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How Forceful?

The Continuum of Force

Police officer arresting dangerous criminal on street
An article based on the Sheepdog Church Security training course Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws v3[1]


Have you ever stripped a screw or broken a plastic lid by applying too much force? Have you not been able to open a jar because you could not apply enough force? The key to success is the right amount of force. It is that way in a Church Safety Ministry. We need to use only enough force to keep the flock safe. The consequence of using too much force is more serious than a broken lid or stripped screw. It can be severe injury or death, lawsuits, and/or criminal charges.

In The Bible

Force Not Used

Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people (Acts 5:26).

Force Used

And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks (Acts 23:10).

Excessive Force

Thus says the Lord: “... I will not revoke the punishment, because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom"(Amos 2:1).

In Amos's prophesies against six Gentile nations (Amos 1:3-2:3), each denunciation named an excessive use of force.

In the News

Salt Lake City, Utah, November 10, 2020 - The Utah State Supreme Court heard arguments in the appeal of a lawsuit alleging extreme treatment (amounting to excessive force) by a church in the course of a rape investigation. The victim, who was in her mid-teens at the time of the rape and the investigation, was subjected to hours of repeatedly hearing an audio tape the rapist had made during an assault. She filed the suit when in her 20s. The victim claimed that church officials were attempting to get her to confess to asking for the sexual assault. The church appealed the suit, and a state appeals court ruled that the courts had no jurisdiction under the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment, since this was the church's internal investigation for the purpose of determining her morality.[2][3]

Canton, Ohio, February 12, 2020 - A school resource assistant in a Canton elementary school was fired for using excessive force while keeping a kindergarten student who was under restrictions from running out of the building during recess.[4]

Washington, DC, February 22, 2010 - The United States Supreme Court ruled that the kind and extent of force used should be the basis of a claim of excessive force, not the level of injury. In the case at issue, a prisoner's injuries were minimal, but SCOTUS said the kind of force was what mattered. A previous case was cited as precedent.[5]

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, March 3, 2017 - The mother of an infant son who was killed by her boyfriend filed a wrongful death lawsuit against him and his church. Forensic and video evidence led to murder charges.

The man was a donor to the church, and his children attended the church's school. The mother claimed that he was on the church's board. She also claimed they covered for him in previous cases, leaving her without any warning of his past record. The church denied that the dentist had been on the board. Although the church had reported child abuse cases, they also had to settle a suit for not reporting another claim years earlier.[6][7]

Previous instance of failure to report abuse apparently contributed to a belief that the church was covering for the man's prior use of excessive force.

Fort Worth, Texas, September 28, 2020 - A grand jury decided to not indict the church security team member at the West Freeway Church of Christ who shot and killed a gunman who had already killed two members of the church during a service.[8]

Special Resource for February

Our free, downloadable, special resource for February is Use of Force: Recommended Training for Your Church's Safety Ministry.[9] Included in this is the printable "Use of Force Training Record." Get it by clicking *HERE*. If you are not already subscribed, this will sign you up for our weekly email updates and The Church Guardian, our monthly newsletter. More information on Use-of-Force is in the Online Church Security Guide article "Self Defense Laws, Your Rights and Use of Force."[10]

Responsible Use of Force

Some readers may remember the 1960s Lays potato chip TV ad, "Betcha can't eat just one"[11], and the 1972 Alka-Seltzercommercial where someone groans, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing."[12] Both ads address the issue of knowing when to stop, then doing it. In a very real way, this is like using force in tense situations, such as in security and law enforcement. As in the potato chip ad, once adrenalin flows, it is hard to stop. As in the Alka-Seltzer ad, going too far can have painful consequences.

Excessive Force

In the late 1800s and the early 20th Century, police, troops, and private security agencies used to protect company property were also employed to end strikes. This was often done brutally. For example, the 1892 Homestead Strike against the Carnegie Steel Company resulted in the deaths of nine strikers and seven Pinkerton agents.[13]

In the middle of the 20th Century, lawsuits and criminal charges alleging excessive use of force started becoming more frequent, and the issue was more widely recognized. The 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles sparked riots.[14] Since then, public outrage over "police brutality" has become commonplace.

Law enforcement agencies and private security agencies are not the only targets of excessive use-of-force claims. Churches are also sued for alleged excesses by members of their safety and security teams. Sometimes these members may face criminal charges. For instance, in the West Freeway Christian Church shooting, the matter was presented to a grand jury.[8] Even though the incident was obviously justifiable homicide, it was necessary to verify this conclusion legally.

Justifiable Force

The question at hand is, "How much force is justifiable in a situation?" According to our definition of force, "whatever pressure or influence you use to defend the church and its members," this includes not only physical force and weapons, but also much softer means of protecting the flock. For us, justifiable force is the least force needed to do the job.

The Continuum of Force

By now, most of us know what a continuum is, but in case this is new to some (and to help those who do know to explain it to others), here it is. A continuum is the gradual movement from one extreme to another. This movement is outlined by select points along the line, dividing the continuum into definable segments. A common example is dividing a century into decades.

The Need for Clear Definitions

With increasing claims of excessive force by law enforcement officers and conflicting decisions around the country having to be sorted out in federal courts, there arose a general consensus that we needed recognized definitions of levels of force so consistent standards could be set for the use of force. These definitions and standards could then be incorporated into law enforcement training and be uniformly enforced around the country.

The Continuum Defined

In 2009, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), an office in the Department of Justice, posted the definitions of levels of force as The Use-of-Force Continuum.[15] The continuum is divided into five levels (note that there are gradations within each level):

  1. Officer Presence
  2. Verbalization
  3. Empty-Hand Control
  4. Less-Lethal Methods
  5. Lethal Force

Here are the descriptions as given on the NIJ web page:

Officer Presence — No force is used. 

Verbalization — Force is not-physical. 

Empty-Hand Control — Officers use bodily force to gain control of a situation. 

Less-Lethal Methods — Officers use less-lethal technologies to gain control of a situation. 

Lethal Force — Officers use lethal weapons to gain control of a situation. 

The Continuum in Church Safety & Security

The Sheepdog Church Security (SDCS) training course Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws v3[1] includes the Use-of-Force Continuum. The emphasis is on being skilled in the lower force levels to reduce the need to use the higher levels. SDCS has adapted the Continuum for church safety & security by refining the definitions for church use and having six levels instead of five:

  1. Team Presence
  2. Verbal De-Escalation
  3. Soft Empty-Hand Controls
  4. Hard Empty-hand Controls
  5. Non-Lethal Weapons
  6. Deadly Force

First of all, with Safety Team members just being there, Team Presence assures most attenders that someone is watching out for their safety. They know whom to seek for help. This presence is also a deterrent to mischief. Some misbehavers want to be noticed, but not by someone trained and equipped to stop them.

The most used level of force is Verbal De-Escalation. With this key skill, a Safety Team member can cool tempers before they become violent. Even when violence is beginning, it may be paused long enough to allow heated emotions to cool. The principal benefit of this is that no one gets hurt. Verbal de-escalation is a proven course of action in law enforcement, classrooms, workplaces, neighborhoods, etc. Sheepdog Church Security has a course in verbal de-escalation.[16]

The third level, Soft Empty-Hand Controls, if used effectively, may prevent a situation from rising to the level of using weapons. This can be as light as a hand touching a shoulder. It can go as far as escort holds.

Hard Empty-Hand Controls are commonly known as "unarmed self-defense." They are best learned with in-person training. One advantage of these self-defense skills is that in close quarters no time is needed to draw any weapon.

With levels four and five on the Continuum, we come into the arena of state and federal weapons laws. Some may be surprised to learn that even pepper spray and batons are subject to state and local regulations. By now, we all know about concealed-carry and open-carry laws and gun-free zones. Weapons training should also include federal, state, and local laws, which are the subject of another article in this series.

Legal Protection

When defending the congregation against violence, the level of force used is often questioned. It may be seen as essential by some, and excessive - or not enough - by others. It is now too easy to face a lawsuit or criminal charges. We need to have immediate access to legal help for advice and representation. Sheepdog Church Security has linked up with U.S. LawShield®, described as a "most comprehensive (and affordable) Legal Defense for Self Defense Program." If a subscriber is sued or charged for defending themselves or others, a lawyer is ready to represent them. You can subscribe as a Sheepdog Church Security affiliate member.[17]

Special Material Resource

There are more solutions available for non-lethal self-defense with Reflex Protect. These are effective for home and work, and can also be used by schools and health-care facilities. Their spray has a uniquely-designed head for easier use. Sheepdog Church Security has an affiliate relationship with Reflex Protect.[18]


For a Church Safety Ministry, it is our goal to use only the amount of force needed to keep order and protect the congregation, and no more. This is safer and avoids the physical and legal consequences of using too much force.

There Is More

The other two articles the Use of Force in Church Security series are "To the Defense" (Protecting the Flock from Violent Threats) and "Lawful Force" (Use of Force Laws). At the end of the month is our Closer Look article for February, "The 2001 Greater Oak Missionary Baptist Church Shooting."


  1. Kris Moloney, "Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws v3," Sheepdog Church Security Training Courses, © 2016-2017: Training Materials (Classroom) []; Individual Training [].
  2. Annie Knox, "Utah high court weighs case of woman who says church made her listen to audio of her rape," Deseret News, November 10, 2020 [].
  3. "RIA WILLIAMS vs. KINGDOM HALL OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, ROY, UTAH, et al.," Utah Court of Appeals, December 23, 2019, accessed through the Utah Supreme Court [].
  4. Kelli Weir, "Canton school security employee fired for excessive force on kindergartner," Canton Repository, February 13, 2020, accessed through the Cincinnati Enquirer [].
  5. Jaclyn Belczyk, "Supreme Court rules excessive force claims must be decided on nature of force," Jurist, February 22, 2010 [].
  6. Ryan Kocian, "Dentist and Church Sued Over Infant's Brutal Death," Courthouse News Service, March 10, 2017 [].
  7. Briggs Bedigian, "Wrongful Death Lawsuit against Dentist and Church," Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, March 10, 2017 [].
  8. Eline de Bruijn, "Grand jury declines to indict church security officer who opened fire on man who killed 2 parishioners," WFAA, September 28, 2020 [].
  9. Kris Moloney, "Use of Force: Recommended Training Your Church's Safety Ministry," Sheepdog Church Security, © 2019 [].
  10. Kris Moloney, "Self Defense Laws, Your Rights and Use of Force," Online Church Security Guide, Sheepdog Church Security [].
  11. Billdvdman (username), "‘Betcha can't eat just one!' was the slogan used in which U.S. TV commercial?" Quiz Club, no date ["Betcha can't eat just one!" was the... | Trivia Answers | QuizzClub].
  12. Milt Moss, "Alka-Seltzer's ‘I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing:' A True Story," Groovy History, January , 2019 [].
  13. History.Com Editors, "Homestead Strike,", October 29, 2009, updated June 7, 2019 [].
  14. Anjuli Sastry and Karen Grigsby Bates, "When LA Erupted In Anger: A Look Back At The Rodney King Riots," NPR, April 26, 2017 [].
  15. "The Use-of-Force Continuum," National Institute of Justice, August 3, 2009 [].
  16. Kris Moloney, "Deescalating Disruptive Persons v4," Sheepdog Church Security Training Courses, © 2019: Training Materials (Classroom) []; Individual Training (Online) [].
  17. U.S. LawShield (Legal Defense for Self Defense Program), Sheepdog Church Security affiliate link [].
  18. Reflex Protect (Revolutionizing non-lethal defense), Sheepdog Church Security affiliate link [].