Crime & Survival

Tips from the top

BRYAN TARNOWSKI PHOTOGRAPH

Plenty of Louisiana law enforcement agencies offer crime prevention tips.

Few do it better than New Orleans Police Major (ret.) Howard P. Robertson, 63, now chief of investigations and witness security at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.

Until recently, Chief Robertson worked as WDSU-TV/6’s on-air crime and safety specialist, delivering crime prevention information in an authoritative yet neighborly way.

During an interview at his corner office, with three prisons towering behind him, Chief Robertson’s safety messages still seem designed to empower citizens on how to protect themselves and their loved ones – without becoming overly reliant on police.

For example: If you’re at a Mardi Gras parade, a second-line or a festival, and someone starts shooting, should you hit the ground or run for cover?
Chief Robertson: “Hit the ground – or get behind a car. I would cover somebody like a loved one. Almost all of these Mardi Gras shootings happen very quickly. The shooting is over before people start running. You can get trampled running (with a crowd).”

Before retiring as a 32-year veteran of the NOPD in 1999, Robertson organized security for Mardi Gras and other special events as commander of the department’s Special Operations Division. He is perhaps best remembered as the commander of a highly decorated Special Weapons and Tactics Team, which during the ’90s resolved more than 99 percent of its SWAT “rolls” without deadly force – a bright spot in an otherwise dark time when the department led the nation in civilian complaints of police brutality. A former Chief of Police in Thibodaux, La., who joined New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzarro in 2009, Chief Robertson observes his 45th year in Louisiana law enforcement by sharing some crime tips with New Orleans Magazine readers.

None involved gun ownership.

“I don’t advocate people owning guns. It’s more likely a citizen will accidentally shoot a loved one, or a kid will accidentally shoot another kid, compared to the likelihood of someone actually stopping a perpetrator.”

Kidnap/Rape. “Women are always concerned about being abducted,” Robertson says, a veteran speaker of metro area crime forums. Rapists who abduct their victims sometimes kill them so they can’t be identified.

“If you’re kidnapped or carjacked ­– if you think you’re going to die – you have to make a choice to try and escape,” Robertson says.

“If the woman is driving and the guy has a gun, she should try to rear-end somebody – preferably at a busy intersection with a stop light. What happens next? Everybody turns around to see the ‘accident’. All of a sudden, the guy with the gun has a lot of witnesses.” The gunman will more likely get out and run than shoot his hostage.

“If the gunman is the driver and you’re the passenger, wait for a stop sign at a busy intersection” or some other distraction. “Be prepared to unsnap your seatbelt and roll out the door. You might get abrasions. You might suffer a broken arm but you’ll live – I can’t guarantee you that you’ll live if you let him take you.”

Try and avoid such drastic scenarios, he says. Take some simple advice:

If you’re a woman out alone at a restaurant, a house party or some other function, ask someone to walk you to your car. “It’s better to be a little embarrassed than to become a crime victim.”

Home invasions. If you hear someone breaking in the house, the safest room in the house is the bathroom. Take your cell phone, close the door and call 911. Lie on the floor with your feet pressed against the door to keep the attacker out. “The strength in your legs is 10 times the strength in your arms,” Robertson says. Even if the attacker is armed and shoots through the door, stay on the floor, where you have minimized yourself as a target.

Armed Robbery. “If you’re the victim of an armed robbery, don’t resist,” Robertson says. “Give them everything you have.” You can replace your property – after you survive.

Armed robbers look for someone who they think is “fearful” and who isn’t going to testify, says Robertson, who interviewed a convicted armed robber and rapist at Hunt state prison, two weeks before this interview. “They are looking for the easy target. Ideally, they’re looking for the tourist because even if they get caught, chances are the tourist will not return to testify against them in court.”

Armed robbers avoid eye contact. They lower their heads or turn to the side. “You will never hear an armed robbery victim say, ‘The robber walked up, looked me in the face and robbed me.’ They will walk past you, then come back and likely rob you from behind.”

Robertson says if you’re approached by suspicious persons, “look them in the face. Tell them hello – and keep walking. If you don’t – they’ll know you are afraid – then you will become a victim.”

Robbers view waiters, waitresses and other people wearing service uniforms as “walking ATMs.”

Service workers can cut their losses by creating a “give-away wad” – 20 or more $1 bills wrapped in a rubber band. Stash the rest of your tips in a money belt or somewhere else. “If you get robbed, give them the wad,” says Robertson, who then warns: “If you say you don’t have anything, they get angry.”

“Suspicious persons.” “People ask me all the time – what’s a suspicious person look like?” Chief Robertson says. “If you think somebody is suspicious, they are. It’s not how a person looks or dresses, it’s how they act.” Criminals avoid eye contact because they don’t want to be identified. They obscure their faces.

If someone suspicious approaches, cross the street. Go back inside. “Listen to your inner self. If you’re driving and you think you are being followed, the worst thing you can do is to go home. Instead, drive to the emergency room of a hospital, a gas station, a fire station, a police station – somewhere where there’s a lot of people or lot of lights.” If you’re in a residential neighborhood, go to a house with a well-kept lawn or toys in the yard, indicating families with children. “Nine out of 10 times, those are the people that will help you.”

Home & Kids. “Look out for your neighbor. Know the people in your block.” If you’re at work or away from home in the afternoon, make sure your children have strict rules. Know which neighbor they can go to if they don’t feel safe. “That gives kids some confidence and support.”

Do not let your home become known to other kids as “the house with no parents at home.”

“Police cannot overcome what parents don’t do.”

The 45-year law enforcement career of Chief Howard P. Robertson began on Sept. 5, 1967; he joined the New Orleans Police Department as a 17-year-old cadet.

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