Tactical Options – Strategic Response to Resistance

The objective for officers in a confrontation is safety and control. Tactical options models were developed to provide officers with reasonable guidance in determining the proper response in relation to subject actions, a mechanism for explaining the level of response and the circumstances under which it was exercised. They provide public safety administration with a realistic means of evaluating appropriate response and a means of documenting that option.

Though the actual specifics of force response varies between states (and countries), the general principles remain the same – officers may respond with what they believe is reasonably necessary in the circumstances to achieve their lawfully justified objective. The physical process of arrest occurs after control has been achieved. Force must cease when control has been affected, as the use of force on a subject who is already under control exceeds prevailing standards of professional conduct.

The concept of reasonableness relates to what the common person would deem appropriate if they were in a similar situation and circumstances. An element of belief on reasonable grounds is that officers can justify their reasoning that lead to their actions (subjective test), and that their reasoning was sound (objective test). They should also take into account the proportionateness of their response, which relates to the objective, circumstances of the incident and the recipient use of force by the subject. A key element is that officer response is not excessive or extreme.

An important factor is the requirement for responding with force in the first instance. Officers must reasonably believe and demonstrate that the use of force is necessary to achieve their objective relative to the circumstances and other plausible choices e.g. negotiation, disengagement, etc.

An understanding of tactical options in conjunction with lawful force guidelines helps officers make correct operational choices, with plausible justification for self defence (force used with lawful reason) and avoid the possibility of committing assault (force used without lawful reason).

Tactical Options

Tactical options are expressed in terms of subjective resistance that motivate officer response, within lawful parameters and agency guidelines.

Subject Resistance

  • Psychological Intimidation: subject displays visual and verbal cues that indicate potential resistance e.g. blank stare, clenched fists, tightening of jaw muscles, posturing, etc.
  • Passive Resistance: subject will not voluntarily comply with verbal and physical attempts of control e.g. dead weight, no reaction to verbal commands, etc.
  • Verbal Resistance: subject verbally indicates an unwillingness to obey commands and cease unlawful behaviour e.g. quiet statement, threat, etc.
  • Defensive Resistance: subject prevents officers from gaining control e.g. pulling or pushing away, resistance to restraint and control, etc.
  • Active Aggression: subject physically assaults officers or another person with less than deadly force e.g. advancing, challenging, punching, kicking, grabbing
  • Deadly Force Assault: force used against officers or another person that may result in great bodily harm or loss of life e.g. knife attack

Officer Response

  • Presence: officer presents as a uniformed authority or verbal identifies themselves e.g. security guard
  • Tactical Communication: using assertive interpersonal skills for verbal directions g. de-escalation phrases, compliance commands
  • Tactical Disengagement: creating safe separation from a situation should it escalate beyond officers’ ability to control it effectively g. withdrawing from a building
  • Cordon & Contain: creating a safe perimeter when engagement may escalate a situation and a safer option is to contain until assistance arrives g. preventing access to area
  • Empty Hand: techniques employed to control subjects using only the human body e.g. passive escorts, compliance holds, distraction techniques, strikes
  • Filled Hand: using external weapons to control subject resistance; justified when lower forms of response have failed or officers believe their empty hand skill is insufficient e.g. chemical agent, taser, baton
  • Potential Lethal Force: using force that is likely to result in great bodily harm or loss of human life e.g. firearm

At the highest levels of resistance and response, the difference between subjects resisting with deadly force and officers responding with potential lethal force is that the subject action is unlawful and is aimed at causing purposeful harm to officers (or another person), whilst officer action is a lawful response to the subject action posing a real and impending threat to life and is used to stop the threat. Neither action, subject nor officer, requires the use of a weapon.

2 common ways of representing subject resistance and officer response are continuums and models.

Situation Totality

Tactical options are based on the principles of safety and control. They are directly related to subject actions during the situation, and employed with regards to lawful response. All actions, relational factors between parties and conditions surrounding the confrontation comprise the totality of the situation. Each relevant condition relates to the confrontation in determining officer response.

Officer/Subject Factors

It is reasonable that a discrepancy in the age, gender, physical size, fitness, skill level or number of subjects involved in the confrontation may mandate that officers use more or less force to control the situation.

Special Circumstances

A confrontation may include circumstances which would allow officers to increase the use of force. A subject in close proximity to a weapon creates an increased danger to officers which must be dealt with immediately. Officers who are injured, exhausted, on the ground, disabled or in imminent danger would be justified in escalating through tactical options, or they may have special knowledge of a subject’s skills that would require the use of increased force.

Response Evaluation

In evaluating responses, strong consideration should be made to ensure officer safety, which involves the ability to disengage or escalate. Strategies used in a confrontation should be evaluated in terms of its likelihood to be effective compared to its likelihood to cause damage (control vs injury). Strategies that offer a high degree of effectiveness with limited potential for risk are preferred options, whilst those that do not facilitate either disengagement or escalation in response to a threat are risky.

Operational Rationale

The aim of workplace safety policy is to reduce and eliminate hazards in the workplace, and guides the establishment of workplace procedures, including operational parameters and guidelines for officers in public safety roles. The duty of care concept establishes the idea that the preservation of safety and health at work is a continuous legal and social responsibility of all those who have control over the conditions and circumstances in which work is performed. This responsibility covers all workplaces and working conditions (unless specifically excluded by regulation).

The general duty of care responsibility of employers and employees is as follows:

  • Employers shall provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, including safe premises, safe and hygienic working environment, safe equipment, trained and competent personnel, and adequate information, instruction and supervision.
  • Employees must take reasonable care for their own health and safety and for that of anyone else who may be affected by their acts or omissions at work. Further, they shall not willfully or recklessly interfere with or misuse anything provided in the interests of health safety or welfare, or willfully place at risk the health or safety of any person at work.

Not meeting this responsibility may result in negligence, defined as the omission to do something that a reasonable person would do, guided upon those considerations that ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, or doing something that a reasonable and prudent person would not do.

While the continuum model has served as a useful instructional tool for officers over the years, it has some limitations as a tool for application in an operational environment. Officers engaged in encounters with noncompliant subjects may feel that they are legally obligated to climb the use-of-force ladder and de-escalate to compliance, hesitating to take safer immediate assertive actions to end unlawful resistance.

While this may not sound radically different than current practice, it is a contrast to the continuum doctrine, where officers are legally and morally bound to use no force where the possibility exists of avoiding it, and to use the least force theoretically possible in the least intrusive way for the shortest possible amount of time.

The reality is that when a subject is noncompliant, the officer has the legal and moral obligation to gain compliance as quickly and safely as possible. Rather than lowest force, officers should use the most effective response (in this context effective means quickest and safest). The most effective means of gaining compliance may not be the least possible force, but it must remain reasonably necessary and in proportion to the officers’ objective.

While de-escalation is a response option, it is not always plausible to attempt verbal calming. Some conditions contributing to non-compliance are medical emergencies dependent on brain chemistry that will not respond to calming techniques and get worse and less treatable over time. This does not argue against crisis intervention methods, but rather puts those strategies as available for use when appropriate and by-passed when they are not.

That which is most effective tends to result in shorter physical contact when a hands-on response is inevitable. Briefer contact means less likelihood of injury to offender, bystander and officer. Therefore, application of effective means to end non-compliance is a moral imperative as well as tactically superior and justifiable.

When choosing tactical options in response to subject resistance, officers must do what is reasonably necessary to ensure safety (theirs, others) and gain control. This decision will be based on officer training and experience. Selecting an inappropriate option for a particular circumstance, whether too little (failing to act) or too much (excessive action), may result in negligence on the part of the agency and/or officer. It is this aspect of liability that drives much of the current operational safety training paradigm and post-incident management strategies. Unfortunately, it is also responsible for much of the officer attrition from the public safety sector.

The distinction between resistance and response is that subjects are motivated by unwillingness to comply with officers. Subjects may initiate resistance at any level. Officers are reactive to subject action and may choose any option that represents a reasonable response to a perceived threat. Tactical options should be justified, effective and defensible, and officers must remain vigilant.

Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector.