larger campuses may have their own police department, or a local police department may have a unit attached to the campus as their security. While that’s always preferred over rent-a-cops with batons, they have to be near me during an incident to be useful.

An officer in a uniform escorting me to my vehicle would make me a much harder target than walking to my vehicle alone, especially after dark, at such a late hour.

Given that there has been a string of recent incidents, especially a murder, on the campus that I’m attending, I wouldn’t go anywhere on campus alone. It’s not worth the risk until the suspect is apprehended. I’d either ask a friend to hang out with me while I was studying, or not go to campus to study at all. With Google Scholar and all of the other digital resources available, studying at home is a viable option. It may not be a long-term solution for the semester, but it’ll work for a while until there’s a change in threat levels on campus. If studying on campus is a necessity, then I’ll secure my bag to my person, hold my flashlight in my non-dominant hand, and place my dominant hand on my knife in my pocket. Think the cowboy “thumb-tucked-in-their-pocket” look. This will allow me to have quick access to my knife, which will flip open as I pull it out of my pocket. Lastly, I’ll keep my car keys clipped to a belt loop on the front of my pants. Thus, they’ll be accessible while approaching my car, but also somewhat tethered to me.

The Complication: Any vehicle that’s running for more than a minute or two presents a cause for concern. A male simply walking toward me wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) set off any internal alarms just yet. With graduate programs on campus, the age of the student is hard to pinpoint. Many grad students (including me) go back to school many years after finishing up their bachelor’s degree. Therefore, threat identification will have to wait a few more moments until he plays out his next move. Thus, presenting yourself as a hard target is always paramount. A portion of that is carrying yourself with purpose and free of distractions. That includes phones, earbuds, books, and random things in your hands that can’t be used to fend off an attacker — that’s what bags are for.

I’m a firm believer that your gut feeling (we refer to it as Spidey-sense in my house) is right 99 percent of the time. When something feels off, it probably is. One of the biggest non-violent threat mitigation techniques is to look them in the eye and say a friendly “hello.” Bad guys don’t want to be noticed or acknowledged. In our individualist society, where many of us are so easily distracted by our phones, it’s easy to see why some attacks happen. When someone approaching my direction looks a little sketchy, I acknowledge them and say “hi,” perhaps even making a mundane comment about the weather.

This lets them know that I’m aware of them, I see them, and I’m not scared of talking to a stranger. Now this is where my OODA loop will start kicking into a higher gear. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act. It’s an older training framework, but it’s still very useful because that’s just now our brains operate.

If the situation still continues to escalate, I have a few options. First, always trust your gut. If I feel like I’m in danger, I’ll run as far and as fast as I can until I reach some kind of help. Wearing sensible shoes is always a good idea, but don’t be afraid to ditch your footwear if it makes you a faster runner. Honestly, I hate shoes and often wear flip-flops, so abandoning them is a realistic option if a threat presents itself to me.

The FBI’s Run, Hide, Fight protocol can be useful in situations as well. However, my only realistic option on this college campus is to run. Fighting could be an option, but I’m outnumbered and underpowered to take on two males. Hiding wouldn’t work in this scenario as it’s a parking garage, an empty one at that. There aren’t many places to hide.

When the man nears me and asks for the time, I give an approximation. There’s no need to take my eyes off the potential threat to look at my watch. As I do this, I can try to increase the distance between the threat and me as I continue to my vehicle. At this point I have a few options. With one man 20 feet ahead of me and another 30 yards behind me, my first option is to exit the situation as quickly as possible. There are other directions that I could run should the man ahead of me present himself as a threat. If he continues on his intersecting path, I would position my bag in front of me so I could essentially feed it to him and run like the wind. Nothing in that bag is worth my life.

A few years ago, the FBI published a list of pre-attack indicators, physical behaviors exhibited by suspects before they attempt to commit a crime. It provides some valuable insight into human behavior, but also into the males in this scenario: clenching their hands; erratic eye blinks; target glances; fighting stance; hesitation; flanking; following; removing clothing; yelling; pressing forearms against their side; twitchy, googly, or inappropriately looking at the target.

Search for A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013 in order to review it in more depth. The study focuses on active shooters, but is fairly indicative of various types of attackers.

Since one of the two men is exhibiting behavior that would align with the FBI’s pre-attack indicators, I have to make the logical assumption that I’m in danger. If I’m wrong, then I’ll eat crow later. But again, it’s after midnight and nothing good ever happens after dark.

At this juncture I’m left with two different scenarios. The first is that the man really just wants to know the time, is meeting up with the man behind me, and they will go about their business. The second is that the man in front of me is meant to distract me while the man behind me attempts to grab me. After I tell the first what time it is, and he still closes in on me, I have to make a decision. There’s no need to invade someone’s personal space in an empty parking garage. If he got within 10 feet I’d start strobing him with my flashlight and yelling my biggest-big-girl voice, “Stop! Get back! I feel threatened! I have a weapon!”

At this point, I’d feel comfortable and confident pulling my knife out of my pocket. I can legally articulate being afraid for my life and feeling threatened. The laws in each state vary on this point so make sure you have a solid understanding of this concept. With my hands full, I wouldn’t be able to pull out my cell phone to call for help just yet. Most importantly, I need my defensive tools in my hands until I feel that I’m no longer in danger. One would hope that they realize that I’m not an easy target and leave; if not, then I’d feed them my book bag and run like Usain Bolt somewhere safe. This could be my vehicle if I could get it unlocked in a timely manner, but again my hands are full of defensive tools — a car with keyless entry could be very handy. If I can get in my car and the bad guys are far enough back or are running the other way, then that’s my first priority. The important thing to note about vehicles is that they’re 2-ton defensive tools as much as they’re a means of escape. If the men are too close to me, then I’ll run as far and as fast as I can and pray that I can find campus security or other people to aid in my defense. The key to this whole scenario is being situationally aware enough to not let the men get so close that you can’t make a run for it.

This is a very challenging scenario due to the prohibition on carrying a firearm or weapon on campus. Some people are die-hard rule followers, and that’s OK. It all depends on how you assess the risk versus reward. There are still some non-weapon options for campuses that would allow you to defend yourself without technically breaking the rules:

  • Get a roll of quarters and cover it with tape, essentially shellacking it. Throw it in the bottom of a tube sock, tie or rubber band the top, and you have a giant monkey fist. If anyone asks, it’s emergency pay phone/taxi money and random dirty laundry.
  • A cable bike lock. No bike required. Carrying a bike lock on campus looks normal, and swinging the combo lock at someone’s face could give you time and opportunity to make a quick exit.
  • A pen with a metal shaft, like those made by Zebra. If you encounter an attacker take the pointy end and aim for an eye, preferably, or other soft tissue.

The best thing you can do is avoid going anywhere after dark alone, especially when there are potential threats near campus. Buddy team movements don’t mean you’re scared; you’re simply being realistic about the threats around you. Or just study from home, where you can be legally armed.

Conclusion

Gun-free zones, such as college campuses, are target-rich environments for criminals and predators. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a soft target. With proper mindset, preparation, situational awareness, tactics, and an appropriate amount of caution, you can stack the deck in your favor as much as possible.

Our protagonist in this scenario found herself in a bit of a pickle, facing a potentially deadly threat. Our SMEs outlined a number of options and actions for her to attempt to extricate herself. But the most important piece of advice is to do your best to minimize the odds of facing such dangerous situations. Many of the recommendations along these lines require real commitment and discipline — but isn’t your own well-being worth the investment? And despite your best efforts, you may not always be able to avoid potential conflicts. Thus, you need to be prepared for that as well.

The mindset, strategies, and tactics described in this article are just as applicable off-campus as they are on-campus, and while armed or unarmed. So, take them to heart and make yourself a hard target.

Meet Our Panel

Katheryn Basso

Katheryn Basso is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran trained in identifying sources of instability in foreign countries. Proficient at navigating the complex civil-military terrain of foreign policy, she has advised and advocated for military and civilian leaders from multiple partner nations. She’s currently the co-owner of TEAM TORN, a tactical training company based in Nevada that instructs U.S. military, government, and civilian personnel. She specializes in firearms instruction, conflict avoidance, and personal security strategies. www.teamtorn.com

Nila Rhoades

Nila Rhoades is a U.S. Army paratrooper’s wife and homeschooling mother of three ninja kiddos (10, 4, and 18 months). She has two master’s degrees in Homeland Security and Emergency Disaster Management. She’s currently obtaining a graduate certificate in counterterrorism. She’s also a firearms instructor, workout enthusiast, and avid peanut butter ice cream lover. www.milspecmom.com

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