How to Intervene in a Bullying or Threatening Situation

November 15th, 2016 5:31pm - Posted By: Mark Cohen

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The 2016 presidential election exposed the fear and hatred that simmers just beneath the surface in some Americans.  The Ku Klux Klan endorsed Trump.  Trump stirred up fears of immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and blacks.  Trump bragged about sexual assaults.  Trump’s Vice President, Pence, a smug, self-righteous evangelical, is openly hostile to gays.  Many conservative leaders believe rape is just a risk inherent in being a woman.  Many conservative politicians are hostile to any person speaking out against their policies.  Their behavior, and similar behavior by some of the supporters, has emboldened bullies and haters. 

In this atmosphere of fear and hate we must resolve that we will protect those unable to protect themselves.  If we want to make America great again, the first step is to show we believe in equality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and doing what is right.  We must show we will not tolerate the abuse of our fellow citizens or visitors to our once great country.

You may encounter a situation where you must decide whether to intervene to protect another.  This article offers some thoughts on how to analyze such situations and intervene if you decide to intervene.

Nothing is foolproof.  Intervention carries risk.  There are no guarantees. 

The Four A’s

I think of four stages to intervention – awareness, assessment, approach, and action.  But each situation is different and you may encounter a situation that requires you to make an instant assessment and take immediate action.


If you want to help others, you must be alert to situations where others need help.  A good rule of thumb is to trust your gut.  If you sense something is wrong, it probably is.  Some things that may indicate a bullying or threatening situation is present or may develop include:

Loud voices or yelling

Abnormal patterns of movement such as people standing still while others are moving

One person abnormally close to another – “in their space.”

One person touching or grabbing another

One person running from another

Physical threats such as someone making a fist or throwing things

Unusual gestures such as flailing arms


If you believe a situation exists or may develop, you must assess the situation.  The time available for assessment will depend on the circumstances.  In some situations, you may have to make an instant assessment.  Some factors to consider in making your assessment are:

How great is the threat to the other person and to yourself?  

How immediate is the threat? (Is there time to call 911?)

Is it verbal or physical?

How agitated does the aggressor appear to be?  (Is there still time to defuse things?)

Does the aggressor have a weapon?  (A man wearing a fanny pack with the pouch in front probably has a handgun in it).

Do you have a weapon or easy access to a weapon?

How many aggressors are there?

How many bystanders are there that might lend a hand?

Once you assess the situation, if you don’t feel safe intervening in any way, call 911.  You should remain on the scene so you can provide a statement to law enforcement.  If you are not ready to call 911 or don’t think you have time due to the urgency of the situation, go to the next step.


            1. Stop and Look.  If you see a concerning situation, before you get closer to the situation, stop, and look at the people involved.  Often the aggressor see you, recognize that they are drawing attention, and calm down. 

       “What are you looking at?”  Sometimes the aggressor will stare back at you and say, “What are you looking at?”  It’s a rhetorical question.  The aggressor knows darn well what you are looking at and why you are.  Say nothing, hold your ground, and continue to look directly at the situation.  If you move closer the aggressor may consider it challenge.  If you back away, the aggressor may consider at sign of weakness or fear.  You may want to take out your cell phone and prepare to dial 911.  You may want to begin recording the incident on your cell phone.

                        “This is none of your business.”  Sometimes the aggressor will stare at you and say, “This is none of your business.”  Again, the best response is to hold your ground and say nothing.  Just stand still and continue to demonstrate your concern.  If you must say something, you can say, “Sir, it is my business because I’m concerned for both of you.”  You might also add something like, “Look, I already took a picture of you and sent it to my friend.  Let’s just stop and call this done and move our separate ways.”

            2. Verbal De-escalation.  If the situation has not yet become physical, you may be able prevent that by using verbal de-escalation techniques.  The idea is to show concern and empathy to prevent the aggressor from becoming more agitated.  Some examples:

“It looks like you folks are having a bad day.  Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I can see you are upset, let’s all take a deep breath and relax before this gets out of hand.” 

            3. Command and Consequence.  If verbal de-escalation does not work, you must give a command and consequence:

                     “Sir, if you don’t calm down, I will call the police.”

                     “Sir, leave him alone or I will call security.”

Have your phone out be ready to dial when you say this.  Be far enough away that the aggressor cannot reach you to stop you.

4. Positioning.  As all this is going on, if you believe you may have to intervene physically and you intend to do so, you should gradually get closer to the aggressor so you will be able to close the distanced quickly.  You can converse with aggressor as you slowly approach.  You can put your hands up with your palms open in a defensive posture as you approach to show you don’t want any trouble.  (If your hands are already up with your palms open, it’s very easy to turn those open palms into fists if you must).


            If the situation appears to be escalating and you conclude you must take action, here are some possible actions:

            1. Dial 911.  If you have a phone, dial 911.  State your name, your location, and what you are seeing that concerns you.  Describe the others involved, and be sure to say what the aggressor is wearing so the officers that respond know what to look for. If you don’t have a phone, ask to borrow someone else’s phone.

            2. Scream.  Bullies do not like attention and they especially don’t like police officers.  Start screaming, “Police!”  Your screams will attract the attention of others, drawing a crowd, which is exactly what the aggressor does not want.

            3. Physical Intervention.  The law allows you to use reasonable force to protect yourself or another.  If you are not an experienced fighter, the general idea is to use the hard surfaces of your body (knuckles, knees, heels, elbows, palm heels) against the soft portions of the aggressor’s body (groin, eyes, throat, vital organs).  Also, consider whether you have a weapon available.  A belt with a metal buckle can be a weapon.  A cane can be a weapon.  A cup of hot coffee can be a weapon.  A purse or backpack can be a very effective weapon.


Most bullies are cowards.  Just as a lion always attacks the weakest gazelle – the one straggling behind the pack – bullies pick on the weak.  If you stand up to an aggressor, the aggressor usually backs down.  Most Americans are good people.  If you demonstrate leadership, others will back you up.  To ignore bullying is to encourage it.  We can no longer ignore it and pretend it is not our problem.


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Both Sides Now

February 20th, 2016 6:31pm - Posted By: Mark Cohen

This is a true story. In April of 1993 I was going through an early midlife crisis. I was living in Omaha. I had joined the Air Force “to see the world” and had ended up spending twelve years in Nebraska. My relationship with a woman had recently ended, and my Dalmatian and I had just found new digs. I had dropped out of a graduate program in philosophy because one year of practicing law and studying symbolic logic at the same time had taken a real toll on my physical and mental health. Practicing law paid better, so I stuck with that.

Suddenly alone and with plenty of free time, I decided to cross some things off my bucket list. I began taking karate lessons. I started to write a novel. And I decided to try skydiving.

With my birthday approaching, my brother, Roy JHCIACB Cohen, decided to drive to Omaha to join me on the skydiving adventure. And so it was that on a rainy Saturday we drove to Weeping Water, Nebraska, and received training to prepare us for our jump the next day. The jump school was located at a small airstrip surrounded by cornfields.

It rained all night and was still raining Sunday morning. We were not sure we would be able to jump, but we drove back to Weeping Water anyhow. Later that morning the rain stopped and the instructor decided we could jump.

We donned our jump suits and parachutes, then climbed into a small plane. As the little aircraft ascended my brother and I looked at each other. Are we really going to do this? The plane leveled off at about 3,200 feet. It was a long way down.

Being the older brother, we decided I would jump first. I climbed out of the plane and grabbed the strut with both hands, just as we’d been instructed. When the instructor gave the sign, I let go, arched my back, and saw the plane pull ahead of me. It was a static line jump, so my parachute opened within a second or two. I floated gently down to earth, enjoying the thrill and the view. I would definitely do this again.

Back on earth, I looked up and saw my brother climb out of the plane and grab the strut. Then he let go. But for some reason he flipped over backward and was not in the proper position when his parachute opened. The many cords that connected my brother to the parachute’s canopy became tangled and his parachute never fully opened. Rather than gently floating toward earth, he was plummeting toward it and his parachute looked something like a tampon.

We on the ground could not see where Roy had landed, but the pilot directed us through the cornfields to him. When we found him he was lying flat in a soggy cornfield. Two days of rain had probably saved his life.

An ambulance took Roy to an Omaha hospital. When I saw him the E.R., he looked at me and said, “Gravity works.”

The staff took x-rays and observed that not all the bones in Roy’s back were where they were supposed to be. The most notable damage was that his L-1 vertebrae had shattered and one small piece of it was resting against his spinal cord. The doctors advised Roy to have surgery that would put metal rods in his back, but if you know my brother, you know he declined and limped out of the E.R. later that evening. After resting for several days in my apartment, Roy loaded up on painkillers and drove back to Colorado.

Roy had an MRI every four weeks for nearly two years to ensure that the bone fragment was not pushing further into his spinal cord.  Eventually the entire area calcified (self-fused) and this served the same function the metal rods would have served. It took more than two years for Roy to recover, but he did.

And so ended our brief skydiving career, but I don’t regret it because Roy eventually regained his health and I can truly say I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now.

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Recipe for Cohen Slaw

April 25th, 2015 4:58am - Posted By: Mark Cohen

Recipe for Cohen Slaw:

When I went to full-time private practice in 2003 I wanted the domain name Cohenlaw, but some lawyers in Pennsylvania had that, so I took Cohenslaw instead. It worked well because while serving as a Municipal Judge in Boulder I had invented "Cohen's Law." (See graphic above). However, ever since then, about once a month, somebody makes a coleslaw joke, so I finally decided to create a recipe for Cohen Slaw. Here is the recipe:


1 pound medium carrots, peeled
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of wine vinegar
Pinch of ground clove
Pinch of cinnamon
Garlic salt


Grate carrots and put the grated carrots into a bowl. Whisk lemon juice, olive oil, vinegar, clove, and cinnamon together, pour over carrots, and toss. Add garlic salt to taste. Serve with crackers, biscuits or bread. It is not an accident that there is no cabbage used in this recipe.

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April 16th, 2015 1:56am - Posted By: Mark Cohen

Most of us have heroes. Mine include Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Churchill, Harry Truman, JFK, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Sacajawea, and Grace Hopper (Google her). 

Sometimes a person becomes a hero because of a lifetime of work. Martin Luther King devoted his life to seeking equality through non-violent means.

Sometimes one becomes a hero by making a difficult, but courageous decision. President Truman ordered U.S. forces to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II and eliminate the need for a bloody ground invasion of Japan that likely would have killed millions.

Sometimes a person becomes a hero by risking their life to accomplish something great.   Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had no guarantee that the Lunar Module that landed on the moon would be able to blast off and reconnect with the orbiting space capsule.

A person may become a hero by taking a stand that may have severe consequences for them. Rosa Parks risked jail by choosing to sit in the front of a public bus. 

Sometimes a person becomes a hero by thinking outside the box. Albert Einstein dared to think about space and time in a different way, and changed the way we see the universe.

And sometimes an average person becomes a hero by standing up for or rescuing another in spite of the danger. A woman falls onto the subway tracks as a train approaches. A man jumps in to help her get out of danger. Often these heroes say they are not heroes at all – they did what any normal person would have done.

A person may become a hero because of a natural talent or because of a skill gained as the result of decades of hard work. Or both. Chuck Berry could “play a guitar just like a ringing a bell.” If you don’t think that takes talent, try playing Johnny B. Goode on a guitar at his speed.

You may become a hero simply by believing in yourself. On February 15, 1978, an unknown 197 pound kid won the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship by closing in on the much larger and quicker Muhammad Ali for fifteen rounds. Spinks had not even fought in the heavyweight division at the 1976 Olympic Games and had only eight professional fights when he fought Ali. 

There is one more type of hero. You can’t place this kind of hero in the company of the others, but they deserve mention. These are the daredevils. They risk their lives – not to accomplish something great like walking on the moon – but simply to tempt fate or set records that are ultimately not very important. They are the thrill seekers. Think Evel Knievel.

And when you combine daredevil with a creative mind and a little disrespect for authority, you may find a person that becomes this type of hero by virtue of a single act. One such man was Larry Walters. Larry was an ordinary truck driver, but he had always dreamed of flying. On July 2, 1982, at the age of thirty-three, Larry decided to live his dream. He tied 42 helium filled weather balloons to a lawn chair, and took to the skies with a pellet gun (to shoot the balloons when he was ready to come down), a CB radio, and some cold beer.

Larry catapulted up to 16,000 feet and began to shiver because of the cold. He was somewhere over San Pedro, California, when the pilot of a passing jetliner noticed him and alerted authorities. Larry started shooting balloons, but accidentally dropped the pellet gun overboard.

Larry eventually returned to Earth. A federal aviation official said, "We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed," Mr. Savoy said. "If he had a pilot's license, we'd suspend that. But he doesn't." Ultimately, the F.A.A. fined Larry $1,500.00. Larry made the rounds on the TV networks and gained his fifteen minutes of fame. He killed himself at the age of forty-four.        

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