View Full Version : Martial Misconceptions: Civilian Use of Force

11th January 2010, 21:22
Addressing an issue that I see raise its head from time to time, including recently on several forums. It is also a topic of primary interest for the martial artists in the self protection classes I teach: in fact, I think that LE does much better understanding the articulation of use of force, and is not well versed in the technical abilities to do so, and "civilian" martial artists tend to have more technical ability with little idea of how and when and to what extent they can act.

The misconception:

"Civilian use of force does not have to follow the same standard that law enforcement does. Civilian use of force can always immediately go to more dangerous techniques and tactics because the idea is not “arrest and control” but rather “self defense.” Therefore, “unlike police,” civilians can immediately use more violent means to defend themselves and are not bound by the same restrictions police are."

The Fact of the Matter:

For the martial artist who has at least some inkling of using his or her art in self defense, I must warn you that this is NOT TRUE. While you as a civilian are not required to restrain criminals who are attempting to escape, you also cannot use any level of force you desire against a perceived assault. You – just like a police officer – can only use force which is reasonable for the threat you can articulate.

Except in some misguided department policies (not by any means a national standard), police officers are also not required to use the minimal amount of force, or “not to harm” a suspect. The officer can use that force which he can reasonably articulate is necessary in the circumstances he faces. That may be high, that may be low. It is totally situationally based, to include what the individual officer and the individual assailant brings to the encounter.

“Civilians” are bound by the same standard. You simply must measure your self defense response in light of what you can reasonably articulate. In some states, you as a citizen may also have a duty to retreat (if you are not in your own home). Regardless, if an aggressive transient pushes you, you cannot gouge his eye out or attack his throat with a shuto if you cannot also give valid reasons for why you needed to do so. You cannot simply say “he *might* have pulled a knife” or “he *might* have had buddies attempt to surprise attack me” unless you can articulate the other various factors that would lead another person (as in the Jury) to the same conclusion. You simply do not get a “free ride” because you are accosted in the street or anywhere else.

Unless you have some rather questionable personal habits or hang with the wrong crowd, the majority of self defense situations will be nowhere near that violent. They will be relatively minor “aggressive transient” situations, bad attitude squabbles, or will be altercations/issues that are either domestic or otherwise involving people you know. Certainly any of these situations *could* develop to a point, or erupt at a point, that a high level of violent response is necessary, but that has to be supported by what you can reasonably conclude is about to happen, not by throwing everything and the kitchen sink into your justification for force because it could happen. You have some leeway there, just as does police use of force against violent threat (NOT arrest and control), but you do not have carte blanche to do whatever you want, especially if you are in fact over-reacting to the actual level of threat. Once again, you will not be held to the standard that an experienced officer will, but you could very well be held liable – even criminally - if you are perceived as over- reacting to a situation that was not in fact what you made it out to be.

More than one person has gone to prison because they severely injured someone in a garden variety push-and-shove that turned deadly based on their actions.

12th January 2010, 01:54
Very good post, Kit. Do you feel that teachers of civilians should also teach their students how to "measure ...self defense response in light of what [one] can reasonably articulate"? How? What if the teacher doesn't have much experience in this either?

Measuring threat response is very important. I've got the kind of "bottle it up now, lash out later" anger, unfortunately.

12th January 2010, 05:19
Very good post, Kit. Do you feel that teachers of civilians should also teach their students how to "measure ...self defense response in light of what [one] can reasonably articulate"? How? What if the teacher doesn't have much experience in this either?

Measuring threat response is very important. I've got the kind of "bottle it up now, lash out later" anger, unfortunately.

If there is an express intent/impression that practical self defense is being taught, then yes.

I have no problem whatsoever with people doing a martial art as martial art: as a "do" form, as a sport, as a "fighting art of the samurai," what have you. Any and all may have some application to self defense. But they are not self defense in the modern context, and it is within context that the articulation of force lies.

How one teaches/learns it is a good question. The first step is that it must be taken out of the dojo context, which rarely involves street clothes, does not involve common street problems, and which is almost always based in an "equal initiative" encounter. Dojo training is also almost always based in physical technique and not in situational dynamics and decision trees under stress.

Both drills and scenarios have to be run in which the student faces various types of encounters and has to make the go/no go decision. This alone takes a lot of conditioning, because most dojo are not using street language, and are not training/basing assault parameters on everything from the aggressive transient to the drunken uncle, the road rage (blowing off steam or actually violent?) to the date rape. Nor are they patterning language and body language/distance based on proxemics and threat potential (walking down the street or in a crowded bar? Personal distance changes based on the surroundings.)

Only later should the physical techniques, and armament (either carried weapons (folding knife, handgun, etc.) or improvised weapons be trained, and then both in drills and in context.

Overcoming teacher lack of experience can be an issue. The teacher, or the student, has to commit to exploring the options out there and training with multiple instructors to get a range of experiences before deciding on a few that seem to make sense. Good benchmarks would be what the course material covers. Does it make sense based on everyday life?

Even if the training covers verbals and "contact management," do they always seem to end up in brawls, knifings, and shootings? This is fine for specific drills but counter productive for actual decision making under duress. Most encounters don't end up there in real life, or won't if handled properly. Do they offer a variety of strategies for the spectrum of encounters? That is innocuous, mistakenly perceived threat that can de-escalate, true threat that can de-escalate (with proper spacing and control), threat that demands low level action, or threat that involves high level action. Or combinations.

The best bet is to encourage uncertainty: when a student is able to consistently make good decisions when uncertainty is injected in scenarios, confidence goes up.

I have several students in a regular CQC group, with different skill levels across firearms, empty hand, contact management, and decision making. Our dojo being in a questionable part of town, one of them has managed to employ the management skills we train several times, most recently against two individuals which he had to leave class to address (while carrying a bokken and in a hakama, so maybe you don't need the street clothes! :D ) based on their activities encroaching on dojo property. Our training addresseds how to deal with responding police, which he made good use of during this particular encounter. He said that some things he never would have thought of had he not been training in decision making during realistic scenarios.

16th January 2010, 00:20

Great post. Any recommendations on how to practice verbal force? Where to learn it? Book recommendations?


16th January 2010, 05:40
Verbals are a tough one - most of us feel somewhat bashful and weird practicing them because it can get awkward, and role playing the right tone takes some practice. You have to act realistically without over-acting.

The best course I can recommend for verbals (also referred to as "contact management" or "unknown contact management") is Extreme Close Quarters Concepts (ECQC) by "Southnarc" (due to his role in undercover law enforcement he uses this "handle" rather than his real name). More information and a class schedule can be found at www.shivworks.com or at their forum, www.totalprotectioninteractive.com. The gun classes require some firearms facility, but the "managing unknown contacts" (MUC), "in extremis knife" (IEK) and "practical unarmed combat" (PUC) are open to all.

The primary book I recommend is DeBecker's "the Gift of Fear." It doesn't teach verbals, but teaches to trust your intuition.

Some key things with verbals is not to get "discoursive" with the subject. This "traps" your mind and slows reaction time. Don't get wrapped up in a drawn out conversation with a guy, rather use repetitive phrases that require little thought ("get back, get back, get back")

A good illustration, albeit from the LE perspective, is the "Suicidal Guy Taking Himself Hostage." Man with a gun to his own head saying he's "gonna do it."

Cops tend to approach this with weapon drawn and pointed, and the typical 'drop the gun, drop the gun!" But most will get into a conversation with the guy about why its "not worth it," etc. The problem is focussing on the conversation will slow reaction time to the point that the suicidal will easily be able to turn the weapon and get one or more shots on the challenging officer - even with his weapon ready - before the officer can respond with shots of his own. The officer will be slower as it is due to "action beats reaction," but if he is also involved in a dialogue the reaction time is even slower.

The same applies to dealing with the, for example, aggressive panhandler. Given the opportunity, he begins telling a tale of woe, drawing the "target" in. The moment the target begins an actual discourse with the subject, the targets reaction time has been lowered. Typical with this is also a subtle encroachment where maai is being collapsed incrementally and, with the mind attending to the dialogue, unnoticed by the "target." This further compresses the time frame with with the "target" has to react. Once these two things have been accomplished, the subject has "sen" when he makes an action, and the "target" now has to play catchup from a second or more behind. A second is a long time in actual terms when one is facing an "initiative deficit" in terms of actual violence.

The advantage to practiced verbals is the ability to dissociate mentally from what one is saying automatically (coupled with certain supplicating gestures that are also pre-setting a defense "cover" response) and pay attention to the proxemics of a situation as well as the physical cues that tend to presage attack incidents.

It's a whole "martial art" in and of itself.

Joseph Svinth
16th January 2010, 09:20
Woofing takes practice, and is an art form in itself.

If you're good at it, what you said stops everybody in their tracks.

If you're not good at it, well, put a lid on it, you just sound silly.

Joseph Svinth
16th January 2010, 09:26
As for where to practice?

Marine Corps Recruit Depot used to be a pretty good place.

16th January 2010, 15:56

I tend to think of "woofing" so to speak, as the final stage pre-assault. For many people being assertive to an unknown person does take practice, as two things are frequently going on: they are intimidated by the threat and they are not sure whether it actually is a threat, or when to react to it, and fear "going overboard" in a way that could be socially embarassing.

People have to gain some comfort in using their "Big Boy Voice" or their "Mommy Voice" with unknowns. We can talk that way with our loved ones just fine, it seems, but can't from a posture of strength with people who might be an actual physical threat.

But there is a whole series of interactions that occur at different levels prior to that/much lower on the spectrum, some of which are quite subtle, and more appropriate for everyday contact management. When walking in downtown Seattle, or Portland, I simply cannot realistically maintain a reactionary gap and certain "questionables" will be coming within that range. Some will be doing so by begging for money or something. These can be managed in socially acceptable ways, pre-setting defensive action, and sending a clear message that you are a "hard target" if the intent is beyond simple panhandling.

Joseph Svinth
16th January 2010, 17:42
Most of that really isn't much different from junior high school. The same techniques that used to make the teachers run from the room in tears work just fine today. The larger problem is that the workplace and schools have socialized us (as individuals) to be victims.

16th January 2010, 23:22
For some, I don't think its that easy, or you wouldn't see the kinds of discussions that continually arise about this issue, the hesitation I see in running such training, nor would you see the kind of misconceptions that abound in the martial arts world that started this topic. Many trained martial artists freeze up when an actual violent threat (or even stressful situation) materializes right in front of them.

We all have a different baseline. Some people may have handled junior high school well. For some, an bad experience there (say with a bully) may have been the reason they took up martial arts in the first place. Now, years later, they have studied martial art,s but never addressed the contextual issues in which they may use it outside the dojo and under uncertain and changing circumstances. When faced with an actual potential threat, they might go right back to that "bully" in their head and freeze or hesitate because they have not patterned the response through actual practice of verbals, proxemics, and threat assessment under training stress.

Many people, martial artists included function with very little idea of how not to get suckered in to a "woofing" match with a true threat, and little idea of when to go from verbal management and de-escalation to physical action. Most spend far too much time verbal and de-escalating, even after its already too late.

Joseph Svinth
17th January 2010, 01:14
Well, true, but for most people, umpteen years of experience is simply one year's experience repeated umpteen times. Thus, under stress, they revert to the closest scenario they can recall, which tends to be juvenile or early adolescent experiences.

17th January 2010, 04:59
I think that's exactly true, Joe. Its an area that martial arts training generally does not cover as well. So often student's physical skills grow increasingly sophisticated - even their awareness grows, but the baseline for actually managing the threat stays back in "school days." That is a great way to put it, actually.

The advantage of actually practicing it, in realistic drilling and simulations (which may involve no physical technique at all), is that the school daze programing can be overwritten by an updated version.

Richard Scardina
17th January 2010, 07:50
Nice thread Hissho. Although I tend to believe people who use or desire excessive force has something to prove like ego.

I have been in many situations, and one can almost "feel" what course of action, or reaction they should retaliate with.