Six Levels of Reasonable Force for Security Guards

One of the inevitable facts of the security industry is that at some stage in the career of security guards¬† a need to use physical force will arise. Many old hands will rightly testify that 99% of the time a mere presence and/or a few carefully chosen words will defuse a situation. But the fact remains that even the ‘quietest’ security role may involve physical confrontation at some stage, and a good professional will be well prepared for this eventuality.

Even guards taking up a post with the most minimal training should be made aware of the six levels of reasonable force. In layperson’s terms, this means thinking through how the situation would play out when explained in a courtroom – and possibly in front of a jury. Using inappropriate force that causes unnecessary distress or injury can leave an officer not only exposed to a high risk of dismissal from their post but even prosecution and a civil lawsuit.


The Appearance of Security Guards Matters!

Experienced security guards will be the first to explain to any rookie that just being present is enough to dissuade the vast majority of criminals taking action. Using suitable confident body language is the key to this, especially when combined with talking to a colleague via radio/intercom. Bad guys simply will not run the risk of performing crime when they know that they will be detected immediately and that the officer will be within their rights to perform a citizens arrest right away.

Verbal Challenge

Once again experience counts. In many circumstances adopting a non-aggressive yet authoritative tone will be enough to make most potential criminals back off. However, in other instances, it may be important to express an edge of aggressive warning, especially over a distance. For example, if a security guard is patrolling a shopping mall and recognizes a group of youngsters who have shoplifted in the past, it is generally better to calmly tell them to vacate the premises. Losing one’s temper will likely provoke ridicule and may even incite unnecessary aggression. According to Allen Hollimon at Nationwide Investigations & Security, Inc., many experienced officers will explain that delivering verbal commands appropriately is the most skilled part of any security role.

Physical Restraint

The first stage of physical engagement involves using non-aggressive holds and incapacitating movements to control an individual at risk of fleeing the scene. It is essential that security guards have justifiable grounds for doing so – namely that they have witnessed the crime and can prove it to law enforcement when they arrive on the scene.

Security guards who attend self-defense classes as part of their training will know that these restraining moves amount to 80%+ of everything taught. The objective is to incapacitate without injury.

Where a suspect becomes violent, the officer can use justifiable means to defend themselves. Note that this does not involve punching/kicking as both of these can be deadly. Batons are generally acceptable when used defensively or as a brief initial tool to incapacitate an aggressive criminal. Handcuffs may also be used providing that the officer has been trained and that they are used with absolute diligence.

Chemical Sprays

A Tool of Professional Security Guards

There will be occasions where getting up close with a suspect is not appropriate – for instance, if they may be carrying a bladed weapon or are expressing extremely violent tendencies. While some security officers are issued with law enforcement grade chemical agents such as CS/CN gas, most of the time it will be pepper spray.

Understand that pepper spray is only to be used in the context of personal defense and not to protect property. It must never be used aggressively! Let’s roll through an example:

Keith is a security guard at a Walmart in rural Ohio. He knows that it will take law enforcement around ten minutes to attend, but an individual is acting crazy and smashing up the store display cabinets. Suspecting that the person is high and may have a knife, he has the option of using his pepper spray to help incapacitate the criminal.

In this instance, Keith would be wrong to use pepper spray as the culprit has shown no aggression towards him or anyone else in the store. Property damage is entirely different from physical violence. Should that person then turn their attentions to physically attack a person or himself, Keith is well within his rights to use chemical agents to help subdue the culprit.


Moving on from the example above, what if the criminal brandished a knife? This is where Keith could then use pretty much anything at his disposal to incapacitate the criminal providing the intention is not to kill. Remember the note about punching made above? Even at this stage, such blows must be delivered with an open hand. Officers equipped and trained with batons can use them aggressively, primarily to deliver blows to the limbs and soft tissue, but not the head or throat as the risk of killing them is too high.

At this stage, the legalities become very subjective and are going to vary depending on circumstances. Choke holds may be appropriate in some instances but not others. For instance, if Keith tackles and disarms the criminal he cannot use such techniques as the immediate threat has been neutralized. But in the process of disarming them pretty much anything goes.

Many Security Officers get carried away at this stage which is understandable given the amount of adrenaline that will be pumping. Yet it is essential to remain professional even during such high stress (and thankfully quite rare) episodes.

Deadly Force

When Security Guards Do Their Jobs

If Keith were equipped with a handgun and the knife-man was advancing on him with clear intent, he would have been within his rights to shoot. Forget any idea about ‘aiming for the limbs’ or other Hollywood nonsense – gunshots are considered deadly force and if deployed must be aimed directly at the torso. The last thing Keith wants in this situation is to miss and for the bullet to hit a bystander – as that would leave him exposed to prosecution for negligence. Likewise, should the villain flee the store and still be brandishing their knife, Keith must not take a long-range ‘pot shot’ because the risks of hitting an innocent are far too high.

Should deadly force be used the investigation will center entirely upon whether or not there were reasonable grounds to employ less dangerous methods. As with the case above, this will be based on the unique circumstances of the incident and also rely heavily upon witness reports. No officer should ever want to get to the stage of using deadly force as it can leave a serious blot on their track record should there be even any doubt over whether it was actually necessary.

Final Thoughts

It takes exposure to real-life situations to fully comprehend how this six-point scale actually plays out. Professional security teams dealing with a potentially/actually violent individual will often communicate this between each other so everyone knows what level of force is authorized. After all, there’s no point having two guards trying to force a criminal into gentle subjugation while another is spraying pepper spray everywhere! Security Officers new to the job would do well to listen to the experiences of those who have been experienced in such situations. Mental preparation and readiness is 90% of the job.