Private Security & the Use of Force

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Private security is a fast-growing industry, with assignments as diverse as walking the beat at a shopping mall to large-scale private armies providing military-level combat support in war-torn communities. The levels of acceptable force that private-security officers are allowed to use can vary by jurisdiction.

Types of Private-Security Officers

  • Private security officers rely on the implied authority of a badge and uniform to encourage people to behave in a certain manner. Private-duty officers have no legal authority to arrest or detain apart from the rights to citizen arrest that any person enjoys. Instead, a guard's duty is to observe and report. However, private-security officers do have the right to enforce another's property claims--for example, to forcibly remove a quarrelsome fan from a rock star's backyard with the minimum force necessary. Although many private security officers are armed with nothing more dangerous than a two-way radio, some are armed with pepper spray, batons, Tasers or firearms.

Continuum of Force

  • Many law-enforcement and private-security training programs recognize a "continuum of force"--a sliding scale of officer involvement necessary to protect the safety or property of another.

    The six points on the continuum are: Officer presence, verbal communication, control holds and restraints, chemical agents, temporary incapacitation and lethal force. "Officer presence" is merely the arrival of an identified security officer at the scene of a situation. If this is not enough, the officer should speak with the suspect or offender in order to de-escalate or control the situation. If the offender becomes combative, a baton or handcuffs may be used to subdue him. The goal is to to ensure everyone's safety. Especially combative or out-of-control subjects may require the use of such chemical agents as pepper spray. If this fails to work, then an officer may attempt to incapacitate the person using a Taser or hand-to-hand combat. Only in the most extreme situations may an officer use lethal force--typically, to defend his life or the lives of innocent bystanders when all other means at situational control have failed.

Governing Laws

  • In most jurisdictions of the United States, a private-security officer must be licensed, with proper training and education. A private-security agent has no special law-enforcement privileges. People are not legally obligated to follow a security agent's commands. However, these officers do have the same powers of citizen arrest as anyone else, and most states have laws that allow for varying degrees of physical coercion or force to restrain a person suspected of wrongdoing until the police arrive. In all cases, private-security officers operate under the same legal standard requiring the minimal use of force as any other citizen. They have no special immunity from prosecution when they do use physical force.

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