I don’t like reasonable force. Never have. It’s not that I don’t like the concept or the idea of necessity, proportionality etc. I just don’t like the phrase.
I think that the phrase reasonable force brings certain connotations in the heads of those who hear it. I know that the phrase reasonable force has been around for a long time and that it is even mentioned across case law and sometimes in statute but that doesn’t mean that it’s right and it doesn’t mean that it’s fit for modern times. Personally I prefer the term reasonable action. Let me explain why.
Reasonable force as a phrase.
When the words ‘reasonable force’ are used there is generally a first emphasis on force and secondary emphasis on reasonable. We don’t often talk about being just reasonable. The use of the word ‘force’ as it’s described in the dictionary has a number of potential meanings.
“ strength or energy as an attribute of physical action or movement.”
“coercion or compulsion, especially with the use or threat of violence”
“make a way through or into by physical strength; break open by force.”
“ make (someone) do something against their will.”
When you look at the term of reasonable force it implies by definition that physical force is needed. It also implies that physical force is reasonable from the start. When we train people and we show them the term in context for example “ when you are in fear of attack you can use reasonable force” it suggests that physical force is required and reasonable. What about just taking reasonable action? Walking away, calling support, using proxemics, de-escalation. ?What about closing/locking a door between me and the person? All are very reasonable actions that could be described as a reasonable use of ‘force’ but didn’t require any physical force at all.
The concept of reasonable force
I usually describe the use of reasonable force as being similar to art. You (as the person performing the action) are the artist. The situation is your canvas and your actions are your paint and brushes.
Your role is to paint a picture that portrays the situation, your actions and your emotions to the viewers who won’t be present while your painting. In fact the viewers will only see the finished painting (totality of the circumstances) and may not do so for days, weeks or years afterwards. The viewers will also likely not be artists themselves, they have have a passing interest in art but likely will never have painted a picture before.
Physical force in this context is the final brush strokes on the painting. But without a solid base of under layers the picture will never come out how it should to the viewers. Bear in mind that you are generally not judged in what you think of the finished picture but what others think of your brush strokes on the canvas.
So let’s move towards my concept of reasonable actions. When you are in fear of attack or someone else is, or there is substantial risk of serious danger to property then train people to take reasonable action.
Let’s look at a scenario
I’m at risk of attack
- I take a step in a direction of safety, I bring my hands up and begin to ask the person to stay where they are and attempt to de-escalate.
- I’ve already made myself aware of the locations of cctv cameras and move towards them.
- I show my hands clearly toward the person and the camera.
- I verbally ask the person repeatedly to stay back in earshot of bystanders and people recording.,
- I press my radio and ask for support
- I start moving towards a place of safety while the person follows.
- I continue to talk to the person as they shout and gesture.
All of these are ‘reasonable actions’ in the circumstances that begin to paint a particular picture. None involved physical force.
Let’s say that despite my best intentions the situation escalates and the person physically attacks me or moves aggressively towards me requiring a physical response . I apply whatever physical technique is most appropriate.
- I gain control of the situation.
- I call for support once more.
- I ask bystanders to call the police
- I begin communicating with the person
- I begin checking the persons welfare once mine is assured and I verbalise this.
- As soon as I can I disengage to a direction of safety and establish distance then I do so.
- I begin communication again.
Again all ‘reasonable actions’ that paint a picture. Only 2 steps involved physical force.
Now if I follow my training I might know the term ‘reasonable force’ and I might think that using physical force is available to me and the right thing to do from the start. The law and the training told me that ‘reasonable force’ can be used when I’m in imminent fear of attack. But by going directly to physical intervention at the start we aren’t considering painting the correct picture bearing in mind that we are judged on the finished article. In fact when we record the incident later we will likely focus on the force that was used and how we should explain it rather than talking about the totality of our ‘reasonable actions’
A change in mindset and wording
What I think we need is a change in wording in how we talk about and teach people to assess and respond in dynamic and potentially dangerous situations. I’m not advocating taking any options off the table for anybody. I’m advocating for a change from talking about using ‘reasonable force’ to taking ‘reasonable actions’ (some of which can include force options) . Reasonable force is a lot more than physical skills but we don’t see it taught that way very often (particularly in the security sector). If we change how we talk about reasonable actions then over time that can contribute to a change in mindset around reasonable actions and hopefully to a change in how we behave in dynamic situations. Focussing on painting that picture to all parties that we are performing ‘reasonable actions’ not reasonable force. Painting that picture to ourselves, the other person in the situation, to colleagues, to bystanders, to CCTV, employers, solicitors and potentially to courts.
How an artist paints is a product of their mindset and their skill set (brushes and strokes). How we act in dynamic situations is a product of ours. Take reasonable actions to paint reasonable pictures.