'Weapons of Opportunity'

Experts are hoping krav maga, an Israeli self-defense discipline, will help real estate professionals stay safe on the job.

December 11, 2014

Carol O’Connor, 47, adopted a boxer’s stance as she faced Rinaldo Rossi, the muscular trainer and co-owner of Israeli Krav Maga in Cherry Hill, N.J. During a 90-minute self-defense class, Rossi taught O’Connor and several other students from the real estate industry—six women and one man, all middle-aged—to serve up hammer fists, eye pokes, and kicks to the groin. They weren’t preparing for combat, nor were they there for the sole purpose of shedding extra pounds. They engaged in a class created just for them called “REAL SAFE — Self Defense for Real Estate Professionals.”

“The main objective in the face of danger is to de-escalate, rather than escalate the situation,” drilled Rossi, who has a black belt in krav maga, a discipline rooted in Israeli military training in the 1940s and introduced in the United States four decades later. The fundamental teachings of krav maga, translated as “contact combat” in Hebrew, are not meant to create fighters. Instead, they teach students to protect themselves in a criminal situation, and then retreat as fast as possible. The simple yet effective counterattacks involve rapid moves, while employing pressure-point manipulation on the attacker. 

As Rossi simulated an attack on O’Connor, she stepped one foot back, pivoted forward, and jabbed a palm into Rossi’s sternum, a swift maneuver aimed to knock out an assailant. 

“That’s good. After you strike, you use weapons of opportunity, like a vase, a glass, anything within range, to throw at your attacker” explained Rossi. “Then, you run.”

Even before the discovery of real estate agent Beverly Carter’s body in a shallow Arkansas grave in September, the real estate industry had seen rising levels of violence perpetrated against salespeople, home inspectors, property managers, and appraisers. Since 2003 an average of 22 workers in the industry have been murdered on the job every year, amounting to nearly two a month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

O’Connor, a real estate professional with Berkshire Hathaway in Marlton, N.J., says she had a “scary experience” a couple of years ago. She was holding an open house when two men in a pickup truck circled the property four times. “When I saw them [go by] the last time, I left as fast as I could.”

Television shows like Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing,” where well-heeled agents sell trophy homes in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, glamorize the industry. But not every listing is flawless. Agents and inspectors often encounter hostile squatters living in abandoned properties or disgruntled former home owners. 

Tracey Hawkins, a national speaker and owner of Safety and Security Source in Kansas City, Mo.,thinks social media has, in part, made it easier for criminals: “[Real estate pros]especially make a living reaching out to strangers.” Hawkins, who worked as a practitioner in the industry for 20 years, believes a lot of crime against real estate professionals goes unreported.

Catherine Walters, a sales associate for RE/MAX in Southern New Jersey in her late 30s, recalled a threatening situation she found herself in during an open house two years ago. A man wearing a trench coat wandered in, refused to sign the register, and became uncooperative after she asked him not to roam around the house unescorted. She was also the victim of a stalker who pursued her online and randomly appeared at seminars where she was speaking. 

Walters now says she won’t do open houses without a buddy, shows properties only during the day, and prefers working with prequalified clients: ”I love my career, but it comes with risks.” After learning about krav maga from a law enforcement friend, she turned to Don Melnick, Rossi’s business partner, to structure a series of krav classes specifically for real estate professionals. The monthly classes, costing $25, began in November and will run through 2015. They’ll explore unsafe situations during open houses, in cars, or while entertaining. 

Steve West, the 46-year-old owner of Settlers Home Inspection in Medford, N.J., took the second session in December, even though he personally hasn’t experienced any grim situations. “I’ve known inspectors who’ve met up with squatters and had trouble,” he says.

During the December session, Melnick, also an instructor, demonstrated simple techniques: twisting at the hips to release a grabbed wrist; blocking a sideways punch; and the proper way to fall backwards.

“You don’t have to be strong. Proper technique will beat strength any time. As students develop muscle memory through repetition, the movements become more instinctive,” he says. But Melnick emphasized that in order to be fully empowered, a person must first learn to analyze their situation and recognize threats. 

Both Walters and O’Connor are lobbying the New Jersey Real Estate Commission to add the classes as continuing education options. 

Gwendolyn Cobb, supervisor of licensing for the state, noted that a 14-member committee reviews all proposed courses. “If this course has the necessary context, it might be worthy of approval.”

As a veteran broker, Sheri Smith, 60, knows all too well the on-the-job hazards associated with the industry. The Haddonfield, N.J., resident, who is a continuing education instructor, would like to see the self-defense classes offered as elective choices. She also encourages her 92 agents to download safety apps to their smartphones and carry mace.

“You hope that the training and tools are never needed,” said Smith, “but by becoming more cognizant, you’ll be better prepared if a dangerous situation happens.”

Catherine Laughlin

Catherine Laughlin is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, websites, and custom content. She lives in Riverton, N.J., a suburb outside of Philadelphia.