When to Use Force to Defend Yourself and How Much Force Do You Need to Use?

This particular document was written at the request of a friend. He is an intelligent man who has knocked around the world a bit and, in general, knows how to handle himself in a variety of situations. He travels frequently for work and has moved his place of residence a time or two. Due to differences in the laws of various states in the United States of America, federal law, and local law and ordinances at the county and municipal levels, he asked me to provide a bit of general guidance on what to do if he needed to defend himself, and how to deal with the aftermath and possible repercussions of any use of force. Once we had talked a few times about this subject, he told me that I should put something up on the Albo Kali Silat website regarding this issue. I cover use of force, dealing with authorities, and some of the legalities and things anyone using force to defend themselves should keep in mind when I teach my students, and my friend thought that a few lines here might help out a person or two.

First, let us delve into what this document is not. This is not legal advice, and I am not going to act as your attorney or testify on your behalf should you end up using force and being arrested or sued. I have quite a bit of experience in law enforcement, at municipal and federal levels, and I have worked as a professional law enforcement officer in multiple states. This document is not law enforcement policy, has nothing to do with the agency I work for, and is not going to be giving out any “secret law enforcement tricks” or give you a “get out of jail free card.” The information contained here is designed to give you a framework to think about and assist you in developing your own personal self-defense strategies and tactics. If you take this information and use it for any other purposes than that, or even use it for its intended purpose, you are making a choice and, contrary to what seems to be the norm in modern society in the U.S. today, you will be responsible for your own actions.

The first thing to realize when discussing self-defense is that there is a continuum of force. There are different levels of force that are appropriate for different situations. You need to be able to exercise judgment. If you completely lose you temper over minor issues, have your reason clouded by alcohol or drugs on a routine basis, or have other issues that affect your ability to exercise judgment during a confrontation or potential confrontation, then you may have some significant problems justifying your actions to law enforcement officials and the court system. For law enforcement, levels of force are sometimes defined by equipment, and impact weapons, chemical weapons (mace or pepper spray), stun guns/tasers, and other items are put into various and sometimes separate categories in the continuum. In reality, to keep it as simple as possible and to make this more accessible and pertinent for personal use, you can break down the levels of force to only three: verbal, less than lethal, and potentially lethal. Please note that, to best understand and utilize the continuum of force, the less-than-lethal category has two sub-categories: empty hand and tool usage. Let us explore these levels of force a bit.

What are we trying to accomplish when we are using force? We are trying to get someone to stop an action that is affecting our wellbeing and safety or the wellbeing and safety of others. There are escalating levels on our force continuum because there are different actions by people who are affecting our wellbeing in different ways, and we need to respond in what the law has defined as reasonable for that particular situation or level of threat. You are not normally required to follow each level within the force continuum, but are allowed to respond with the level of force that is appropriate for the situation and threat being faced. For example, if you park your new automobile at a shopping center and return to find a teenage male sitting on the hood of your vehicle, it might be satisfying to contemplate knocking him off of your car using the baseball bat you just bought at a sporting goods store and which is in your shopping cart, but it will be hard to justify this action to law enforcement or the court system. The youngster possibly dented or scratched the hood of your car while sitting on it, and he did not have permission to be on your vehicle, but does this allow you to hit him with a club? Verbal commands might be best used in this situation. Telling a person what you want him to do or cease doing sometimes can stop an altercation before it begins. Some people really are completely clueless and have no idea that their actions are impacting on your safety and wellbeing to the extent that you are going to do something about it. I have found, in the last several years “on the street,” an increasing sense of entitlement and “it really is all about me” mentality from law-abiding citizens as well as criminals. Some people, who really are not planning to hurt you, may damage your property or step well inside your personal space/reaction zone just because they feel like it is in their best interest or is “their right.” Telling someone to stop moving toward you, if you think they are going to attempt to harm you, does a few things for you. Your command may cause the person, who was not planning on attempting to harm you, to realize that he is violating your personal space or “safety zone” and cause him to stop. Your command may demonstrate to a person who was attempting to harm you that you are “switched on” and aware, and he may decide to cease his actions and look for an easier and better target. Your command may be ignored by the person, or it could enrage the person, particularly if he is mentally unstable. However, a verbal command, if heard by witnesses, can go a long way toward showing that you were not looking for a confrontation, so that, when you do have to stop the assailant by using force, it can be easier to justify your actions.

There are many times when it is inappropriate to try to talk to someone and convince them to leave you alone. There are times when you should go directly to physical force, and times when you should immediately begin using potentially lethal force if you wish to survive your encounter. In general, in order to use lethal force and not face a significant amount of time in prison, a person needs to be able to show, to a reasonable man, that he was in fear of his life or serious bodily injury at the time that he used the lethal force. What this means is that, in the same situation you were in, acting on only the information you had available at the time of the incident, a reasonable person would believe that their life was in danger or that they were facing serious injury (broken bones, serious cuts, etc.). Your attacker has to have the means to seriously injure you at the time of your use of lethal force (the threat is real and it is imminent, not sometime in the future, but right now). You have to be able to show why you felt the attacker was going to seriously injure or kill you (the attacker’s intent or probable intent). An attacker who points a firearm at you and tells you to give him your money or he will kill you obviously is in the process of threatening you and robbing you right now and has a weapon that could seriously injure or kill you. You should be able to use potentially lethal force in this situation and articulate why you did so. If the attacker turned out to have an unloaded firearm, or was using an Airsoft gun rather than a real firearm, the “reasonable man” standard should be applied, and, since you thought it was a real firearm and had no idea that it was not an imminent threat to your life, the fact that the object was not an imminent threat should not be considered. A reasonable person would have considered the object a loaded and ready firearm. Now, if a person had a firearm in their pocket and, while walking away from you, stated to you that he was going to find you and hurt you later, is lethal force on your part justified? Is the threat from this person imminent (going to occur right now?)

Remember that anything that you do to defend yourself, if it results in death or serious injury to your attacker, is going to be scrutinized and reviewed multiple times by the criminal justice system. The key to success in the actual fight is skill and application of strategies and techniques that you have long practiced. The key to survival of the aftermath of an altercation is articulation. You have to be able to explain why you took the actions that you did, and do so in such a fashion that shows that a reasonable person, if facing the same situation that you did, would act in the manner in which you acted. Since every individual and every confrontation is different, you must be able to explain yourself and your actions, placing those actions within the framework of what is legal. Reason dictates what you should and should not do in a confrontation. A 105 pound, 4 foot 11 inch tall businesswoman being punched and kicked by an enraged 6 foot tall, 210 pound man may be able to explain why she felt she was in danger of losing her life or of suffering serious bodily injuries, and might be able to justify shooting and killing her assailant. A 6 foot 8 inch tall mixed martial arts champion facing the same attacker may not be able to show the same justification for lethal force. Everything is situational, and your feelings, defensive capabilities, environment, attacker, weaponry utilized by the attacker, and other factors will all come into question and into play when the legal drama starts to unfold.

So, what is “lethal force?” Really, it is that force that a reasonable person would assume could potentially kill another human being. Certain items, such as firearms and knives, are inherently seen as being potentially lethal, so use of these items is automatically “lethal force.” If we were looking at this situation using pure reason, then whether or not a tool was used should be irrelevant when you defend yourself. Using a stick or expandable baton such as an ASP to strike a person in the arm when that person is attempting to strike you is in the realm of “less than lethal” force, and should be no different than if you use a gunting motion to deflect his attack and strike his arm with your closed fist. In real life, however, if you deploy a weapon, you are going to be seen as “raising the bar” of force, and you need to be able to articulate why you deployed a weapon and show that it was reasonable to do so. Please note that “lethal force” does not always kill someone, and that there are many empty hand techniques that fall into the lethal category. A powerful elbow strike to the larynx or a neck crank or dislocation/breaking technique applied to the spine or neck can cause death. Similarly, “less than lethal” techniques sometimes can kill. For example, you grab an opponent’s punching arm, attempting to control it and keep from being hit, and you end up breaking the arm. This is normally not lethal, but, in this case, some bleeding develops, the blood clots, the clot moves to the man’s brain, and, while in jail and awaiting trial for assaulting you, he dies of a stroke. It should further be noted that you could be aiming a baton strike at the arm of the man who is trying to brain you with a brick, and he might move, and your strike impact on his head and cause his death. You must be able to explain what you were doing and why you were doing it, and, in this situation, how your intent was not to kill the person. Of course, your intent is always to stop the attack, not to kill, and, in the case of the man with a brick, proper articulation could justify the use of lethal force, even though you were attempting less than lethal responses. You can use a knife to cut targets that are less than lethal, but it is going to be problematic to explain this. Absent justification for lethal force, the deploying and use of a blade in combat is going to cause serious legal problems. I do believe it is possible to use a closed folding knife as a kubotan or pocket stick and justify this as less than lethal, if lethal target areas are avoided, but this is going to require significant explanation.

The key thing to remember, as can be seen by reading the above, is that you must be able to explain your actions. Good training and some experience will allow you to examine your surroundings, react appropriately to an attack, and explain why you did so. Things happen fast in real attacks, and you cannot be preparing your legal defense or considering how you are going to explain things, while you are being attacked, or you may not be around to explain anything to anyone ever again. Building a proper mindset, working on your own self-defense plan, and having your own use of force plan in place ahead of time will allow you to survive the attack and the legal aftermath. A last thought that I wish to leave you with concerns various strategies of dealing with law enforcement after a use of force in self-defense. Some will tell you to say nothing to law enforcement officers at the scene, other than to ask for an attorney. Some will say to give a detailed statement and try to explain everything. Many times, following a violent altercation, you may be upset and not in the right frame of mind to give a detailed statement that is expected to cover the entire incident and which will be viewed with suspicion if you have to change it later. Only asking for an attorney is not a very good option either, in my opinion. If the bad guy has survived, or there are friends or associates of the bad guy around (and they tend to come out of the woodwork when these things happen), these people will make a statement, and it will blame everything on you. Police officers involved in lethal force situations do not generally make comprehensive statements at the scene of the incident, and police officers know this. If you give your personal identifying information, you say merely that you were attacked, had to defend yourself, are currently shaken up due to the incident, and that you will retain an attorney and give a comprehensive statement to officers later, many in law enforcement will understand, as they would do the exact same thing. This also allows the officer to put that you were defending yourself in the original report. Please note that everything is situational. If you are in a minor shoving match and are facing, at worst, a misdemeanor assault charge if you are found to be the aggressor, demanding an attorney and refusing to make a statement is not going to be viewed very well. If and when you give a statement, tell the truth. You have the right to remain silent. You can choose to do so. However, everything is situational, and I personally believe that there is a time to talk and a time to shut up. You need to determine what works for you and when.

Take care and train hard.

Tuhan Jon Holloway
January 2010

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