An Interview with William Aprill
Interview by Gila Hayes
Self-defense aims to stop victimization before an attack can start. Although widely endorsed, little training is given in verbal deflection, de-escalation, and deterrence. Mental health clinician and self-defense instructor William April of New Orleans, LA, has contributed much to our understanding of avoiding and interrupting violence. He provides a bridge between armed citizens and mental health professionals, two communities that often fail to recognize the other’s value.
Aprill describes himself as having a foot in both worlds, commenting, “Both think that their side of the fence is terribly important, and they both overestimate their ability to opt-out of the effects of the other. I can’t tell you how many times I have worked with mental health professionals, even those who work with violent offenders, who don’t really think anything bad, particularly violence, is ever going to happen to them. That just strikes me as bizarre. At the same time, I run into armed citizens who don’t really think that mental health will ever impact their world one way or another. They think that they’re squared away on the gun and on the self-defense side of things, and that is all they really need to think about,” he told me recently.
Aprill worked in law enforcement as a local sheriff’s deputy and a Special Deputy US Marshal in the Eastern District of Louisiana before completing graduate, post-graduate, and fellowship training in mental health. He has over 20 years of experience as a licensed professional across the spectrum of care, from institutional management and program development to long-term individual therapy, from addictive disorders to his current private practice focus on post-traumatic stress and depth psychology.
I first heard April speak at a Rangemaster Tactical Conference. His knowledge and very diverse experience yield instruction that is extremely applicable to situations Network members may face. First, Aprill is an insatiable learner. Starting from his first private sector training with Massad Ayoob decades ago under the Lethal Force Institute curriculum, he has continued training across a wide spectrum of defensive skills to this day. As a result, his advice blends psychology and good self-defense tactics so that as a student, his lectures always provided immediately applicable skills and strategies.
Good fortune allowed me to ask Aprill why armed citizens need to be concerned with the mental state of attackers and questions about the practical application of techniques to manage others’ behavior who may pose us a danger. We switch now to question-and-answer format so readers can learn from William Aprill in his own words.
eJournal: As an armed citizen, I am conflicted about investing much time to learn about the role mental illness plays in the risks that caused most of us to go armed in the first place. Why does understanding mental illness make a difference to practitioners of self-defense?
Aprill: Most important, understanding mental illness lets you go backward. The diagnosis of the person who is presenting a violent threat doesn’t really make a difference where the rubber meets the road–or perhaps I should say where the tire iron meets the head–but understanding mental health disorders help you understand criminal assault paradigms and that lets you move backward in time because it gives you the chance to see what the assault will be like and to start taking action beforehand to defuse it, defeat it and avoid it. That is unbelievably important because every fight that I don’t have to have, I win.
Let’s be very honest about the fact that the tire iron coming towards the head is the smallest minority of events that are going to happen. A much more common but dangerous spectrum of events is what we call managing unknown contacts. That is Craig Douglas’ term and the name of one of his classes.
It is imperative to manage people’s behavior, especially if it overlaps into the pool of people who might be subject to a mental disorder that could be dispositive of their behavior, making it more dangerous for us. That is incredibly important in winnowing down who I have to be worried about and manage effectively and who I can manage interactively.
eJournal: Still, my concern is whether I know enough to predict impending physical attack without living in fear and avoiding blissful ignorance. Where is the middle ground?
Aprill: Actually, our detection skills are one of our strengths. Although we are not a very impressive animal, we rule the planet because we are good at a very rarified set of skills that is incredibly useful: behavior prediction and threat detection. We are extraordinarily good at threat detection, primarily based on our understanding of the human face. Animals fight with their face; their face is a weapon. Claws hold on so animals can fight with their face. Because the face is a weapon, it gets an incredible amount of attention.
We are biased to see faces everywhere. That is why clouds look like faces, right? We are biased to recognize people that we’ve seen before with a really high level of accuracy. Even babies can follow the changes in their mothers’ facial expressions. We are biased to see deeply into faces, and facial micro-expressions tell us a lot.
We are quite good at not getting bitten by strange dogs. We have learned a funny little subroutine where you enter a dog’s space carefully and judge its reaction. It becomes clear as day whether you can pet this dog or not. If I was to say, tell me the things that made you not pet that dog, perhaps you could identify them: his ears were flat, his eyes were wide, he seemed to be panting a little bit, so I avoided petting him, but most of the time, we reach a global decision: “If I pet that dog, he will snap at me.” We are good at reading these subtle signs.
The real limitation on behavior prediction and threat detection is that we ignore them or, more accurately, hear them and dismiss them. I hate expressions like “picked up on that feeling,” “heard that little voice,” or “women’s intuition.” I hate those sayings because there’s nothing mystical about this. Behavior prediction and threat detection are evolutionarily-gained skills that got us to the top of the food chain and keep us there.
eJournal: Why do you think we dismiss internal warnings?
Aprill: Sometimes we hear it, and we dismiss it. We wish that it was not happening, so we act as if it was not happening. There is some pretty impressive magical thinking going on if you think, “If I just act normal, maybe they will act normal, too.”
To put it crudely, you have got a new, evolved brain, and you have got an old brain that works with your oldest learned skills. The old brain is heavily conservative. Its only interest is to be safe. It might be overly protective sometimes. The message it sends out is, “I don’t know about this dog,” but then your new brain kicks in and says, “But my buddy Ralph has a dog just like that,” or “But I love Rottweilers.” The new brain and the old brain are in tension.
The new brain will pose a counterargument that seems more compelling. The new brain is ultimately stronger, but the old brain is faster. The old brain will always get the feeling of concern faster. It says, “Oh, I am not sure that I would do that,” but the new brain is a compelling advocate. Think of the new brain as a compelling, young lawyer, and it can argue you down until you say, “Well, OK, it does seem like a friendly dog after all,” and that is when you make a mistake.
The arguments posed in this dynamic tension start with, “But…” When people tell stories about grotesque victimization, the stories start with “but.” “There was something about that guy that made me nervous when he showed up right at closing, but he wanted to buy a new car.” “I just didn’t trust something about that woman, but she’s a friend of so and so.” The “but” allows us to overwrite what we already know.
eJournal: The old brain doesn’t give any rationale. It only says, “NO!” and we want to know why.
Aprill: The oldest, most basic trigger mechanisms are the equivalent of a football referee throwing a flag. You don’t know what the penalty is, but something is wrong. It tends to send a global warning that’s blunt, “I don’t like this” or, “This isn’t right, or, “This isn’t safe.” That is why you can walk into a room and know something is wrong before knowing what is wrong.
eJournal: It is so hard to back out of that room without first ascertaining the “what.” We want reasons.
Aprill: That is a demand imposed by our newer, “smarter” sensibilities: we want a good reason. If we don’t see a good reason for the fear, then we think we don’t have to act on it. In most cases, we would be better off hearing and accepting it as something real. Does it really cost you to find out what it is?
It is a little bit like sitting in your house and smelling smoke, but saying, “I do not see any flames, so there can’t be a fire.” Like with a fire, the earlier attention is paid to the warning signs, the more options you have. We did not get to the top of the food chain by noticing things that do not exist. Whether or not it is dangerous is a secondary concern. Usually, you don’t have to be concerned about whether or not it is real. It is.
eJournal: When we talk about warning signs, we generally recognize that we can’t judge based on appearance, so reliable threat detection must analyze behavior instead. If we propose to avoid fights, it would be helpful to know what we are looking for before it starts.
Aprill: Appearances are a pretty tricky metric, to begin with. It is interesting because we are in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown, and appearances really are a problem. People are wearing masks all the time, but it’s no different in winter when people’s faces are concealed. We are not looking at appearance; we are not looking at demographics; we are looking at our behavior and demeanor.
Behavior is obviously the things you see; demeanor is the feeling that is transmitted. Someone can have a hostile demeanor while they’re standing perfectly still. They may not be doing anything, but there is something about them, right? Behavior and demeanor are far more important than appearance.
Recognize that if a presumptive threat is detected by your very ancient early detection system, you might not even consciously see the action. Your subconscious is processing something that you have taken in visually that didn’t yet rise to your consciousness level. Something can catch your eye and be processed as a threat before you are consciously aware of it. That is good–that is one reason we rule the planet.
You asked about the level where something has reached our conscious awareness. We see that guy and feel the warning bells going off. Well, what was he doing that set off the warning?
I first want to know if his behavior and demeanor are naturalistic. Is it appropriate for where he is and what he’s doing? Think about the rule of opposites. Somebody doing the exact opposite of what would be appropriate in space should get your attention: someone standing when everyone else is walking; someone walking when everyone else is standing. Someone heading to the right when everyone else is heading to the left.
These are things that automatically deserve your attention, not necessarily because it translates into a threat, but it translates into something that is out of the ordinary. That is the first, grossest characterization that we have got to get to: Something about this isn’t the same.
What is that person’s projected relationship to you? It is not natural for us to stare at strangers, which applies to a stranger’s attention. A stranger’s fixed attention on me feels like the sun, and I need to notice someone noticing me, paying attention to me.
That is the second level of the filter: is that person at all interested in me? If they are not, then it is pretty easy to ignore people who are ignoring me.
The third level of filtering is vectoring. Is that person moving in a direction that makes them relevant to me? Someone who looks at me for an extended period of time but walking away at a normal clip; well, maybe they just liked my tie. The combination of things narrows down our interest.
I call it a “failover.” Presented with a test, is that person’s behavior unusual? If it is, he has “failed over” to the next level of testing. Enough “failovers” mean you now have a situation that you get to do something about.
eJournal: Ah, the decisions! Now you have identified the hard part.
Aprill: Not necessarily! Decisions are easier than you think! Let me rephrase that. I don’t mean it is simple; I mean it is largely automated. We would like for people to be responsible for their own safety, so you can’t exclusively count on automation.
Recognize that parts of our minds and brains think modern people have moved beyond violence. Well, we haven’t! The world is still a dangerous place. Dangerous things do still happen.
We also have to unlearn the habits of ignoring and overlooking automation. We want to leverage our automated abilities to make a rapid transition from the automated to our motivated functions–the things that we can choose to do. We want to have a good, robust set of things that we know how to do once triggered by the old brain system that we don’t control but are just lucky enough to have been given.
eJournal: What, if any, concerns over the actor’s mental state do we weigh at this point?
Aprill: As I said, this person got my attention somehow, which was through an unconscious process. Now I ask, is it typical? Is it suitable? Does it seem to fit where it is? Those questions are much more important.
eJournal: We’re taught if we recognize a predator’s steps in setting us up, we may be able to derail the attack by communicating we know what they are up to. In your work with violent offenders, do you believe that is realistic?
Aprill: Yes, but it hinges on one thing: the less in contact with reality someone is, the less well that will work. We don’t really have much access to what runs folks that are sometimes called “other-directed,” meaning that they are being driven by something internal, by their own mental state. Maybe their perception is that the gods or the aliens are speaking to them and guiding their behavior. Other folks are more rational. That doesn’t mean that they are normal and nice and logical, but rational means they are driven by inputs from the world, so we have more influence.
A street-level offender is not looking for a fight. No street-level offender ever said, “Who is the toughest person in this room? Let me try and rob that person.” “Who is the most likely armed citizen in this room? Let me try to start a gunfight.” In the famous words of Claude Werner, the bad guy is there for the shooting, not a shootout. Well, when they look around the room, they are looking for a suitable target.
If you’re looking for the bellhop in a hotel, you look for the guy with the hat and the jacket—that is how you know he’s a bellhop. When someone’s looking for a suitable target, they find other signs. Our job is to communicate the signs that we are not suitable. You would be surprised how quickly you can get deselected.
It is not a matter of scaring anyone off. I think that is very important. The notion that you will scare off-street criminals by looking like a badass is really kind of silly and is really more about the ego.
Your goal is to look unsuitable. The street criminal’s job is to look for a suitable target, yield what they want with a minimum amount of effort. They do not have time to sort. They have to look at us and know whether we will be a good target or not. They need to do what they are going to do or move on very quickly.
eJournal: How do we communicate that we are unsuitable?
Aprill: Well, I hate to define things in the negative, but if you look at the things that make someone an obvious victim—they are pretty obvious [laughs]. One of the most egregious is spending too much time locked inside yourself. I mean that people do not seem to be in the world as they move through it. People who are unaware of their environment, just walking through. You can tell because they are usually trying to multitask. They need to walk from point A to point B, but they will also have some lunch on the fly, talk on the phone, and look up something on their Palm Pilot. That detachment from the world is the first thing that stands out.
If you walk down a busy city street, you will pass dozens of people that you could just walk up and kiss on the forehead before they even noticed you were in their physical space; for a violent criminal actor, that is a free pass. It is not at all hard to pay attention to what you are doing, and frankly, I think it is a good thing to turn off the phone, put it in your pocket. Switch to an earbud if you absolutely have to be talking! Actually, take part in what you are doing. If you are walking down the street, look around. Maybe there will be cake! So that is the first baseline stuff that people can do. It doesn’t cost anything, and it actually has a real effect. If you have a choice of victims, would you choose someone who knows you’re there or someone who does not? Who is the best victim?
eJournal: That baseline is great because it does not require specialized skills or equipment. We can teach it to our kids; we can teach it to our grandmas. How good is that?
Aprill: If people just took an interest in what they’re doing, they would be safer. If you are walking down the street, pay attention to walking down the street. To put a finer point on it, the most powerful self-defense intervention people can make–and they’d never have to spend a penny on it–is this: never make a meaningless transition from space to space again. Look into space before you walk into it. Before you get in your car, look inside. Before you walk out your front door, look out a window. All these things cost nothing!
I personally know someone who was murdered on her own front porch by her husband with an ax. It is such a grotesque example that it sounds like it is made up, but it is true. If she had looked out her front window and seen her estranged husband standing on the porch with an ax, I’ll bet you anything, she wouldn’t have opened the door. That is the cost that can be exacted by just not knowing what you are walking into. Stop making meaningless transitions from space to space to space–that is all I ask.
eJournal: Let’s take a break here because your instruction so far has raised a lot more questions I’d like to discuss in-depth with you. A big challenge when publishing online about complex topics is losing readers before covering all the important elements in what you have to share with us, so I would like to continue this discussion in the July edition of this journal.
Readers, there is a lot more to learn from William Aprill, and in fact, he teaches a class entitled “Unthinkable” that covers a lot more about the topics we have only been able to introduce here. Please return next month for the second half of this interview when we discuss breaking off contact with those who would like to set us up to be victims of a crime. He has great, down-to-earth steps that will prove helpful to all of us.
While you wait for next month to roll around, don’t miss the “ripped from the headlines” lessons Aprill offers in the blog section https://aprillriskconsulting.com/arc-the-blog/ or Instagram: @aprillriskconsulting and don’t miss his Facebook page’s regular “They Are Not You” clips at https://www.facebook.com/aprillriskconsulting/.
To read more of this month’s journal, please click here.