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The 5 Stages of Violent Crime


The 5 Stages of Violent Crime

Most people see violence as a random event. But actually, violent acts, and crimes in general, follow a fairly regular process.

Since the ultimate form of self defense is avoiding a fight altogether, understanding the crime process and spotting the signs of potential violence can help you stay safe.

There are different ways to describe the process of violent crime, but one of the most popular was developed by Marc MacYoung. It is used by the police and military as well as firearm and self defense instructors.

This process is divided into 5 stages. The first 3 stages are where criminals “set up” the crime, which is where awareness can help you avoid a violent encounter. The last 2 stages involve the physical attack, which is where self defense techniques come into play.

  • Stage 1: Intent
  • Stage 2: Interview
  • Stage 3: Positioning
  • Stage 4: Attack
  • Stage 5: Reaction

Let’s take a brief look at each of these stages.

Stage 1: Intent

The step in which a person crosses a mental boundary, becoming a potentially violent attacker. Can be a preplanned decision or a reaction to a particular circumstance. All people have to go through this step, it may happen quickly but it does happen regardless of if you observed the change. Listen to your inner voice, people who are violent have different body language.

When a criminal commits a violent act, it is always a voluntary choice. Except for those who suffer from a sever mental illness, people don’t just snap and suddenly start waving a knife at you. Even when a criminal appears to act on the spur of the moment, the act itself is always planned on some level, consciously or subconsciously.

In addition, there is always some level of mental and physical preparation. It may be putting on a loose sweatshirt to hide a weapon, a decision to take money from someone who appears an easy target, or just a wish to take out frustrations on someone because the criminal is having a bad day.

In most cases, this preparation creates “tells” that broadcast the intent. It could be obvious, such as keeping one or both hands hidden to grasp a weapon, or it could be very subtle, such as slightly more rapid breathing or eyes scanning people as they walk by.

It’s important to be aware of your surroundings and listen to your gut when it tells you that something doesn’t look or feel right about a person or situation.

Stage 2: Interview

In this stage the criminal decides if you are a safe target to attack. You WANT TO FAIL this interview. When you do, the attacker decides that you cannot be successfully or easily attacked. There are five basic types of interviews; regular, hot, escalating, silent, and prolonged.

The interview is a test to assess whether you’re a good victim. It’s called an “interview” because in many cases, it’s actually verbal communication with you.

For example, the criminal might ask you a question, such as “Hey man, you got the time?” or “Can you spare a couple dollars?” How you respond provides a lot of information. How firm or weak is your voice? Do you make direct eye contact or do you look at the ground? Does your body language suggest assurance or fear? Do you look strong or weak?

The criminal is looking for someone who will provide little or no resistance and poses no threat. Even if there is no verbal communication, you could be telegraphing what sort of victim you might be just by how you’re dressed, how you walk, your size and posture, and your level of awareness.

You don’t have to be a 6′ 5″ Navy Seal with bulging muscles and a steely gaze to deter criminals and “fail” the interview. But you’re less likely to be chosen if you appear to be in good health, self assured, and aware of your surroundings.

Stage 3: Positioning

The criminal puts himself in a place to successfully attack you. They do not want to fight you, they want to overwhelm you and to do so must position themselves in a place to do so quickly and effectively. Someone positioning himself to attack removes all doubt that the scenario is innocent, the attack is coming. One key in this step is “fringe areas” where you are close to people but out of range of immediate help. Five types of positioning; closing, cornering/trapping, surprise, pincer, surrounding.

Assuming the criminal has the intent to commit a violent act and has identified one or more potential victims, the next stage is to get into a position to launch the attack.

While you might think of criminals as morons, and in most cases you’d be pretty close to the truth, never underestimate the “street smarts” of those who routinely commit violent acts. Tactical positioning is something they understand and you probably don’t, which gives them a big advantage.

Positioning involves several elements, including how close the criminal can get to you before you realize what’s happening, whether you have an escape route, how many people are nearby who might render aid or call the police, etc. What the criminal is aiming for is to get up close and surprise you at a moment when you can’t easily escape or effectively resist. He doesn’t want a fight. He wants to overwhelm you.

Stage 4: Attack

The criminal is now using force or the threat of force to get what they want. At this point the other three stages have been achieved and the criminal sees no reason for him to not use violence to succeed. Some attacks are merely threats of physical violence, while others are actually violent. At their extreme an attacker can simply walk up to a person and shoot them. There is no way to tell which type of attack will happen, and attacks can change from one type to another suddenly.

At this stage, the criminal has chosen you as a victim and has made the decision to get what he wants from you. This could be a verbal attack or a physical attack or a combination.

For example, the criminal may yell at you aggressively to hand over your wallet. Or the criminal may throw a sucker punch to disorient you and gain immediate compliance for surrendering your wallet. Or the criminal may draw a knife threatening to stab you unless you give him your wallet. You’ll never know what kind of attack is coming until it happens.

In the first 3 stages, you have a chance to avoid the conflict. But once you are the victim of an attack, you must focus on self defense and make a fast decision about how you will respond. Your response options range from trying to run away to drawing a weapon to stop the attack. Since every situation is different, only you can make this decision.

Plus, if you’re properly aware of what is going on, you should be assessing the criminal just as he is assessing you up to the point of the attack. How much of a threat is he? Do you have reason to believe he is armed? Is he alone or does he have help nearby? How committed is he to doing you harm?

Stage 5: Reaction

After an attack a criminal examines how he feels about the act. This is where a robbery becomes a murder, or where a rape becomes a seriously violent attack. Rapists’ reactions are consistently the most dangerous; if the rapist does not feel empowered enough he will often turn violent to get the feeling of power from it. Until the criminal is completely out of sight, you are still in danger even if you have completely and totally cooperated. This means that it is far easier to avoid violence than to remove yourself from it.

This stage is about how the criminal reacts to the attack and to your response. Does he get a thrill from the attack? Does he escalate his violence when you resist? Does he retreat when he gets what he wants or does he want to prolong the situation?

Just as you won’t know what sort of attack is coming, you won’t know how the criminal will react once the attack is launched. You can’t know what is going on in someone else’s head, so this is where a simple mugging could turn into a murder or rape. You need to be prepared to respond effectively to both the attack and to how the attack develops.

In future posts, we’ll examine some of these stages in greater depth. For now, just realize that crime is a process and is almost never random. As a crime is developing, you have a chance to spot the signals and avoid the violence. This is always your goal: to win the fight by seeing it before it happens and avoiding it before it starts.


The Five Stages of Violent Crime are copyrighted by Marc MacYoung and can be found on his website, and in his book, “Safe in the City”, from Paladin Press.