What is the appropriate use of force for security officers?

Oct. 10, 2023
Use of Force is a tricky subject as any interaction can quickly escalate to a confrontation and can become physical

In May 2023, a Portland, Oregon security officer was convicted of murder in the second degree with a firearm, unlawful use of a weapon with a firearm, as well as three misdemeanor charges: recklessly endangering another person and two counts of unlawful use of mace in the second degree for shooting a man in May 2021 during a trespass dispute.  

According to notes on the shooting kept by the state regulatory agency that oversees police and private guards, one of the owners of the property said the security officer had “prior issues with the victim” and acted in self-defense. The owner told the agency that the victim was shot after he “acted as though he was going to run over the security officer with his car. Two eyewitnesses questioned that account, saying the vehicle never moved out of the parking space.

“Concerns regarding the role of private security, particularly when they are armed, have been a topic of local and national discussion in recent years,” a statement from the Portland DA’s office read concerning this case. “While armed private security guards can encounter situations where the use of deadly force may be considered lawful, most do not receive the tactical and de-escalation training which is expected of sworn law enforcement.”

Any business that deals with the public potentially must deal with angry or upset people, and an encounter with such a person may lead to a use of force issue by an employee.

By definition, “Use of Force” is “effort to compel compliance by an unwilling subject” – such as forcing someone to leave your premises or stopping someone from harming another person. Use of Force involves security personnel but can involve any employee.

There are two key decisions when use of force becomes an issue: One, should force be used; and two, how much force should be used?   Force can range from verbal or nonverbal techniques to lethal force.

A large national security company has a “no use of force policy,” saying use of force is never appropriate, which is absurd. While you generally want to avoid using force, sometimes it is unavoidable. Especially if your employees are acting in a security role.

Two additional cases show the necessity of understanding what is appropriate when using force. In the first quarter of 2023, there were two separate fatal shootings by security officers at various locations of a national grocery store chain in Columbus, Ohio.

From a business standpoint, knowledge of the use of force guidelines is critical. An “excessive” use of force lawsuit can be expensive. Even if use of force is justified – the amount of force used can be an issue, as the George Floyd incident clearly shows. Force can range from verbal or nonverbal techniques to lethal force. Security organizations typically consider the least forceful technique to be simply an officer presence and lethal force as the last resort.

Use of Force is a tricky subject – any interaction can quickly escalate to a confrontation and can become physical. The Use of Force is quite different for sworn police officers and non-sworn security officers. Security officers acquire little firearms training compared to police officers. Police officers have options to use intermediate force – batons, tasers or OC spray (sometimes all three), while security officers have a firearm or nothing.

The Lack of Intermediate Tools Does Not Justify Going Directly to Firearms

From a liability standpoint, recognize that if you have armed security officers, the possibility exists that they will shoot someone. Be prepared for that. While the use of force should always be a last resort, ensuring that security personnel receive proper training in this area is crucial to maintaining public safety, protecting assets, and responding effectively in potentially dangerous situations. It is critical to emphasize that the use of force should be proportionate, legally justified, and in accordance with industry best practices. The justification for the use of force is not absolute and can vary based on legal frameworks, cultural norms, and the specific circumstances of each situation. The principles of proportionality, reasonableness, and avoiding unnecessary harm should guide the assessment of whether the use of force is justified in each situation.

Training yourself and others on your team on proper Use of Force can help to clarify what actions are appropriate and may reduce liability in case of an incident. There is a great deal of information and training on the topic of Use of Force for the police, but very little available for security officers and private investigators.

Use of force training should emphasize the importance of adhering to legal and ethical standards if employing force. Security personnel must understand the appropriate levels of force permitted by law and act within those boundaries. They should be trained in techniques that prioritize de-escalation, conflict resolution and non-violent intervention whenever possible, ensuring that force is used as a last resort. Equally important is properly documenting any use of force, regardless of how minor you perceive it to be. Your perception of a minor and another’s perception may be quite different. Recognize that in some cases, simply touching another person may constitute use of force. Documentation must be immediate and thorough.

Use of Force training designed specifically for private security officers and private investigative officers is available in an affordable online format through the National Investigative Training Academy. The class defines and clarifies appropriate use of force for non-sworn Security Officers and Private Investigators and underscores the necessity to properly document any Use of Force.

The class can be seen here:  https://investigativeacademy.com/online-courses/use-of-force-for-the-security-officer-pd_security/

Use of force training promotes professionalism and accountability among security personnel. By providing comprehensive training, security companies can instill a sense of responsibility and ethical conduct. This includes understanding the legal implications, reporting incidents accurately, and documenting the use of force appropriately. Training helps establish a high standard of conduct within the security industry and ensures that force is only used judiciously and responsibly.

About the author: Jeff Dingle is a Senior Consultant with the Florida-based Security Advisory Group. A former federal Special Agent and Security Specialist, he has managed security operations and provided security training for high-risk enterprises in the private sector, Federal Government, casinos, and a FORTUNE 15 company. Dingle can be reached at [email protected]