Police and law enforcement agencies have policies that guide decision-making and the use of appropriate force in escalating actions and in proper weapons use. There are usually many escalating levels of force and tactics that can be applied and almost all, if not all, law enforcement agencies provide detailed and specific training in a use of force continuum and weapons. And, sadly, sometimes the best decision or use of appropriate force in a given situation is not followed by trained law enforcement folks, no matter how well-intentioned.
Some Civilians Do Not Recognize the Best Use-of-Force Decision in Specific Situations
It is sad and also probably true from this author’s experiences that a large percentage of civilians, no matter how well-intentioned, do not know the appropriate use of force to use in various situations, e.g. shoot or do not shoot. They have not anticipated or generally determined possible pre-encounter responses in various lethal and non-lethal encounters, to save critical actual incident time. Or, when actually in an encounter can not quickly and effectively decide if, when, how, or what level of force or tactics to employ in escalating non-deadly and deadly force situations. And they are well-intentioned. Of course, the situation urgency and quick response time in pressing and critical encounters usually have much to do with this. The author experienced making quick, critical “shoot-no shoot” situational decisions as a civilian in a law enforcement simulator. I can attest to how stressful they are and how difficult it is to make appropriate and best decisions in realistic scenarios and in a very short amount of time. The simulations helped me learn and now truly understand the importance of not only being prepared just in case with proper shooting and marksmanship skills but more importantly employing them judiciously and appropriately in different self-defense situations. I certainly appreciate the legal ramifications and tremendous costs of making quick decisions for different escalating encounters.
Do Not Be So Quick to Draw that Gun and To Use Deadly Force
Of course, any encounter is potentially a deadly-force life-or-death situation. So being ready is critically important and our safety and the safety of our family members and others is a top priority. We want to be prepared just in case. But accepting that, we do not necessarily have to draw, present, or use a lethal weapon in a majority of confrontations, which are factually-based non-lethal, non-deadly force encounters. Such a complex and demanding circumstance.
But, sometimes out of fear for their lives in a quickly developing encounter, some will promptly, emotionally, and automatically draw their gun for personal protection. Sometimes disregarding situational variables and understanding evident facts, in what seems a “seat-of-the-pants” knee-jerk decision. The encounter may initially be a non-deadly force situation, not calling for the presence or use of a gun or lethal tactics. Others may delay using their gun because they want to take time to understand the facts and variables involved, so as not to make incorrect premature use of deadly force decisions… and may lose their life by delaying. This is such a complex, uncertain, and potentially lethal situation with so many facts and variabilities that it seems a lose-lose proposition. Perhaps, when some are quick to draw or swift to use their gun and apply deadly force, they should delay that decision and gradually apply increasing tactics and weapons appropriate to the many, complex variables involved. Some want to immediately show their prowess and skills with a gun. Somehow that prideful macho “Rambo” instinct kicks in and some think they must prove their ability and produce and use a gun. So “darned if you do and darned if you don’t.”
Each Conflict Situation is Unique
There are no easy decisions and resolutions to what appears on the surface to be almost identical use-of-force situations. The same can be said about dissimilar, diverse, and unrelated conflict situations, which may or may not involve the use of deadly force. Each conflict situation is complex and unique in itself and there are no cookie-cutter solutions of which tactic(s) to use, even in one pretty-well defined scenario. There are many decisions, innumerable facts, several unknowns, and many actions and tactics to consider to best resolve any given confrontation.
Obviously, all encounters are NOT violent and do NOT require the defender to use deadly force, as the following F.B.I. data show.
NOTE: According to 2020 latest-year-available data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System in the U.S. on the F.B.I. Crime-Data Explorer website, of the 538,203 violent crime incidents, only 107,000 involved a handgun weapon (20%) and 53,009 involved some firearm (total of 30%.) 2020 F.B.I National Incident-Based Reporting System in U.S.-VIOLENT CRIME
It is an understatement to say that “you have to be there” to have complete data and facts to consider and to best decide what tactic to employ… quickly in real-time situations. But, depending on the situation, still, a gradual introduction of escalating force may need to be applied, rather than immediately jumping to get that gun and being ready to rapidly apply deadly force. From my albeit limited experiences in the military, law enforcement, and civilian/student training and with some research data, I believe most civilians do not recognize the optimal level of tactics, appropriate decision-making steps, amount of force, and actions to follow to resolve conflict encounters, especially in deadly-force situations. So, I believe as a very basic starting place a continuum is necessary that shows a continuous sequence or spectrum of possible levels of tactics and force to employ, each increasing in intensity and power, for a situation and its distinctive elements.
Most introductory concealed carry training, and even some intermediate-level firearms training, does not provide such detailed training on how much force to use in given defined situations, at what point or when to use what tactic, and what type of weapon to use in given self-defense situations. Perhaps. the best way to help resolve these important problems in the field is to use a general “Civilian Use-of-Force Continuum Guideline” (CUFCG) as a training tool for possible responses. Defined variables in certain defined situations lead to possible actions or responses, such as NOT use deadly force and draw your weapon, not use any type of force, and consider using non-threatening and calm commands. The level of force and response should be appropriate to the situation and its unique variables. Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict or even anticipate ALL possible changing variables in any situation, at least my CUFCG is a training tool that serves as a starting point to save some time in the heat of decision-making encounters.
When Is “Deadly-Force” Justified
While it varies greatly by state, jurisdiction, locale, and even situation and there is no firm, definitive and universal guideline for when to use deadly force, here is what my State of Florida says:
Florida Statute 776.012: “A person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”
Know what your state or jurisdiction laws specify about “deadly force” and non-lethal force. Of course, even though this is written in black and white, it must be interpreted by judges, juries, and courts and is very subjective and open to interpretation in each situation. What may be “reasonable” to one may not be to another. And what is “deadly force” and a “forcible felony” may even be open to dispute. So may “imminent” which could be understood to be immediately right this minute, in an hour, tonight, tomorrow, or even the next day. The definitions of “great bodily harm,” “serious bodily injury,” and “non-lethal” can also be misunderstood and need clarification.
NOTE: There is a definition, however, of “serious bodily injury” based, in part, on Title 18 United States Code, Section 2246 (4): “The term ‘serious bodily injury’ means bodily injury that involves a substantial risk of death, unconsciousness, protracted and obvious disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.”
So maybe a compound fracture of an arm with a bone protruding through the skin may not be considered “serious bodily injury?” Would this extend for a long, protracted period of time or be permanent? Could impairment of one arm be offset by the functioning of the other arm, e.g. in a gun fight? So confusing, uncertain, and with much risk and costs to those involved for adverse interpretation of events and conditions by the situation. So, just one reason to avoid the use of deadly force and potential lethal encounters, if at all possible.
Avoid Criminal Activity Locations
The first decision-making step, so you do not even have to use any tactics or weapons and to lower your risk of encounters with unsavory persons, is to know about criminal activity in your area and then avoid those locations. This will help you keep away from potential violence and potentially-dangerous situations that might require your use of deadly force or non-deadly force. In your particular neighborhood, you probably know of areas where you would not want to visit late at night or even during the daytime or be stranded there, because of frequent violent attacks, drug deals, or dangerous gangs or people. If you are new to your neighborhood or are unfamiliar with the area, the local police non-emergency phone line and public information officer are sources to identify criminal activities. Most cities have crime-mapping websites or neighborhood watch groups to help know violent crime areas.
What is “Use of Force Continuum?”
I have not found a single, universally agreed-upon definition or guidance for appropriate use of force, let alone any agreement about an escalating degree of force continuum for civilians to possibly use. Of course, it is very complex. I have not found a “civilian” use of force continuum which gives guidelines for deploying a given degree of force, weapons, and tactics to stop an attacker’s use of force for any defined situation. I see a need for a general guideline for this solely as a training tool to help civilian self-defenders anticipate and make quick decisions and save them time in the heat of a confrontation in the classroom. Generally, this continuum should be used to decide what specific level of force, tactic, and/or weapon should be used against a threatening attacker/aggressor or possible threatening attacker/aggressor, in any defined situation, in the training environment. It is important to keep in mind that there are several Levels of force and tactics which vary significantly and can be applied differently in any situation. This continuum I present below only has a minimal four levels, but certainly, there can be (and should be) several more added, with varying degrees of force from the attacker/aggressor and the defender. At least, this is a start.
Decision-Making Guidelines, Rapid Escalation, and A Civilian Use of Force Continuum
In any conflict situation, initially, there should be a step that involves using NO force of any kind. Awareness and avoidance come first. Then, the assessment and accompanying decisions about if, what, when, where, and how to deploy the weapon and tactic may have to be made very quickly, almost instantaneously, by you the defender. Or, they may be made after some time has elapsed. And the situation can quickly change and evolve from one level of the continuum to another level in a matter of seconds, requiring a completely different degree of force, weapon, and/or tactic to be employed. The situation can vary by the attacker’s motivations, aggressiveness, personal characteristics, and situational elements. Of course, this can vary tremendously from one low-risk, no-weapon-involved, minimal threat situation to another, which is high risk with a weapon ready to be deployed by an attacker/aggressor with significant threats. And this assessment and decision-making may have to occur very quickly. So this continuum is not an absolute panacea or fix-all for all or even many problems encountered. There are just too many variables for many different situations to try to identify and predict, then to consider the very many resolution options, to put in a continuum.
CAUTION: This continuum presented below is not for implementing or using in the real world, in real-time, in an actual confrontation, existing conflict, or use of force practical situation in the field or genuine encounter. It is not a standard or rule to follow, but a general training tool to consider in the safety of a classroom or in a fictitious or imaginary scenario. There is no universal nor proven set of guidelines, decisions, weapons, tactics, or actions which directly or indirectly dictate when civilians should use force, what type of force, where, or in what manner. This continuum is strictly and solely a training tool and should not be used in the field or in actual situations. It is presented to generally serve as a starting point for discussion, and actions, and to save defenders some time in contemplating what to do when an actual situation might occur. This author will not be liable for any violation of this intent or any possible results, injuries, or actions arising from it.
With the above caveats in mind and as a basic starting place, here are my four situational levels to be assessed by the defender.
Col Ben’s Civilian Use Of Force Continuum
SITUATION LEVEL 1: LOW Risk; NO weapon or force is involved, displayed, or deployed by the attacker; very low chance of weapon or force being deployed by an irritated attacker.
SITUATION LEVEL 2: MEDIUM-LOW Risk; NO weapon or force is deployed by the attacker, although a weapon may be present/displayed or there may be some chance it will be deployed by an irritated and somewhat aggressive and/or verbal attacker.
SITUATION LEVEL 3: MEDIUM Risk; A weapon IS produced-displayed and the possibility of it being used is probably soon to be imminent by an irritated and aggressive attacker. A solid threat exists, a weapon may be on the brink of being used, and there is a good possibility the threat may escalate into a more dangerous life-or-death situation. This is the most difficult level to assess, so extreme caution should be used here.
SITUATION LEVEL 4: HIGH Risk; A weapon is produced or already used by an irritated and very aggressive Aattacker. A strong physical and/or verbal threat definitely exists, a weapon may have been already used, is highly likely to be used at any time, and there is a strong possibility the situation will or already has escalated into a more dangerous life-or-death situation.
SITUATION LEVEL 1: LOW RISK.
DEGREE OF FORCE BY DEFENDER: NO physical force or weapon displayed or used.
TACTIC OF DEFENDER: The defender remains calm and has a non-aggressive and relaxed attitude, attempting to create a friendly, sincere caring environment, being open to what the attacker has to say. The defender wants to create rapport and work with the attacker to diffuse the hostile situation, but not make a new friend. Perhaps, the defender could ask what the attacker wants, his desires, and/or what are his motivations and present dilemma. The defender should try to create an informal, non-threatening, relaxed atmosphere, focusing on listening to the attacker and communicating clearly, not verbally assaulting the attacker. Help the attacker think rationally and analytically; help him to avoid emotional responses and to think through what is happening and what the repercussions of his actions might mean to him and others.
SITUATION LEVEL 2: MEDIUM-LOW RISK.
DEGREE OF FORCE BY DEFENDER: No physical force or weapon displayed or used. But, defender is on guard and ready for the possible introduction and use of a weapon by the attacker.
TACTIC OF DEFENDER: Flexibility to respond to an escalating situation is important for the defender. While NO weapon or physical force is deployed, direct and definite communications are used. The defender wants to diffuse and control the situation so it will not escalate into a physical or deadly-force confrontation. At this stage, the defender wants to ensure that no one gets injured at all and certainly that no one comes close to losing their life. The defender should not get angry or upset from the language, tone of voice, or comments made by the attacker. The defender should not take these remarks and actions as a personal assault. Instead, the defender should remain calm, have a slightly more involved approach through direct communications, try to control the attacker, keep a gun out of the conflict, and stop the situation from escalating. The defender may have to resort to using less-lethal weapons, such as Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) Pepper Spray.
NOTE: OC Pepper Spray has been associated with some deaths and severe corneal damages, according to a study by Granfield and Petty, sponsored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. So, careful decisions about using it should be made in each situation. Defenders should decide if they are in imminent fear for their life and/or great or serious bodily injury before using it.
The defender may issue calm, non-emotional, non-threatening but direct and authoritarian communications and commands to the attacker, such as who are you, stay where you are, stop do not move, do not reach for your gun, and/or have you thought how your actions here can affect you and your family. The defender can speak firmly and directly with increased voice volume and with short commands or requests, in order to get the attention of the Attacker, calm him, and help him to make more rational decisions. This is done while the defender is very aware that a gun may be introduced by the Attacker and is ready to respond with force as a last resort.
SITUATION LEVEL 3: MEDIUM RISK.
DEGREE OF FORCE BY DEFENDER: Physical force is a strong possibility of use if it can be done safely and not cause the aggressive attacker to use his weapon and minimizes the encounter escalation. A less-lethal weapon should be very ready to be used and/or with further physical force, even though the aggressive attacker’s weapon has not been used yet. There should be little or no hesitation to use other less-lethal weapons.
TACTIC OF DEFENDER: If avoiding, escaping, or fleeing the area are not safe alternatives, the appropriate amount of less-lethal force may be deployed, especially if the aggressive attacker has reached the point of using or is about to use his weapon. If the situation remains a stalemate, excessive physical force and deadly force should not be used. The defender wants to prevent any injuries, deaths, or further ones from occurring and not have the Attacker’s weapon used. Pepper spray, stun gun, TASER, or expandable baton are less-lethal options that may be used at this level, but again, try not to agitate or escalate the situation. And be aware some of these options may actually result in death. This is the most difficult level to assess because the attacker is very aggressive and on the brink of using his weapon, although it has not been used yet. Extreme caution should be used here.
SITUATION LEVEL 4: HIGH RISK.
DEGREE OF FORCE BY DEFENDER: Since a weapon has been produced and/or already used by an irritated and aggressive attacker, this is the stage to use your weapon and physical force, as safe opportunity permits, since:
- An actual violent event has occurred, as demonstrated by the attacker’s use of a weapon, and
- A weapon exists and its deadly force has been used against someone.
- The Attacker is positioned in close proximity to the defender, usually within 7 yards or so, and
- Hostile actions, violent intent, or a strong verbal deadly-force action exists against someone’s life.
- There is a very strong possibility the deadly-force encounter may further escalate into an even more dangerous life-or-death situation involving other persons.
TACTIC OF DEFENDER: At this stage, avoiding the use of deadly force is usually not a consideration, since the attacker has used his weapon and there is much risk of death or great bodily harm or serious injury. However, if safely escaping the area with all involved individuals is possible, avoidance should be considered. Usually, at this stage, this is not a viable option nor is applying less-lethal force, like pepper spray. The defender wants to prevent any injuries, deaths, or further ones from occurring. Get all individuals to safe concealment or out of the area. Safety and avoiding injuries and death of all involved are top priorities. This is also a very difficult level to assess because of the many variables and quick events occurring. There should be no hesitancy at this stage by the defender in using deadly force since the attacker has already used it, but use it wisely. Very extreme caution should be used here in using your weapon.
Recognize that communications and verbal de-escalation are not always appropriate in conflict situations, like when physical force or a weapon has actually been used by an aggressive attacker in Situation Level 4. But, do not be too quick to deploy your weapon. There are other Situation Levels that do not necessitate using a lethal weapon or a non-lethal weapon and there are different and specific tactics to be considered and used, to protect someone from death or harm. If drugs, alcohol, mental illness, or a severe medical problem are present, verbal de-escalation communications may make a time-sensitive problem even worse. Complicating things is that sincere communications do not always work. It is very challenging to identify the Situational Level, make key life-or-death decisions, and use the most appropriate tactics as a defender. My Civilian Use of Force Continuum Guidelines is just a very basic training tool, which you can modify to meet your needs. These tenets are my suppositions and propositions designed to help you, not dictate what you should do. It is at least a starting point to stimulate your thinking and add more Levels and considerations. I hope this has caused you to think more about your decisions and application of force and tactics in various self-defense lethal and non-lethal situations. So you do not automatically draw and use your weapon in Level 1-type situations.
Safety First and Continued Success!
Photos by Author.
* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.
© 2022 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.