Jim has a background in military aviation, specializing in combat rescue and close air support. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the policy or position of the Air Force or Department of Defense, and no references here should be interpreted as an endorsement of any product or service by any government agency.
Ever get that tingling sense that someone is coming up behind you? We found a company that invented a personal security radar that could drastically limit an adversary’s ability to surprise you. That’s worth talking about.
With some reasonable preparation, proportional to your personal risk of having to fight at night — you can use the darkness to gain and maintain gross overmatch. Start by sorting out your own personal risk, which should drive your investment in training and equipment. Consider both technical and non-technical ways you can improve your ability to see and screw with your adversary’s ability to see.
Traffic stops are dangerous and unpleasant. A lot of forces converge to make traffic stops dangerous: cops get killed on traffic stops, so they are anxious about them, some communities feel unfairly targeted and perceive a risk from the police, and everyone is at risk to distracted and drunk motorists passing by the stop. No one likes being pulled over, especially if they don’t trust the police. There has to be something we can do to make this whole thing safer and easier for everyone
Layers are important, otherwise you subject yourself to a single-point-of-failure problem. I frequently hear people talk about home security like they are checking a box. They want to be able to say, “I have a Glock, so I’m good” or “I have an alarm system, so I’m good” or, “I have a big dog, so I’m good.”
No. You’re not good. For every measure, there is a countermeasure – and often it is a simple one. A house alarm can be bypassed. A dog can be poisoned. A gun can be stolen while you’re away from it.
Home security starts with passive measures like geography, then landscaping, surveillance, counter-surveillance, access control, lighting, notification, “security hygiene,” planning, training, rehearsing, and then those last resort active countermeasures like “shooting him a bunch of times.” You can own a hundred guns, and if they break in while you are at work – all of those guns just became more value for the dirtbags to carry out your door and sell to even bigger dirtbags. If they break in while you are asleep, and you leave your guns loose, you may be arming your own murderer. You can have the same alarm system the National Security Agency uses, and if your wife opens the door for an attacker because he is wearing a UPS uniform, the outcome is still bad. So let’s figure out some layered steps we can take to give that intruder all the D’s: Deter, Delay, Detect, Defeat, Deny, Degrade, Destroy, and dRecover so that you can appropriately manage your risk.
And Risk Management is a huge deal in this. We previously discussed the concept of Operational Risk Management, the process for analyzing the probability and severity of a hazard, and assessing and employing useful ways to mitigate that threat. What hazards are you trying to deal with? Burglary? Car theft? Home invasion robbery? Stalker? While the severity of each of those is established, the probability varies on your location and lifestyle. Take some time to work out some of those probabilities in your area. Pull up a crime map, and your city’s crime stats. Look at national crime stats. What are the odds a home invasion crew is going to hit your house? 1 in 10? 1 in 100? 1 in 100,000? Adjust your security posture and investment accordingly. If you live in a rough neighborhood full of meth labs and pot dealers, your odds might be 1 in 10 as crews hit your house looking for your product (whether you have it or not, these crews are not known for their expert analysis or quality control). If you live in a wealthy suburban neighborhood, your odds might be more like 1 in 100,000, but your odds of getting your Mercedes stolen out of your driveway might be 1 in 5.
So what can you do to dial down the probability and severity of a criminal intrusion? We built a list. You do not have to do all of these, but you should consider each one and whether the risk it mitigates justifies the cost in time and dollars to you. Though this is not a checklist, you can use it to start your own assessment of your home and help sort out the different layers of security you can put between yourself and the home invasion robbery crew.
Location Location Location
It starts with picking a low risk house in a low risk neighborhood. Next time you move, pull up a crime map and talk to locals about crime in your town. Try to pick a neighborhood with some distance from a main road artery or freeway, and ideally, a neighborhood with limited access. Gated communities are good for that if you can afford it. The gate doesn’t stop a committed attacker, but it does create a psychological boundary that will deter the lesser criminals. I like houses on cul-de-sacs and dead-ends, because I want foreign traffic in the neighborhood to stand out.
Know Your Neighbors
When you move in, throw a housewarming party and meet your neighbors. Learn names, faces, cars, and habits. In addition to building a mutual support network, you are working to form a baseline sense of what normal in the neighborhood looks like. Consider forming a neighborhood watch and a neighborhood Facebook or NextDoor page. Sometimes those pages can get ridiculous with neighborhood feuds over loose dogs and fireworks, but they can also be huge for detecting criminals doing surveillance and for creating a strong social norm to report suspicious behavior. In my experience, neighbors like to do a behavior called “prairie dogging” where they will pop on to the neighborhood Facebook page and say: “I see a white car lurking slowly through the neighborhood!” and another five neighbors will chime in, “I see it too!” That is where you need to step in and say, “Please call the non-emergency number for the police department and report it at #XXX-YYYY, and if you can do it safely, snap a picture of the car/driver/plate.” Calling the police is scary to a lot of people, but they will do it if you persistently encourage it and give them “permission” to do it.
A second element of knowing your neighbors is to challenge strangers in the neighborhood. If someone is parked in a car across the street from your house, go be neighborly! Say hello! Ask if they need any help finding something. Encourage your neighbors to do the same. It makes your neighborhood an inconvenient place to surveil.
What we are shooting for here is herd immunity… with a little mutual support, your whole neighborhood is safer, and that makes your home much safer. Encourage your neighbors to keep an eye on your house and to text you if they see an unusual car in your driveway.
Remove or Hide Obvious Attractants
Most home intruders are property criminals, looking for cash or easy-to-liquidate items that are easy to grab. In your house, keep blinds and curtains closed, and make sure that TVs and computers aren’t visible to passers by. Leave a carton or trunk for delivery drivers to place parcels in out of view – so you don’t have a stack of boxes from Amazon sitting at your front door.
Absence is an attractant. Piled up mail, deliveries, and newspapers all indicate absence. A dark house interior indicates absence. You can put lights on a timer, but the newest generation of LED light bulbs is so energy efficient that I just leave a couple of lights on 24/7/365. Social media posting about your travel plans or vacation is also an indicator – but if you are so lax in your social media privacy settings that a stranger can see stuff like that, you have already declared yourself an easy target.
The first place they will look is in a car in the driveway. Keep your car in the garage if at all possible. If you cannot, keep the car as empty as possible. Don’t leave anything that could be mistaken as valuable in sight in your car. Oh, and the stickers on your car, like gun culture stickers – they tell people that they are probably going to find loose guns in your house.
In my last neighborhood, we had a string of break ins that all started with car break ins. The intruder walked down the block trying door handles. When he hit an unlocked car (several a night in a neighborhood full of military families who should have known better), he would ransack the car and then hit the garage door opener. And then he was in the garage stealing tools, and then into the house.
The most common method of car theft in my region is warm-up theft. People start their cars in the morning and then go back inside “just for a minute.” Granted, protecting your car from theft is a separate topic from protecting your home, but it will ruin your day.
Make the Household Look and Sound Occupied
Pretending you aren’t there is a dumb tactic. I know a lot of people, particularly women, who refuse to answer the door if someone rings the doorbell. They were taught to pretend they aren’t there as a safety precaution. I think that is bad risk management, and you can see videos of burglary crews ringing doorbells and kicking in doors on houses they think are unoccupied. Often when they are checking to see if the house is occupied, they’ll have a cover story such as selling magazines, looking for a person who doesn’t live there, or asking to use your phone. Use your security cameras and peep hole to assess the visitor, and then talk to them through the door. If they are doing door-to-door sales, tell them you will call the police 100% of the time on them (and then call the police – these are often scams or tactics to surveil burglary targets). That might seem harsh or extreme, and these might be legitimate salespeople trying to make a living – but if they are knocking on my door, I want them checked for warrants. The only exception is girl scout cookies… you can buy girl scout cookies.
I’m sorry, I don’t open the door for visitors, my husband and his SWAT team buddies are on the way home though and will be here any minute if you want to talk to him.
Alternatively, there are recordings and machines that play dogs barking. You can try that as well. Just consider that silence has risk. One easy way to cut down on door knocks is to mount a NO SOLICITING sign on your front door, you could also try a DO NOT KNOCK – BABY SLEEPING sign.
Report Suspicious Activity
When reporting, try to be a good witness, snap a picture on your smartphone if you can. Try to note meaningful description points: Size (how many are there?) Activity (what are they doing?) Location (where are they and where are they headed?) Uniform (what are they wearing?) Time (When did you see them, when did you last see them?) and Equipment (what do they have with them? Car description?). When describing a person, work big to small. Adult or Youth? Black/White/Hispanic/Asian? Male/Female? Tall/Short? Skinny/Heavy? Colors of clothes? Red Shirt over Blue Jeans? White wife beater over tan shorts?
Most people have been taught not to call 911 unless it is a dire emergency – consider that any suspicious activity on your property is probably worth calling 911 over. I would rather call 911 and not need help than delay calling and end up needing help. Remember that in most cities, it may take ten minutes for police to arrive. Right now while you are thinking about it, look up and save the non-emergency number for your police department. Many departments now have a smartphone app that will allow you to make a non-emergency report and even upload pictures without having to call anyone.
Criminals have to be able to hide from view. Don’t give them handy places. Look at your house from the street and see if there is a bush or tree that allows someone to mess with a door or window without being seen from the road, or to ambush you on your way to the door. If you want to plant things, plant the nastiest jerk of a thorny bush you can.
Criminals like darkness because it allows them to hide from view. You don’t have to light your house like a prison, but you should consider adding a driveway light, pathway lights, and reducing big shadows at night that offer good concealment. I go back and forth on motion-sensing lights. They have a neat psychological effect, and they save energy, but I have also had many simply fail. I lean more toward keeping all the lights on but with high efficiency light bulbs. Consider also adding lights to each side of your house.
There is a second aspect to lighting: interior lighting impacts what a prowler can see, whether the house looks occupied, and what you can see from inside the house. Walk around the outside of your house at night. Can you see in? Can you see in well enough to figure out whether the house is occupied? Can you see in well enough to see a laptop sitting on the kitchen table? Have a friend walk outside while you are inside. Can you see him from your window, peep hole, or cameras? I keep the interior of my house mostly pretty dim at night to make myself harder to see.
Cameras are important but they also have limitations and require some planning — otherwise your camera might only help you confirm, “yep, you got robbed!” Wireless cameras are the easiest to install (and many alarm systems include them now), but may be bandwidth limited. Wired cameras are expensive to install and maintain, but allow for greater numbers and sometimes greater recorded resolution. Cameras are light sensitive and need some light source to work well at night, but night-optimized cameras can also get washed out if there is too much light in view. Resolution is a big deal: The camera might capture your car getting stolen, but you may only record a hoodie-clad blob stealing your car.
The key to cameras is understanding what you are trying to do with them. Detect a threat? Then you need 360 coverage, and some method of alerting you to movement. Gain actionable information to decide whether the intruder is a threat and to help you maneuver against him? Then you need to be able to access the feed from anywhere. Gather enough evidence to enable a prosecution and recover your property? Then you need resolution, clarity in low-light, secure data storage (you might get great footage but that doesn’t help if they carry that footage out the door as they steal the DVR it is recorded on), and camera placement that will catch faces and license plates.
Bear in mind that for some applications, a well-placed hunting trail camera might work very well for a fraction of the cost of a full camera system.
A dark, grainy image often is not enough to identify or prosecute an attacker.
Photo posted in a local neighborhood watch Facebook page.
The trouble with alarms is their false alarm rate. Many police departments have had so many false alarms that they simply don’t respond to alarms until a human in the loop has verified a break in. And many people get so frustrated with the hassle that they fail to arm the alarm. Before you sign a contract with an alarm company, talk to a few local cops and hear their assessment of the alarm companies in the area.
That said, my family has a web-enabled alarm/camera system that chimes when someone approaches the door, records them, allows us to hear them, and transmits it to our phones. That system is pretty slick (but I don’t endorse that particular brand because the company has been pretty annoying to work with). The most important part of an alarm system is the yard sign and window stickers. It will not deter all criminals, but it will make your house look like more hassle than the next house on the block.
Consider less conventional alarms as well. You can achieve many of the same effects by having bells or chimes on your doors and windows. Hell, you can even go full classy and tie beer cans on strings to your doors and windows. You can buy individual door and window alarm components that will at least give you warning. Even basic landscaping choices like noisy gravel outside your windows can make an intruder’s job harder.
Doors and Windows
The point of your efforts at doors and windows is to slow the attacker’s entry, force him to make noise, and buy you reaction time. Take a walk around your house and look at all the access points. Is there a sliding glass door you can pop out of the tracks? Is there a window-mounted air conditioning unit you can shove in or rip out? Is there an easy way to get to an open window on the second floor?
The front door should be lighted, dead bolted, and have an iron or steel security door protecting it. An unlocked door does you no good and a surprising number of people leave their doors unlocked. Consider using an electronic keypad deadbolt so that you can lock the door without worrying about locking yourself out. You can substantially slow an attacker with a metal security door and a long door strike (the plate in the door frame where the bolt from the door meets the frame) mounted with long screws. If your front door has an embedded window, you might consider a double-sided deadbolt lock keyed on both sides, so that an intruder can’t just smash the window, reach in, and unlock the door.
Windows are chronic weak points around a house. Start by keeping them closed and locked. Add secondary locking with a dowel or rod. For extra points, you might consider security bars (but if you do, get the sort that you can open in an emergency). If the aesthetics of security bars don’t suit you, consider adding a security film laminate to your windows… similar to tinting film on a car window. Security film can make it a lot harder to just throw a rock through the window and gain entry. The only caution on the security film is that semi-reflective film has a one-way mirror effect, which can backfire if your interior lighting is brighter than your exterior lighting.
Dog doors are also obvious weak points. If you must use a dog door, isolate it in such a way that someone entering through it only finds themselves in the garage or laundry room – and meets another deadbolt on their way into the house.
The safest place for your important documents and many of your valuables is in a safe deposit box at a bank. Deposit boxes cost almost nothing, have inherent fire protection, and enjoy all of the resources of that bank’s security. But there are also good reasons not to use one. There are limits on what you can put in a deposit box, and when you can access it. I have had great customer experiences at some banks and terrible experiences at other banks.
If you decide that you need to keep your documents and valuables in a safe at home, there are a few key considerations: there is no such thing as a fireproof safe, there is no such thing as a burglar-proof safe (Though we don’t necessarily endorse this brand, we think this video brings up interesting issues in gun safes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRPz6IKdiK4 ). A safe must be bolted to the foundation of your house to do any good, otherwise a determined burglar can just cart it out your front door. A safe must be locked to do any good. In the military, we have OPEN/CLOSED magnets on our safes as a reminder to lock the safe when we are done accessing it.
Actual surveillance image of a home burglary crew loading a gun safe into the back of a pickup truck after sliding it out of a house. (Photo released by Albuquerque Police Department)
Here at Tactical Tangents, we’re dog guys. But we will also be the first to point out the limitations of dogs. Not all dogs are great security dogs — in fact, a little yappy dog may be better able to deter an intruder than a big traditional guard dog breed. You may be tempted to get an actual guard dog, or so-called attack dog. That isn’t as simple as it sounds. An untrained dog that is simply aggressive is as dangerous to your family and your neighbors as it is to the intruder. A trained dog with an untrained handler isn’t much better. If you seriously want to pursue a true guard dog, look up the sport of Schutzhund. Until then, think of the dog as an augmentation to your alarm system. Her job is to wake you up in time for you to appropriately react. You may not even need a dog, sometimes you can achieve deterrence with the appearance of a dog in the backyard – BEWARE OF DOG signs, dog bowls, a dog house, and dog toys might be enough. In fact, some regions and cultures use geese as alarms. Of course… then you have to deal with owning a goose.
The No Trespassing Sign Was for Your Safety, Not Ours.
Photo Credit: Sacher, Lynsey “Stay back, pup” Squid and Shmuel share venison rib cage 10.26.13
Your Bedroom is Usually the Target
Many burglars will head straight to the master bedroom and master closet because that is where people tend to keep valuables like jewelry, guns, and cash. So… don’t keep valuables there. Your jewelry box does not have to live on your dresser, it can live in a utility closet. One friend of mine even keeps a decoy safe full of washers and sand in his master bedroom closet to give burglars something to waste time on. I don’t have the energy for that, but I appreciate his commitment to irritating a burglar!
You might consider hardening the bedroom door. I don’t think you necessarily need to go full “safe room,” but you might consider that most residential doors are hollow, and made of combinations of cardboard and particle wood. You can punch a hole in a bedroom door with no real effort.
Make Peace with your Stuff
Property crime is so prevalent and so hard to defeat that many law enforcement agencies simply will not expend resources to go hunt down your stolen laptop. Make peace with that now. Make your stuff replaceable, and hard to sell. Start by getting good renter’s or homeowner’s insurance. Make copies of important documents and take a video of your key belongings to smooth your insurance claim process. Take photos of your cars to give to the police if they are stolen. Permanently mark or engrave all of your key valuables to make them harder to sell second-hand. Get religious about backing up your data in a secure way. Make an inventory of your valuables — especially your guns.
I know what some of you are thinking: This guy is an idiot! If I make a list of my guns, then The Man will know what guns I have! I didn’t say you had to give that list to The Man, but you do need to make that list if you have made a serious investment and expect an insurer to cover them, or the police to record them as stolen. It can be on a bar napkin, but you need the makes, models, serial numbers, purchase cost and date, and maybe a photo of each gun. I resisted doing that for a long time until I realized those guns are probably my biggest asset investment. I found an app for my smartphone that made it so easy that I am going to give an unsolicited shout out to Gun Log SPC. Through that app, you can log all the pertinent info on the gun, snap some photos of it, snap a photo of the receipt, and load it all up to a spreadsheet on your computer. Don’t forget accessories like scopes.
Remember that you are on the backside of the decision cycle when someone breaks into your house. You are reacting, you do not know who the intruder is or what they are going to do. You might wake up from a deep sleep to the sound of a window crashing. What do you grab first? Your glasses? Your phone? Your trusty .50 Desert Eagle? Your boyfriend? Do you stay put, close on him until contact, or rally the family to some sort of safe room? That depends on a lot of factors. I cannot blindly give you a plan, but I can give you an example:
-CRASH- Window shatters.
I tell my girlfriend to get down and call 911. I put my glasses on, grab my gun, and hit a button that turns on all the exterior lights in the house. I get to kid 1’s room and stage at the top of the stairs. I stay put until I have a reason not to. Kids are to get under the bed (or in their closets) and stay there until mom and dad say otherwise. If anyone but mom and dad come into their room they are to scream as loud as they can.
Is that a perfect plan? No. It has flaws, but it is a plan.
It is great that you have a plan, but does your boyfriend know it? Do your kids? You’ll find that little kids tend to want to come out of their rooms to see what the commotion is about. If you run a couple of rehearsals, you will start to detect problems in the plan, and iron out execution problems. Maybe the kid won’t fit under the bed. Maybe you crash into a table in the hallway in the dark.
Okay, Jeez, I Know You Just Want to Hear About the Guns
Yes, I think you need to be prepared to incapacitate a violent attacker, and I think a gun is ultimately the best way to do it. So… shotgun, rifle, or pistol? I don’t care which one you choose. They each have advantages and drawbacks. Buy a decent quality gun from a major manufacturer, take a class on how to use it well, and feed it decent quality defensive ammo from a major manufacturer. There are two things I am an absolutist on: you MUST get training, and the gun MUST have a light on it if you intend to use it for home defense.
That last thing confuses some people, so let me explain: You have an absolute duty to distinguish friend from foe. You have a legal and moral responsibility to determine if the intruder is an actual threat to you, and if so, whether that threat warrants deadly force. Weird things happen at 3am. That could be your own kid sleep walking. That could be your daughter’s boyfriend sneaking out of the house after a make out session. I know it is fun to joke about shooting daughter’s boyfriend… but there won’t be anything funny about it if that happens for real – not to the boyfriend or his parents, not to your daughter, and not to the prosecutors. You need light to see well. You need light to perceive enough of the situation to make a good decision.
Some tactical instructors will teach you that you should never have a light mounted to the gun, because the bad guy can see your light and shoot you. They advise instead on holding that light in your weak hand. I think that is stupid advice. I think you will already have your hands full, and you will be short about 60 IQ points in the 3am adrenaline dump. I think our little ape brains struggle in moving our hands in different directions simultaneously under stress. I challenge anyone who follows that school of thought to shoot a USPSA, IDPA, or 3-Gun match with a flashlight in one hand, and tell me how it goes. If you are concerned with highlighting yourself, keep the light off until you need it.
I also want you to think about how you are going to store and access that gun. Gun storage is a risk management issue in itself – you have to balance accessibility with safety and security. Simply leaving it under your pillow or loose on your nightstand is begging for a theft while you aren’t home, or an unintentional use by a visitor. Even if you don’t have kids, you need to strongly consider locking the gun(s) up when you have visitors. Particularly if you don’t have kids, I think you would be shocked to learn how fast a toddler will find the most dangerous object in the house.
Security is Not a Box You Check, it is a Continuing Risk Management Effort
At its core, home security is about habit patterns. You want to have a healthy daily pattern that dials down your risk without making you needlessly paranoid. Always lock your doors and close your windows. Always do a scan of your car to make sure you aren’t leaving valuables. Always ask yourself what someone walking down the street might notice about your house. Always note unusual visitors in the neighborhood. Always foster a culture of mutual support among your neighbors. You can do all of those things without spending a dollar.
You may wish to go beyond that by stacking layers of physical security between you and the bad guys. Hopefully this article gave you a few ideas as far as your options and risks. I caution you though to keep a realistic view of the risks — you are much more likely to have to deal with a house fire or major accidental injury in your home than you are to face a serial killer. Plan and prep accordingly.
Remember that if you are in a gunfight in your family room, you have already lost. Even if you win, which is not guaranteed, you are still going to have a bad night, and your family is already victimized. It is better for you and your family to make your house so obnoxious to target that the bad guy moves on to the next house, and the next neighborhood. If he does make it in, you want to set yourself up in a position of advantage by giving yourself enough warning and having a well-rehearsed plan.
About the Author
Jim is a contributing editor in the Tactical Tangents project. His background is in military aviation and close air support. One of his goals in this project is to help his neighbors fight a regional uptick in crime in New Mexico. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of his or any other agency. Any products mentioned or linked to are intended to aid the convenience of the audience and enable further research, and should not be interpreted as an endorsement by Jim, Tactical Tangents, or any other agency.
Special Thanks to Rob Reed, Amy D., Jeff R., Officer Mike G., Officer Mike D., Lt Dave T., Marc C., NY Wiseman, Jared BDP, Drew, Dani G., Damian S., and Roberto, who were consulted during the research for this article.
Tactical Tangents is a free online resource for professional development of the Public Safety, Armed Forces, and Self Defense communities, provided by PIH Tactics LLC. For further information, please visit TacticalTangents.com and follow us on Facebook. We welcome your suggestions, if you have comments or corrections, please let us know. If you found this article useful, please share it with your friends and neighbors.
Cover Photo: Surveillance camera footage of a home invasion robbery crew in front of a house, released by Volusia County Sheriff’s Office.