The Knockout Game: Situational Awareness and Good Sense are NOT Racism



Recently I had a conversation with a friend about my last “Knockout Game” post ( My friend made a statement that I think many people are saying in private: she’s worried about becoming a potential KO Game victim, but is also afraid that she’ll seem racist if she encounters a group of “thug” looking black teenagers and tries to avoid them.

Her worry meshed with a comment I received on my KO Game post. A reader named Joe was concerned with this statement I made: “And if we’re someday confronted by an unarmed scumbag who looks like he could beat us to death, or if we spot the signs that we’re about to become a playtoy for the ‘Knockout Game’, we’re going to draw, aim, and engage as necessary.” He thought it might be a suggestion to shoot anyone who “looked like” the kind of person who would play the KO game.

I gave both Joe and my friend the same answer. When we’re talking about spotting potential KO game players, we aren’t just looking at appearance. Appearance can matter, but more importantly we’re looking at behavior, at pre-assault indicators.

Many different actions can be pre-assault indicators. Generally speaking, these indicators seem harmless when viewed outside of the overall situation. The trick is to recognize them in context.

For example, if someone puts on a hood, that means nothing by itself. Simply looking around at their surroundings means nothing either. And if they cross a street, so what? But let’s say you’re walking down a sidewalk toward your car, late on a clear night after businesses have closed, and see a young man walking toward you on the other side of the street. The man looks around (possibly checking for witnesses or people who would interfere), puts on a hood (possibly trying to make himself harder to identify), and crosses the street toward you (the businesses are all closed; he’s not going toward them, he’s possibly directly targeting you).

Now you have a choice. Should you take evasive action, maybe change direction or head toward the nearest well-lit area? Should you maybe pull a small flashlight and shine it at him if he gets close? Should you put your hand on your concealed pistol, ready to draw and fire if he makes a threatening move?

Or, if the man is a minority, should you ignore his actions and blindly keep walking, because you’d rather risk death than seem racist?

Several years ago a cop friend and I were in New York City visiting a friend. We were in a subway station waiting for a train when I saw a young black man with a young Hispanic man walk toward us. Both men were wearing baggy clothes and hoods, but it was cold; they didn’t look all that different from anyone else. And there were blacks and Hispanics all over NYC. That didn’t catch my attention either. What raised my alert level was where the two young men came from. They walked out from the train tunnel, where people aren’t supposed to go, stepped over the tracks and climbed onto the platform.

I immediately bumped my cop buddy and motioned toward the two men. His guard went up also. We kept our eyes on the two men and readied ourselves. The men noticed us watching them, and kept going.

Was it racist for us to be wary of the young black and Hispanic men? Nope. My cop buddy was black; we were the same racial makeup as the men we were watching. It was their actions that caught our eye, not their race.

In the KO game assault videos I’ve seen it wasn’t the physical appearance of the young black males that indicated danger. It was their behavior. Yes, someone’s appearance certainly can indicate danger, and this is the point where people usually scream “That’s racist!” But a threatening appearance isn’t limited to any one race.

How would you react if you were on a bus and a young white man with a shaved head, “trouble gangster” and “wicked ways” tattooed around his eyes, “Aryan Brotherhood” and a swastika tattooed on his neck, sat next to you? Regardless of his actions, would his appearance suggest he’s a possible threat? I’d say yes. I’d say the same thing about a black man wearing a red ball cap, red pants and a red “Thug4Life” t-shirt with a “Money Over Bitches” tattoo on one arm and “Half-Dead Fry Head” on the other. And about a young Hispanic male with blue shirt and shoes, gang tattoos on both arms, and tattoos depicting a drive-by shooting and a robbery on his chest.

At this point, I’m sure some readers nodded in agreement about the white power guy, but felt uncomfortable at my description of the black and Hispanic gang members because talking about minority criminals is “racist”. All I can say is, describing reality isn’t racism. I stopped that tattooed white parolee one night in a mostly black and Hispanic neighborhood. He was one of the most polite, cooperative people I’ve ever stopped, but I still viewed him as a threat. I arrested a black gang member who was high on “fry” (a joint dipped in formaldehyde or PCP) and had a tattoo of a half skull-half face with a joint in its mouth that announced he was a “Half Dead Fry Head”. He didn’t fight or run from us, but yes, his appearance suggested he was a threat. And I stopped a Hispanic male with a robbery scene and drive-by shooting tattooed on his chest. He was also polite and cooperative, but was a dedicated, hardcore gang member. Yes, he was a threat.

If you see someone who is advertising their criminal tendencies and your alert level goes up, that doesn’t make you racist. It means you’ve got some sense, you don’t ignore obvious signs of danger and you’re being situationally aware. If you spot an obvious threat like those I’ve described, then identify pre-assault indicators, you may have just saved your life.

Once again, I’d like to point out that I ain’t no expert on nuthin’. But in almost 20 years as a cop, I’ve learned a little about pre-assault indicators. Some of this knowledge was gained the hard way, and I’d like to share it with you. Keep in mind that I’m discussing situational awareness in general, not only discussing the KO Game.

Now I’d like you to watch this short video, which most of us have seen several times already.

Note that the victim in this assault does not appear to be paying any particular attention to his surroundings. He’s simply walking down what appears to be an alley, face forward, minding his own business. He doesn’t seem to give a second thought to the fact that the young black males approaching him are spread out almost all the way across the alley, leaving him only a small gap to pass through. And he takes no action at all when one of the young males moves sideways toward him. My guess is that the victim never recognized any signs of impending danger. In this case the young males don’t, by appearance alone, seem to be threatening. But some of their behavior before the attack certainly suggests a threat.

Let’s look at the first indicator I mentioned. The young males are spread out, taking up most of the alley. While that might just mean those kids are selfish jerks, it could also be an intentional effort to channelize the victim into what we soldiers call a “choke point”: an area where a victim’s freedom of movement and action are restricted. When soldiers plant land mines, dig ditches and emplace concrete obstacles, it’s not to simply stop enemy vehicles. It’s to force them into a specific area, like a narrow mountain pass, where they can be easily ambushed. Those attackers did the same thing to their KO game victim.

Now take another look at the video, right around the 00:21 mark. Even in the blurry, distant video you can see the attacker make an obvious, deliberate move to his left just prior to throwing the punch. While it might seem that the victim had almost no time to react before being punched, he actually had more than enough. If he had noticed the signs, he could have stopped and waited for the group to pass. He could have kept his eyes on the young men, giving the non-verbal clue that he was watching them as closely as they were watching him. Even if he had walked into the choke point they created, he still could have ducked or sidestepped once he saw the punch about to be thrown. Any of those countermeasures could have kept him from laying facedown and unconscious on the pavement.

But here are my questions: did the victim walk blindly into an ambush even though he felt uncomfortable when he saw the group of young black males approaching him? Did he intentionally disregard signs of danger, because he didn’t want to appear racist?

One night I arrested a murder suspect. He had stabbed someone to death at a bar, and I found him the next night as he was hurriedly loading possessions into a truck prior to his planned escape from town. I snuck up and surprised him in his front yard; when I ordered him to put his hands up and lay on his stomach he ignored me, protested his innocence and started walking toward me.

I repeated the order. He ignored it and kept coming. He wasn’t cursing, he wasn’t saying “I’m going to kill you”, his demeanor suggested he was friendly. But his actions told a different story. He kept ignoring my commands. He kept walking toward me, despite the fact that he could easily hear me from where he was. He kept talking over me, trying to appear casual. He was about to attack.

Because my flashlight was in his face, he couldn’t see my pistol pointed at him. Despite his apparent friendliness, I knew he was “innocently” closing distance. I expected him to go for a knife, and was ready to shoot him. The sudden appearance of another officer made the suspect stop.

But here’s the twist. The suspect was an illegal alien. He was speaking Spanish as he protested his innocence. Was I being “insensitive”, not considering that he may have been confused rather than uncooperative? Was I stereotyping by assuming he had a knife? Should I have given him the benefit of the doubt and not kept my pistol on him?

It turned out I had arrested the suspect once before, and he had been verbally aggressive and threatening. When I saw him in court later he cursed me out. His friendliness was just an act. Had I given him the benefit of the doubt, and if I hadn’t had backup, I have no doubt he would have stabbed me.

One night I had to run a mental patient off from a truck stop. He had been there for hours bothering customers. I didn’t realize he was a mental patient until I saw the sunglasses he was wearing (at night) still had the “Made in China” sticker on a lens. That, and when I told him he had to leave his first question was, “But then where will I get refreshments?”

I asked for his name and date of birth, then called in a warrant check. The man hadn’t been threatening before that. But as soon as he heard give his name over the radio, he went silent, dropped to one knee, hung his head and covered his face.

I backed away, drew pepper spray and made sure I had space to go sideways if he came at me. When he suddenly sprang back to his feet, angrily demanding to know why I was harassing him, I was prepared for an attack. But he didn’t come at me, maybe because he saw my stance and intermediate weapon in my hand. He left peacefully.

He was black. His race had nothing to do with it. I saw black customers in that truck stop all night, every night; nobody called the police on them and I didn’t run them off. But his behavior made the employees call the police, and his unmistakable pre-assault indicator made me take defensive measures.

On another night I stopped two black men in an area known for narcotics trafficking. The passenger looked like a crackhead. The driver was well-dressed, polite and articulate, but was nervous as hell. I asked the driver to step out and walk to the hood of my car.

The driver and I had a pleasant conversation. Until I asked for consent to search his pockets. Then he stiffened up, went silent for a few moments. When he turned around and put his hands on the hood, his back was rigid and head held way high. I could feel his heart racing as I checked his front pockets. But I also noticed something else, which was even more threatening. His passenger, still sitting in the car, was turned almost all the way around, watching us intently. He was waiting for something to happen.

I broke off the search. The driver was probably about to fight, and the passenger would likely have joined in. I was by myself, with backup at least a couple of minutes away. I chose discretion over valor.

Later that night, I found the driver again. His passenger wasn’t with him. I went ahead and searched the driver that time. And he resisted, because he had about ten rocks of crack in his pocket.

Was I racist for asking to search the driver, or for suspecting he was about to fight? No. I recognized behavioral clues. But one night on another call, I totally missed the signs.

A friend and I arrived on a disturbance call in the projects. The call wasn’t serious, and we detained a “suspect” who wasn’t acting the least bit threatening toward us. He was about 19, tall and thin, wearing saggy, loose-fitting running pants with a drawstring. We asked him to sit on the curb. He complied, and my friend stayed by him while I went to the patrol car’s computer to check him for warrants. As I got in the car, I absentmindedly noticed that the young man had pulled his pants up and was tying the drawstring.

The young man was wanted for violating probation on a felony charge. I walked back to the young man and tried to grab him. From his sitting position, he bolted. We lost him.

That kid knew he had a warrant. When I went to my car he knew I would see the warrant hit. He casually tied his drawstring so his sagging pants wouldn’t interfere when he ran. I missed that obvious clue, and was lucky it was a “pre-run” rather than “pre-assault” indicator.

So what did I learn from the above examples? I learned that watching for clues is much more important than looking at race. Yes, race can matter; I doubt anyone would argue that black victims of Klan assaults in 1950’s Alabama shouldn’t have paid attention to certain white males around them. But race isn’t the most important indicator, and isn’t what I would tell anyone to watch for.

Look for behavior. Look for nonverbal clues. Ask yourself why someone is taking the actions they’re taking. Don’t be afraid to take steps to protect yourself, whether they’re small steps like changing direction or big steps like drawing a weapon. Remember that for all the media attention paid to the Knockout Game, the chances of you becoming a victim are infinitesimally small. Remember that KO Game players can be multiracial. And remember that being aware of your surroundings, looking for pre-assault indicators and exercising good judgment does not make you racist.

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15 Responses to “The Knockout Game: Situational Awareness and Good Sense are NOT Racism”

  1. 1 ScotM

    Glad i can finally comment on one of your stories that i have had some experience in! First though, i’d like to say, that your stories/experiences from both the military and as a LEO are fascinating, i could listen to them all day (and thank God at the end of that day that you’ve survived every one of them).

    Regarding situational awareness, i’m not sure what caused me to be so aware of my surroundings, but it’s one (talent?) that i’ve been blessed to have, and it runs on full speed, 100% of the time. It was weird at first, working at one of my previous jobs, to have my manager make a ‘random’ comment about how he noticed that i always watched what was going on around me, and this was when i worked in a grocery store with hundreds of customers. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, or a bad thing that someone noticed that i watched that much, or if I should be more surreptitious about it. But then again, my co-workers and i would make a game out of it at times (especially the “girl-watching” aspect of it!!).

    Either way, it stuck with me, and especially now that i have a family of my own to protect, i’m particularly observant of my surroundings. With the events of the past few years, one can never be too careful, or fail to be prepared. Whether it’s the KO game, or in a crowded mall when a maniac starts to open fire randomly, i’d rather “look” racist and over-analyze certain people, than be a victim.

    • Scot,

      There you go. You’ve taken a natural talent, enhanced it with constant girl-watching (which is a GREAT way to develop situational awareness :)), and turned into a normal behavior that helps keep you and your family safe. Good stuff.

      Do you carry?

      • 3 ScotM

        Actually JUST received my permit in the mail today (i’m in New York State), and already have two different handguns lined up. Will be carrying everywhere i go from now on (where legal of course). Hoping to take some different courses that allow me to carry in almost every other state as well, since the reciprocity laws are so varying.

  2. Right on all the way around. Some people are dangerous. That has nothing to do with being a good person or a bad person. It is just what they are. There are good dangerous people and bad dangerous people. The only way to pick them out is by their behaviors. Groups of male teenagers, no matter what their race or ethnicity, always deserve a second look.

  3. Pay attention. That’s what I tell my wife, daughters and grand-kids all the time. Don’t become so engrossed in the conversation that you’re having or your phone or what ever. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, because those that have ill will on their minds certainly are.

  4. 8 Reserve Corporal

    Thanks to my krav-maga teacher i now know that “when you don t look around you , then you re looking like a victim”.
    We ve done lot s of training about that and i guess the reserve helped me a lot with that aswell but once you are aware about how situation awareness is important you Just can t think without it.
    One of my best friends is an aussie paratrooper and while de were walking in an unknown neighbourhood with our girlfriends, the girls were chatting together ( way too much 🙂 ) without even looking around themselves. While my friend and i were naturally walking watching our sectors, we werent even aware of it but we figure out later that we should watch around to protect the girls Just in case.
    Long story short, once you ve learn to use situation awareness it s Just as natural as breathing and you don t feel like a scared psycho 😉

  5. 10 zuk

    I think it’s fear of embarrassment that is at the root of not profiling (or willfully not acting when you KNOW you should). People don’t want others to think badly of them for reacting to someone purely on observable traits. We’ve been taught that this is ‘bad.’

    Without any training or awareness, that ‘judging person’ only sees you responding to the most obvious trait–skin color. Couple that with guilt about ‘automatically’ or ‘instinctively’ reacting negatively to a minority (when you are really basing that negative reaction on conscious or unconscious clues) and you could literally “die of embarrassment.”

    Kathy Jackson (gun blogger, and defense instructor) has a good post about this at

    I have personal experience of minority con men specifically targeting a group (liberal, white, students) counting on them to ignore the warning signs _specifically_ because they were coming from a black man. In this case, no one got hurt physically, but it was an expensive lesson to learn. Had the criminals been intent on physical harm, it would have been just as easy for them to play on the victim’s embarrassment and get them in a dangerous place.

    And one more link, if you will indulge me: – he’s no longer actively blogging, but scroll down to the — Monday, May 17, 2010
    From the Archives ~ Recognizing Threats — entry. There are some good photos here of people who seem to be willfully ignoring obvious threats. (The post is good too.) I can only wonder what must have been going thru those people’s minds to discount what seems to be clearly dangerous behavior.


    I think you could also substitute the phrase “political correctness” for fear of embarrassment in everything I’ve said too. Don’t let it kill you.

    • Zuk,

      Thanks for the long comment, lots of good insight there. I’ll check out the blog posts tomorrow when I have more time.

      I’d like to hear the story of the students getting scammed.

  6. 12 zuk

    Well Ok, I haven’t told the story much, because I was one of the victims and most people don’t spend a lot of time talking about their mistakes, but I’ll try to get it in a form that makes sense. Also, it was 25 years ago. And this story benefits from lots of hindsight.

    Imagine if you will…. Large university out west. Currently 62% white, 18% hispanic, 5% black. 25 years ago, I’d guess it was more like 80% 10% and 2%. Politics and social climate about what you would expect from a modern (non-ag, non-technical) university. Enshrines the ideals of diversity, tolerance, and inclusion.

    Enter one “Gilbert R.” and cousin. Gilbert is a conservatively dressed, articulate, funny, shortish, slightly heavyset black man in his late 30’s early 40’s, cousin is a hulking 6′ 2″ or 6’4″ and younger, but seems fairly unthreatening, and is a generally affable guy. Gilbert and his cousin are in town, looking for ‘real estate investments.’ Somehow, they are introduced into my circle of friends and acquaintances. I have a vague memory of someone saying “hey I met this guy, he’s looking for investments, and he seems to be a pretty together guy, you should meet him.”

    Gil has a pretty good line. He’s in town from Detroit, where he was a successful real estate investor, and he’s looking for help expanding. Among the flurry of papers and accolades waved in our direction, he had a magazine with his picture on the cover, and something like “Entrepreneur of the Year”. He’s specifically looking for young, energetic, college kids to help him out. (He is in a college town, and no one wants to hire old tired schlubs anyway, right?)

    Well, I need money! So do some of my friends! Before too long, he has lots of kids working for him. My buddy and I are running a vending machine placement business for him. Several others are working in a pizzeria he’s talked his way into. He says things like “you guys are doing the work, I want you to be part of the business. Why don’t you get the phone and pager accounts in your names? I’m new in town, and …well, it’s hard for me to get treated fairly by people who don’t know me…”

    Something about Gil just doesn’t sit right with me. I never really trust him. I keep working for him, but only because I’m getting paid. Turns out, lots of people WEREN’T getting paid. Some of those folks were even LOANING him money by covering business expenses out of their own pockets.

    Time passes and Gil has expanded his pizza empire to several stores. As far as I can tell, he sweet talked his way into the first one, just taking over the day to day operation. Then he used that one, thru misrepresentation, to leverage his way into others. Before you know it, it’s the classic mob ploy of “busting out” a business– abuse the business’ credit line with suppliers, don’t pay them, get new suppliers, don’t pay them either. Don’t pay the rent or employees, but without fail, send your cousin to pick up the daily cash receipts.

    Whenever someone says they “need a check or their not coming in any more”, or that there “won’t be any tomato paste or cheese today”, he’d give them just enough to keep them coming back. Until at some point, he’d gotten all the cash out he could, and too many people REALLY wanted their money. That very night, my buddy and I went to Gil’s apartment. After several EXTREMELY tense discussions around the dining room table, he cut us a check for what he owed us in wages. Happy that no guns had come out, and determined to be at the bank first thing in the morning, we left. That was the last time anyone in the state saw Gil or his cousin. When the check didn’t clear, we went back to the apartment, but it was empty.

    I was left with a bad check for unpaid wages, as was my buddy. He was also out thousands for expenses. The business liabilities were all in our names too. All the pizzeria employees, and suppliers were left unpaid, as were the landlords, and the owners who sold their businesses to Gil. I think it might have taken six months total to play out.

    And now we come to the relevance of this sad tale of woe. It was pretty obvious that things were coming apart. Missing payroll is a classic sign of a failing business, and Gil asking his workers to put stuff in their names instead of his should have been a HUGE red flag that some kind of scam was going on. Throughout the month or two when it finally fell apart, almost every one of the white kids, and the (white) suppliers I talked to, REALLY didn’t want to believe anything bad about Gil. NO one wanted to push him on honesty issues, or believe the worst about him. He got an extra “free pass” in the due diligence department, because everyone was falling over each other to assure themselves that any misgivings or doubts couldn’t be well founded, because that would just be racist. “Oh yeah, assume the worst of the black man…”

    I know I haven’t really articulated specifically why I focused on the racial component of the relationships. I don’t remember any time when Gil overtly played the race card, but it was definitely there. (It was more likely to be his cousin making a joke or offhand remark that would remind you.) And talking with other employees there was a lot of subtle talk that all boiled down to “This black man who is acting like a criminal couldn’t REALLY be a criminal, could he? Because that would be too stereotypical, and I’m really just being racist, aren’t I?” I was definitely considered to be an @ssh0le whenever I raised the issue of his honesty or integrity.

    And to bring it all back around to your post, which is about threat recognition. It seems that in too many cases people are willfully ignorant of the threat, based on their own desire to feel morally superior to someone who would make a snap judgement based on appearances, or based on embarrassment that they might be thought to be racist for doing so. I know that was true for me and my friends (less so for me, but it was still an element. He did get me for unpaid wages, and more than just one pay period.)

    The truth is that sometimes groups of “x” people are dangerous to be around, and it is probably the other signals they are putting off, and not their skin color, that should be triggering your awareness. (I wouldn’t want to be around white soccer hooligans at the wrong time either, to name just one other group). Giving them a free pass based on your own INTERNAL reasons, while they are clearly broadcasting their own EXTERNAL signals could get you killed.


    Thanks for asking Chris, I hope that wasn’t too long or uninteresting. BTW, as far as I know, no one involved ever filed any criminal complaints. My buddy and I looked into it and were discouraged from filing since Gil was no longer in town.

  7. 13 Reserve Corporal

    Great story and great lesson zuk!
    It’s reminding me a small story
    When i m off duty i m working in a bank in the north of France 15 miles away from the Belgium border.
    When i was new in the company my boss told me ” be very, VERY carefull with black people coming from belgium, don t give them checks or credit cards without double or triple checking everything”
    My first thought was ” this Guy is a moron and a racist”
    After few weeks i simply Discover there was a mafia from Nigeria who was set on belgium using fake IDs and documents to con lots of people…

    My boss never forbid me to give checks or credit cards he Just asked me to be sure when i m doing it to black people from belgium.
    I was blinded by my fear of looking like a racist moron and i wasn t aware about the intels he had
    Sorry again for my English i m pretty sure i miss a lots of mistakes
    Take care

    • 14 zuk

      Reserve Corporal, that is exactly it. Your internal belief over-rode your ability to see the external reality. The stories we tell ourselves are very powerful.

      Of course, it can go the exact other way, which is true racism. You let your internal story paint everyone with the same brush, but again it comes with a willingness to disregard the evidence in front of you.

      Training and knowledge give you the power to recognize the behavior and identify it, then you don’t have to think it is any kind of racism saying “pay attention here- use caution.” Being able to say “He did these three things that indicated he was ready to attack me” is always going to be (and feel) better than “groups of black men acting together make me nervous.”

      Chris, I always learn something from your “no sh!t, there I was…” stories. The little details and the picture you paint are almost as good as seeing it, and a lot less risky to life and limb. 🙂 Thanks,


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