Situational Awareness: Mall Madness and Self-Defense

Whether you love or hate going to the mall, odds are you’re going to be forced to visit now and again. Maybe it’s Black Friday and there’s a screaming deal on that chainsaw you’ve had your eye Perhaps it’s time for a big family holiday dinner and you need a new platter. Whatever the case, you’ve been to the mall, and you’re going to go again (sorry). How much thought do you give to situational awareness on those shopping trips?

We’re here to offer some tips and tricks for surviving the holiday season in one piece even with mall trips becoming mandatory.

Situational awareness at the mall is important all the time, but some more than others.
Ah, malls. A great place to find the latest deal or get trampled to death attempting to reach that deal before everyone else. (Photo credit: CBS News)

What is Situational Awareness?

At its simplest, situational awareness is the act of paying attention to your surroundings. Instead of being blindly oblivious to the building burning down around you, you see what’s going on. Unfortunately, not everything is as blatantly obvious as a massive fire or cattle stampede (although some malls do have cattle stampede-like conditions).

To pay close attention to what’s happening in a way that heads off disaster before it strikes, it can take some practice and the use of your soft skills.

Malls get ridiculously busy and loud which makes it a lot easier to miss trouble brewing. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Times)

Why are Malls Different for Situational Awareness?

Malls just might be the noisiest, gaudiest, most distracting places ever. Sure, Disney World and other theme parks are crazy, too, but you don’t frequent those spots nearly as often (and when you do, it isn’t seen as business-as-usual). The insanity ramps up around the holidays and isn’t limited only to Black Friday to Christmas shopping, either; malls get wild on weekends and other holidays like Labor Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July. It’s almost like malls look for any reason to come up with displays and events to overwhelm the senses.

You’re less likely to notice a thief at the mall than in other locations thanks to how hectic, loud, and rude people tend to be while shopping at malls. (Photo credit: Cool Material)

Between the extreme noise level, bright colors, and advertisements competing for the attentions of passers-by, it’s no surprise how challenging it is to pay attention at the mall. When things get busy, it’s hard to hear yourself think, let alone notice a potential thief or assailant stalking you. At the mall, you are conditioned to expect people to walk closely by you, bump into you, make noise, and be rude.

That makes it easier to dismiss behavior you might find concerning in a different environment.

So, how do you combat that you ask? We’re glad you asked.

An armed active killer situation at the mall is less likely to take place, but not impossible. (Photo credit: CBS News)

Situational Awareness Tips for the Mall

Although there are any number of things that can take place at the mall, two extremes are specifically worth considering: thieves and armed, active killer situations. Handling thieves is a bit different than dealing with a direct threat to your life, but situational awareness applies to both scenarios.

Having both hands filled with shopping bags isn’t a great idea from a defensive standpoint. It’s worth taking a trip back to your vehicle to stow bags before continuing to shop. (Photo credit: The Daily Meal)

Spotting thieves requires not only paying attention to your surroundings but taking logical precautions while shopping. Here are a few ideas to keep your belongings secure and safe from thieves:

  • If carrying a purse, keep one hand on it rather than ignoring its location on your body
  • Consider using a purse with a knife-resistant shoulder strap
  • If carrying a wallet, consider carrying it in a front or jacket pocket rather than a back pocket where it’s more easily accessible to thieves
  • Don’t set down cell phones, wallets, or purses unattended. This can apply to not setting them aside while eating at the food court. Your belongings must stay in your immediate control.
  • If you’re carrying a gun, conceal it in a holster that provides good retention
  • Consolidate shopping bags to leave one hand free rather than being laden down with objects and both hands full. This might require making a trip back to your vehicle to stow bags as you go.
Shopping malls are huge, so how do you watch your surroundings? Pay attention to things closest to you first and scan things further away periodically as a second sweep. (Photo credit: Time Out)
  • From a situational awareness standpoint, pay attention to your surroundings. See who is around you and watch what’s going on. Don’t become so focused on obtaining one item or so distracted by the experience that you’re not looking for trouble that might be headed your way.
  • Keep space around yourself and others as much as possible. This might mean purposefully moving away from someone who could intercept your path.
  • Be aware that it isn’t just inside the mall that’s higher risk, it’s the parking lot, too
These blurry images are stills taken from a mall camera from an armed active killer situation at Cascade Mall in Washington State in 2016. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spotting an armed active killer might seem obvious, but it’s better if you see it coming before the situation blows up in your face. Although it applies to thieves as well, it does pay to be aware of anyone behaving in an unusual manner. Sure, that person might simply be a bored spouse or a shoplifter, but what if they aren’t?

Some things that might be considered suspicious include:

  • Attempting to open doors or enter spaces where the person isn’t allowed or shouldn’t be
  • Constantly shifting eyes
  • Nervous behavior
  • Following quickly behind an employee who just entered an employees-only area
  • Carrying an object that seems out of place, including things like guitar cases or backpacks that are clearly packed full
  • Repeatedly slow-rolling by doors in the same vehicle (don’t mistake this for someone waiting to pick up a friend, but do keep an eye on it)
Whether you’re in the mall or in the parking lot going to your vehicle, pay attention to what’s going on around you. (Photo credit: The Mirror)
  • Changing how they’re acting as soon as they realize you’ve noticed them
  • Leaving behind a bag, backpack, or other personal item and walking away
  • Sitting at a table or on a bench for an extended period of time beyond what might be considered a reasonable time frame for the situation
  • Closely watching and assessing passers-by
  • Tense body language that doesn’t fit the shopping setting
  • Entering a bathroom and not re-appearing in a timely fashion
  • Being in a bathroom stall and making noises that sound more like a gun being loaded, or talking to themselves
  • Moving in an aggressive manner

This might sound like a way to spot jerks or random shoppers people-watching, and that’s what it really is. Although most people you take note of won’t be a legitimate threat, there’s always the possibility one will be.

Noticing a potential threat before it’s right in your face requires situational awareness that’s ongoing. Don’t stop paying attention just because you’re having fun. (Photo credit: Deposit Photos)

How Do You Know if Someone is a Threat?

Trust your gut. Your subconscious can and will notice things you miss. If a certain person or situation is making you uneasy, leave. There’s no reason to stay in a place where something feels wrong, even if you can’t figure out why. Maybe it’s nothing, but there’s always the chance something is about to happen, and staying safe should be prioritized over getting that sale item on Black Friday.

You might not see a threat coming. Being prepared to defend yourself is wise whether you’re at the grocery store, home, or the mall. Don’t go in without a plan in place. It can save lives in the event of an attack. It isn’t paranoia when the threats in the world are real, which they are. Enjoy yourself, but be ready for whatever may come.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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