WON Landing Page March 2022

Tongue: Not just a Ukrainian delicacy

Rockford, Illinois police officer Sara Ahrens offers some commonsense crime prevention tips for women, and recounts an “interesting” experience she had on an official visit to the Ukraine.

As summer and warm weather begin to arrive, there also seems to be a direct correlation with an increase in crime. I see many crime victims who make themselves victims through intentional and unintentional choices. Next week I am helping a friend teach a women’s self-defense class. I am certain his class includes the physical tactics of defending oneself, but I am not sure if, or to what degree, it covers prevention.

This past week I have been thinking about teaching that class, my daughter getting her driver’s license and some unique investigations at work. I have spent countless hours considering how and why certain crimes have happened. This helps me determine how to catch criminals, but also helps me give advice to my friends and family to keep them safe.

What I am about to say is not profound, nor original—it is common sense. There is something that can be gained from having what you already know confirmed by someone who does. Luckily, most people don’t get the exposure to evil that I get on a daily basis and they can live in ignorant bliss. But my experiences give me an advantage on victimization, though I am still learning.

So here goes: For crime to occur, four conditions must exist (this is from the perspective of the suspect): opportunity, ability, desire and means. Duh, right? You might be wondering, “How does that apply to me?” That applies to you because without all four, the crime isn’t going to occur. You may be able to control some of these conditions some of the time, depending on the scenario, but the one condition that victims can almost always control is OPPORTUNITY.

Author Sara Ahrens (left) gives an interview about law enforcement practices for Ukrainian television, interpreting for a fellow American police officer. Photo courtesy of Sara Ahrens

Ability, desire and means

I will quickly explain the ability, desire and means parts of the equation, but my goal is to discuss in depth the opportunity facet. For a suspect to commit a crime he has to have the ability. A lifelong criminal who is shot and is now a quadriplegic probably cannot continue his quest to victimize. (I know with technology I can’t say it’s impossible . . . I can say it’s improbable, and I have personal knowledge to back that up.)

Likewise, a criminal must have the desire to commit the crime. Criminals are driven to offend by internal or external motivators. These motivators could be in the form of addictions, poverty, psychological issues or even peer pressure or intimidation. Anytime a human being takes action, it is a reaction to some motivation. Victims may or may not be able to control or manipulate the suspect’s motivation.

The third component that must be present for a crime to occur is that the criminal must have the means to commit the crime. Depending on the crime, perhaps the victim can control the means. Means is closely linked to ability, desire and opportunity, but means is different. For example, if a criminal wants (the desire) to kill someone by way of shooting them he has to have access to a gun and ammunition (the means). He also needs to be able to hit his target (the ability) (thankfully in my town this has proven to be more difficult for criminals than it would seem). This leaves the final cog—the opportunity to commit the crime. If the victim isn’t accessible the crime simply won’t occur.

Victims create opportunities

As potential victims we must be aware that our actions, many times, create opportunities. The goal in living a safe life is to avoid creating opportunities. Many of us can think back to times when we were younger when we were in precarious situations. Hopefully those situations did not result in tragedy or trauma. I have too many examples in my life where I narrowly avoided tragedy or trauma. I can only take comfort in the fact that one of the other necessary components wasn’t present in the situation and therefore the crime did not occur.

One opportunity that I see victims creating regularly involves intoxication. This shouldn’t need any explanation unless you have never had a drink or used drugs in your life. I am not saying that people should never drink (but I am saying you should never use drugs). What I would remind us is that when we are intoxicated we are sometimes more friendly and less aware of our environment.

As a woman, I would seriously reconsider drinking if I knew I had to drive or walk home alone. When you go with others, take into consideration your company’s past behaviors. Are you with someone who will get intoxicated and leave with anyone, thereby leaving you alone? Will your ride leave you when they get bored or tired? Is your designated driver trustworthy, or will they succumb to everyone else having fun, drink, and leave you to get yourself home safely? Many of us have learned this lesson without much harm but even if you may think you are beyond this point in your life, let me assure you, you’re not.

My Ukrainian experience

Around 2004–2005 a police academy in Illinois selected me to participate in an exchange program with law enforcement officers to the Ukraine. My first indication that maybe I should not go came when the director of the academy told me during the selection process that during his last visit to the Ukrainian commanders they told him: “Bring us your women!” The director laughed, but this statement made me uncomfortable. Since I really wanted to go to a Russian-speaking country (because I was a Russian translator in the Army and never had the opportunity to go while enlisted) I dismissed my inner discomfort and went anyway.

I was told that it was important not to offend the hosts, or their hospitality, and that it was common for the Ukrainian hosts to push food and alcohol because this is their culture. I was warned that it would be impossible not to drink, but I could try to politely decline or drink slowly.

It took 24 hours to get to Kiev, Ukraine. I was tired, dehydrated, hot and really wanted a shower but I was not in control of the situation. (Little did I realize I was not in control of many things on this trip.) Our “hosts” decided we should immediately go to a restaurant and eat. I was offered a beer with my dinner, and I accepted. As we got to know our hosts at dinner I broke out some Russian in order to impress them. One of our hosts (who obviously was the person in charge) hugged one of the men from our academy and told me in broken English, “We are brothers, do you see the resemblance?”

So I responded in Russian (spelled in Cyrillic characters): “вы поxожите, как две капли воды,” and pronounced phonetically: “vwe pahozheet kak dve kaplee vodee,” which is an idiom I learned. It translates to “You look like two drops of water.” (A comparable English expression is “look like two peas in a pod.”) So even in the Ukraine in a foreign language I had an audience for my humor. I was on a roll and continued to entertain throughout the dinner. I didn’t realize that I might be sending out the wrong signal by being so friendly.

As I drank my beer, which was only about 12 ounces, I drank half a glass and noticed I felt very intoxicated. I noticed my speech was slurring and I was getting dizzy. Anyone who has been drinking with me knows that half a glass of beer will not have this effect. I still do not know if the beer in the Ukraine was just really strong, or if I was suffering from fatigue, or if something was put in my drink. I immediately stopped drinking because I did not want to embarrass the academy I was representing.

As we left the restaurant to go to some club, there were two vehicles transporting us. There was the van, which the majority of my group and the translator went in, and a smaller car. I was told to ride in the smaller car, since I could speak Russian. I went with one guy from my group, who was in the front seat. I was told to get in the backseat with our main host, an official with their Ministry of the Internal (law enforcement branch of government, I assumed). As we drove to our next location, he then leaned over as if to tell me a secret and tried to kiss me—tongue and all (and it wasn’t cow tongue, which is unfortunately a big delicacy there)! I was horrified and I immediately burst into tears. (I had no other defense, so I panicked.)

I guess the tears came from the fact that I was worried, felt helpless, didn’t have a gun and didn’t know where I was, or how to leave. Truthfully I don’t know what generated my tears but fortunately the tactic worked, and the action was not repeated.

Author Sara Ahrens, center, interprets in the Ukraine for a fellow American police officer, at left. The Ukrainian officer at right is not the man who tried to kiss her! Photo courtesy of Sara Ahrens

The next day we went to another area of the Ukraine and upon saying goodbye, the host apologized that I misinterpreted his cultural practices!? He said it is customary to kiss guests and he meant no offense. I thought to myself in anger, “Yeah, it’s customary to kiss your guests on the cheeks when saying goodbye and hello, not in the back of a car en route elsewhere, and not with your tongue.” Most of the trip went well, only because the women in the group came up with some strategies to avoid being victimized. These strategies were simple and apply to other situations.


Our first strategy was not to allow any of the women to be separated from the group. It is easy to be victimized if you are alone. Just by including one additional person, your odds of being victimized drop by about 70%; by having two people, those odds drop by 90%.

Our second strategy was calculating alcohol intake. We developed a plan to alternate, fake and dump alcohol poured into our glasses. It became a joke to pour our drinks back into their containers or into the men’s glasses when they weren’t looking.

The third strategy we came up with was to monitor each other. If someone showed signs of intoxication or could not avoid being separated from the group, we were to make sure we kept an eye on her. If something went wrong, we would intervene.

Planning is essential to safety. There are times when we are in situations we cannot control. When you become aware of tragedies, or avoid one yourself, spend some time thinking about how the situation could have been avoided. This will help you plan, and prevent the same situation from happening to you.

By the way, if you ever visit the Ukraine and you are asked if you would like some язык (pronounced “yazeek”) politely say no, and keep your mouth shut.

Sara Ahrens’ Offbeat is sponsored by Otis Technology.

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