Safety lessons in a virtual Bronx

Personal safety training at the Security Arena

Rising crime, especially in larger Swiss cities, has spawned a new industry – personal safety training.

This content was published on November 30, 2004 minutes

At the Security Arena in Winterthur, students learn to avoid becoming victims of crime.

The classes are held in a warehouse on a revamped industrial estate. For now, they are specifically geared towards the elderly and young women, but in fact, men are much more frequently victims of crime.

Markus Atzenweiler, manager of the Arena, says this is because they take more risks. “Men do not see themselves as victims. They are more likely to walk home on their own late at night, along deserted and narrow streets.”

Based on years of experience as a Zurich police officer, he believes that in 95 per cent of cases, people can avoid being hurt by behaving correctly.

The Arena project has the backing of the local police authorities, which frequently provide speakers for the training sessions.

More crime

With a total population of about 7.4 million, Switzerland has less urban crime than many other European cities. Even so, there is no room for complacency.

In 2003, there were 22,000 more thefts reported than in the previous year. There were also significant increases in the number of rapes, robberies and violent attacks. Break-ins increased by 8,000, and there were 5,000 more car thefts.

The Swiss are gradually catching onto the idea of installing alarms in their cars and homes, and there is increasing awareness of the problem of personal safety.

Securitas Direct International, a burglar alarm company, is tapping into this emerging market, and also providing the funding for the Security Arena, which opened its doors to the public in September.

Dark alleys

The training area looks like a movie set based on downtown New York. There’s a gloomy underpass, a bus shelter, a ticket machine and a cash dispenser – all prime locations for robberies and rapes.

A curtain flutters at an open window, where burglars have forced their way into a tenement house. In the background, New York skyscrapers light up the night sky.

Courses begin with an audiovisual show explaining the philosophy behind them. Students are taught how to try to avoid risks and, if they are caught in dangerous situations, how to take control.
Various scenarios unfold in this creepy setting, with actors playing the roles of criminals, and course participants acting as “victims”.

A man is robbed at gunpoint. A young woman is followed home through a dark underpass, and approached by a stranger, who addresses her in a threatening manner. Another attack takes place at a deserted bus shelter.

Dealing with danger

Atzenweiler says there is always a moment of fear-induced paralysis. “This moment of fear must be overcome. Victims must learn to consciously deal with the danger.”

The ex-policeman is full of good advice. Making a loud noise can catch the attacker off guard. Running away is another good option.

Atzenweiler points out that, in cases of armed robbery, victims often react without thinking, trying to wrest the gun off their attacker. He demonstrates the preferred approach, talking calmly to the robber and surrendering the money to avoid injury.

“It’s all about self confidence, looking in the eye of the attacker, showing you are not afraid.”

Luc Sergy, the president of the Security Arena, sees it as a cat and mouse game. “You have to try to get inside the mind of the criminal, if you want to get out of the situation safely.” He speaks from experience. Sergy was the chief bodyguard at the Swiss embassy in Beirut during the Lebanese war.

Sergy and Atzenweiler are now planning to expand the range of courses, focusing on safety at the workplace, as well as work relationship problems such as bullying and sexual harassment.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt in Winterthur

Key facts

2003 crime figures -
187 murders
547 rapes
6,732 cases of grievous bodily harm
9370 cases of robbery and embezzlement

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In brief

As violent crime increases in Swiss cities, people are becoming increasingly aware of the need for lessons in personal safety.

The new Security Arena in Winterthur does not teach self-defence, but how to take control in dangerous situations.

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