The laws surrounding the use of force in a difficult situation can feel muddy and uncertain to many people. Give your Safety Ministry the power of confidence and knowledge behind their actions by teaching them the legal implications and limitations of using force. This chapter covers; When Can a Citizen/Safety Member Use Force, Deciding to Use Force, What is “Reasonable” Force, Use of Deadly Force and Use of Non-Deadly Force. Knowing the legal authority of your Church Safety Team is crucial to the lawful protection of your church and congregation.
The United States has long made provisions so that people can act in self-defense, i.e., use force (even deadly force) to protect themselves, other people, or property. The laws explained below can also be applied to church security team members defending their congregations and church property. Reinhart (2007) noted that most states also include language so that people who act in self-defense have immunity from criminal prosecution and may even be entitled to compensation for attorney’s fees and lost income if prosecuted (p. 3).
Laws vary from state to state, and it is best to check applicable state legislation to know specific rights. The following are general guidelines about using self-defense.
Use of Force Continuum
The National Institute of Justice (2009) explained that law enforcement agencies have policies and expectations that guide their use of force in resolving violent situations. An example is as follows:
- Presence – Officer presence deters violence, and no force used.
- Verbal Deescalation (See Chapter 5) – The officers make statements such as “Let me see your license and registration.” They may increase volume and issue commands such as “Stop.”
- Empty-Handed Control – The officer may restrain the individual through grabs, punches, and kicks.
- Less-Lethal Methods – The officer may immobilize an individual with a baton, chemical (such as pepper spray), or Conducted Energy Device (such as a stun gun).
- Lethal Force – An officer may use deadly force (such as using a firearm) to stop an individual. (National Institute of Justice, 2009)
Your church security team should create policies to deal with violent offenders before situations arise. Know what your use of force continuum should be. The following information explains the legal right to act in self-defense.
Self-defense laws generally require that force be used only when there is an imminent (immediate) physical threat to oneself or a third person (such as a spouse or child). It is not justified to use force against someone who makes a verbal attack with no “accompanying threat of immediate physical harm” (“Self-Defense Overview,” 2016).
Reasonable belief refers to what the person who uses self-defense could have reasonably believed under the circumstances. For example, if a stranger seems to be suddenly about to strike your head, it is reasonable to defend yourself. If that stranger is only to trying to swat away a bee, your reaction can still be viewed as reasonable (“Self-Defense Overview,” 2016). If a person has an unreasonable belief of threat, he or she could be prosecuted for assault or even murder but may plead “imperfect self-defense” and have the charges and penalties reduced (“Self-Defense Overview,” 2016). Not all states recognize this defense.
This criterion means that when someone acts in self-defense, he or she must react in a way that matches the threat. If someone is attacked but his or her life is not threatened, the defender cannot respond with deadly force. Likewise, if the attacker is neutralized easily, then continuing to fight the attacker would be considered retaliation and not self-defense (“Self-Defense Overview,” 2016).
Duty To Retreat
Many states require that a person try to escape from an attacker before using force as self-defense. Some states stipulate that a person may use force as self-defense but may not use deadly force without first trying to flee the situation (“Self-Defense Overview,” 2016).