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Applying the Use of Force Continuum in Private Security

There exists a very thin margin between proper use of force and excessive force. Public safety officials who provide any level of protection and security for the community must be wary of that margin. An important starting point for both security personnel and the public they protect is to understand the definition of use of force, and the escalation levels of the use of force continuum.

Use of force is defined as “the amount of effort required by police and security forces to compel the compliance of an unwilling subject.” An officer in any capacity must use the lowest amount of force necessary to get a subject to comply. Anything more, and that officer is using excessive force. Understanding the necessary level of force to apply in a given situation requires intensive training and can be much more difficult than it seems from the outside.

Security vs. Law Enforcement

The use of force continuum differs greatly for officers in different fields of service. Police officers working the streets have many tools at their disposal due to the inherent dangers of their job. Security officers, on the other hand, are more limited in what they can do. They typically don’t have access to weapons like handguns and rifles. Some are not allowed to carry tasers, nightsticks or handcuffs. Their agency may not even allow physical contact with suspects. Security personnel also do not have the power to arrest a disruptive person and could get in trouble if they try.

As a result of these limitations, security officers must rely on proper and continuous training. Their department should offer constant educational instruction that covers all aspects of the job. Fluency in methods like verbal self-defense can alleviate tensions between security personnel and suspects, limiting the necessary amount of force needed to achieve compliance.

Escalation and de-escalation

Escalation and de-escalation are also integral to the use of force continuum. Knowing when it’s time to apply more force is just as important as knowing when to calm things down using de-escalation techniques. It is vital for personnel to know how to read a suspect’s behavior so they can react accordingly and not cause the situation to spiral out of control.

The use of force continuum is relevant in all aspects of law enforcement, security or any other occupation in the protective services field. Being well versed in the proper use of force makes an officer’s job much easier. We’ll examine each level of the use of force continuum, when it should be applied and how to get suspects to cooperate based on their initial level of compliance (or lack thereof).

Level One

The lowest level of the use of force continuum involves using no physical force at all. If the subject is not acting aggressively and complies with an officer’s requests, there is no need to escalate this encounter to a higher level. This type of suspect is considered passive compliant. Most encounters security officers handle only require verbal commands, as the majority of people don’t want to cause trouble. Knowing how to use verbal commands efficiently and with authority allows officers to subtly gain control of a situation.

The mere presence of an officer often makes any incident settle down fairly quickly. A security officer posted around a facility provides a calming influence. If personnel have received proper training and know how to conduct themselves, the public will consider them non-threatening and they will behave accordingly. However, if even one officer begins acting inappropriately and is seen as a threat, negative behavior can escalate quickly and the use of force will be unnecessarily raised. Avoid this at all costs; professionalism is always the right choice.

Level Two

An agitated suspect who gives the impression that they may lash out at security staff or other individuals requires escalation. This type of suspect is a passive resistor — they won’t respond to verbal commands, but they give in when an officer initiates physical contact. If a security officer decides it’s time to use physical force, they must remember only to use the necessary amount needed to gain control of the suspect — no more, no less. Control holds allow an officer to incapacitate a threatening suspect. These holds limit the subject’s movement, giving security personnel control of their arms and hands. If the subject is much larger than an officer, it’s important to have backup close by.

When using control holds, it’s vital not to get too aggressive in order to avoid injuries to both you and the suspect. Use enough weight and strength to restrict their ability to move, but not so much as to hurt them. Be sure not to restrict their breathing or circulation. Never use chokeholds; it’s hard to judge how the pressure of a chokehold distresses different individuals. Maintain control until help arrives.

If security personnel cannot restrain a subject with control holds, they may have to resort to oleoresin capsicum (OC), or pepper spray. Understanding how to use pepper spray properly is important. Use it sparingly to avoid spraying innocent bystanders. Spray the suspect’s face for only a few seconds. Be prepared to administer decontamination procedures after spraying someone. Personnel are legally required to cleanse the suspect with eye wash after dispersing a chemical agent. Use pepper spray only as a last resort. The agency for which the officer works should provide proper training in its use.

Level Three

Suspects moving beyond verbal aggression toward the threat of an imminent physical attack require the use of less than lethal force. These suspects are considered active resistors — they ignore verbal warnings and actively resist an officer’s attempts to physically control them, but they don’t go out of their way to inflict harm on the officer or other individuals during the struggle. This type of altercation necessitates more physically assertive equipment to disable the subject in a manner that doesn’t cause them permanent damage.

One of the best tools to use at this level of the use of force continuum is the expandable baton. When used correctly, a baton can quickly disable an uncooperative individual. Never use a baton to strike the head of the subject; this could prove fatal, and it is not how they are designed to be deployed. Rather, use the baton to make contact with the patron’s arms or legs to temporarily disable them and regain control.

Above a baton in their level of effectiveness are electronic weapons, or tasers. Tasers deploy barbs connected to the weapon by thin wires that allow the user to deliver an electric shock to the suspect. This shock causes the suspect to lose control of their muscles, disabling them. Once the officer gains control of the subject, they must remove the barbs from their skin and deliver first aid.

Level Four

A suspect who disregards verbal commands, resists security’s attempts to control them and actively attempts to cause serious, lasting harm to security personnel or other individuals is considered an active aggressor. Active aggressors may require lethal force, the highest level on the use of force continuum. It is only necessary to use lethal force when all other options are exhausted and the subject still poses a threat of serious bodily harm or death to security personnel or the public.

In situations where a security officer faces an active aggressor, the officer may be forced to use their firearm, if they have one. Never attempt to use a firearm as a deterrent; the only time security should draw their weapon is when they’re prepared to use it. Security personnel must exercise restraint in the amount of ammunition they use. Once the suspect is incapacitated, cease fire.

Since security officers don’t often carry firearms, some of them may never have to resort to this level of escalation. If a subject is acting very aggressively, security officers without firearms must contact law enforcement and attempt to control the subject until police arrive. Security personnel who do carry firearms must be mindful of the immense responsibility of its use, as drawing it may lead to a loss of life. Follow proper training protocols and be prepared to make the correct and necessary decision.

After regaining control at the scene, it’s vital to notify the proper authorities. This generally means contacting law enforcement, especially if the suspect has committed a crime against a security officer, a member of the public or the facility. At the end of most confrontations on the use of force continuum, security will need to turn the suspect over to law enforcement.

Report Writing

Regardless of the level of force used in an encounter, security officials will need to write a report after the confrontation. Many officers overlook this aspect of the job, but knowing how to write a proper report is nearly as important as understanding how to handle the confrontation itself.

When an officer finally has time to sit down and write their report, they need to be honest and detailed in their account. Describe every step of the encounter and the level of force ultimately used to end the encounter. Honesty is always the right approach. If a security officer’s report contradicts witness accounts or video recordings of the incident, that officer’s integrity will come into question and legal proceedings may follow.

There is a lot to consider about the use of force continuum and encounters with non-compliant suspects. Private security may lack some of the inherent dangers of law enforcement, but the use of force continuum is still required knowledge for security work. The use of force and escalation of force are allowed under many circumstances, but officers must be judicious in how they apply it. There are many pitfalls when personnel do not follow their training. It is best to err on the side of caution when making quick decisions regarding the use of force. What’s most important to understand, though, is that making good choices goes a long way in protecting yourself, your fellow security officers and the public.

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