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The Fallacy of Equal Force

What a wonderful world we live in; not too many years ago, the internet still loaded slowly, YouTube was barely a noun and cell phones were not the portable recording powerhouses they are today.  Law enforcement videos were dashcam or nothing and the cases involving use of force were often witness point of view only.  Today, we have instant access to video at such a level that any shooting will be followed with demands for the video; as if it’s a requirement to have cameras rolling before a gunfight begins.

I’ve said it before, and I will continue to say it because it’s true; the average citizen has no personal knowledge in the use of lethal force; the vast majority of living Americans have not served in the military, just 22 million (7.3 percent of living Americans have served, only 0.4 percent serving currently1) and of that small percentage, 5.5 million served in a peacetime military and never saw any sort of combat2.

Combat is also a relative term because many who deployed or served in a conflict zone do not perform any sort of direct action role, they are support personnel.  The number of troops who actually pull triggers on bad guys is skewed by the very vague nature of data collection. The “Tooth to Tail Ratio” of Iraq as of 2005 was 40% of total deployed forces and there is no existing documentation of that 40% that actually engaged in combat3.  There are numbers (such as the popular .45%) but I was unable to find any reliable data regarding the total number of living veterans that had fired rounds on bad guys; understandable, as such data would be difficult to collect and anecdotal at best.  So of our total number of veterans compared to our total population (321 million according to the US Census, not counting illegal immigrants), and then factoring those who have used force, we have a very small number of veterans with use-of-lethal force knowledge.

Of course, combat isn’t your average self-defense situation, is it?  Rules of Engagement, mission driven combat and an entirely different approach to the use of force means that what happens in combat doesn’t relate to the laws that govern the use of force in the US (and many other countries).

Law enforcement in the US is different in the fact that they are always governed by the rules; not that the military isn’t, but the rules of combat and the rules of self-defense in the US are very different.  In the US we have approximately 120,000 full time federal law enforcement4 and a 1.1 million sworn law enforcement working at the state and local level5 which gives us approximately 1.3 million law enforcement officers (factoring in a higher number for reserve and part-time officers) in the US.  Figuring a US population of 321 million, LE represents 0.4% of the population.  This only accounts for those in service as reliable numbers of former or retired law enforcement officers could not be found.

But how many officers have used force?  Of the 40 million Americans who had contact with LE in 2008, 1.4% (574,000) had force used against them or were threatened with force6. So what is “force”?  There is no standard agreed upon definition on force as it relates to law enforcement, but it is generally understood (and backed by law7) that it is the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.  Levels of force generally go from simple verbal commands to the use of a lethal or potentially lethal instrument, so it’s safe to say that a large number of officers will have used some level of force in their career.  Of course the next question is; how many have used lethal force?  According to the Killed by Police Facebook page, we are closing in on 400 lethal uses of force by LE for the year of 2015.  The FBI’s statistics for 2012 (the latest reporting year) puts 2012 at 4108. I cant speak to the validity of Killed by Police, but the rub is, you cant really 100% depend on the FBIs statistics either, since they are agency-reported.  That means that an agency must notify the FBI of the shooting and while this may be a department policy or practice for most LE departments, that doesn’t mean its all of them.

So for discussions sake you have a number hovering around 400 justified homicides a year8 (based on the FBIs UCR self-reporting), but how many citizen uses?  According to the Violence Policy Center, 2010 saw 230 justifiable homicides by private citizens9. Of the violent and property crimes reported to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which compiles self-reported data just like the FBIs UCR, there were 29,618,300 violent crimes (2007-2011) and 84,495,500 property crimes (2007-2011)10.  For those same recorded numbers, there were 626,800 and 141,200 self-defense uses/threatened uses with a firearm or other weapon, respectively.  Perhaps what’s more telling is that in both situations, looking at the reporting data there were 6,552,900 and 421,300 cases (respectively) where the victim attacked without a weapon10.

What do all these numbers tell us?  It tells us that in a nation of 321 million, there are not a lot of people walking around with lethal use of force experience and only somewhat more experience of people who have been in potential lethal force situations, or who have used force on a regular basis.  Oh, but how many people are there on the internet?  Looking at shooting videos?  Offering their expert opinions based on, well, what exactly?

The fact is we have more people who are repeat movie goers (by far, 228 million according to Theatrical Movie Statistics (2013)) than we do who have CCW permits11 (11.1 million).  Historically, we have become a more peaceful society, but this peace is hidden under the media driven magnification of violence.  The number of those trained in the use of force is low, the number of those who have used it even lower; so how many actually understand the concept?  Even an academic understanding requires knowledge of the psychology of violence, the physiology of objective fear, how the mind processes information under extreme stress , but what’s more important than that for the observer, at least, is an actual understanding of what exactly can take place in a lethal force situation.  The first rule is this; you are not required to suffer harm before you deliver it and you may deliver as much harm as needed to stop the threat.  I’m sure many people have heard something like that before, but if you view an actual use of force through the constrained lens of a camera and the majority of your use of force education has come from movies, TV, unverified internet sources and a vague (or no) understanding of the law, you may end up with some particular beliefs that are just wrong.  Let’s look at a few of those.

He was unarmed

This is probably the most common one I see, a police officer or citizen uses force against an unarmed person and of course the narrative is that the use of force wasn’t needed.  Unarmed has a common meaning and a factual meaning; what unarmed means factually is that you know for certain the person has no weapons; no gun, knife, club, razor, mace, etc.  How does one acquire this knowledge?  In LE, a search or frisk is performed.  The latter requires compliance, the former requires compliance or detention.  If a threat is not compliant, how do we come to the conclusion that they are unarmed?  By watching a video (surely after the actual incident took place and armchairing it, no doubt)?  In the moment, there is absolutely no way to know if someone is actually unarmed.  Hands may be empty of a weapon, but that does not mean they are unarmed.  Unarmed can be (and is) used as a red herring, to incite an emotional response so that particular facts are ignored.  If someone is making threats, attacking with fists and feet, making motions that they are armed (reaching in pockets, inside a jacket, under a shirt, etc.) then for the sake of safety the citizen or officer must defend themselves.  There is no safety in waiting for threats to be carried out before self-defense, nor waiting to see if an actual weapon is presented before self-defense.  There are only safe assumptions added to facts that make up the total situation.  There is no requirement for any fairness in the fight.  Police officers have many tools at their disposal to use force, from nonlethal to possibly lethal to lethal, and any of these tools can be used at any time so long as their use is justified by the situation.  Police officers are not required to meet like force with like force; nor should they.  If a bad guy wants to box, he should be met with baton, taser, bean bag round or OC.  The idea that the fight should be fair is a foolish one.  You are not required to suffer harm before deliver it.  But what if the threat really is “unarmed?”  Unarmed doesn’t mean anything other than the fact that a weapon isn’t currently present and can only factually be determined by a search.   So what if they are attacking, but are doing so with hands and feet only?

In 1997 Officer Michelle Jeter of the Carthage, Tx police was beaten into intensive care by an “unarmed man” she stopped for a traffic violation.  He did it in from of his own daughter. He also made repeated attempts to take Officer Jeter’s weapon, but could not work her retention holster.

Warning: graphic

In 2012, Officer Jonathan Molina of the El Paso, Tx Police was beaten to death by a 17 year old male.  Molina was a Marine Veteran with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.  The incident began when Molina saw the 17 year old scratch his car with a piece of metal.  A very short time later he was dead; killed by an “unarmed” juvenile.

In 2014, Deputy Brandon Love of the LA County, Ca Sherriff’s office was assisting in a domestic violence investigation at a mall when one of the suspects attacked him, multiple “unarmed” strikes to the face left him unconscious, where the suspect then kicked and stomped on his head.  Deputy Love was left in intensive care and still has not regained total use of his legs.

Again in 2014, Officer Aubree Thompson of the Denver, Co police was attacked by an “unarmed” man during a traffic stop; she was knocked to the ground and struck in the face and neck repeatedly as the suspect attempted to get her gun.  Passing motorists were able to stop the man before he got her weapon.

These are just a few examples of the hundreds that are out there.  The “unarmed” threat is a media construct and does not accurately portray the possibilities and realities of use of force encounters.  I take great caution in forming an opinion on any situation simply based on the possible “fact” that someone is “unarmed.”

Would public opinion be different if a 300 lbs man attacked or was threatening to attack a 145 lbs officer?  If that same 300 lbs man cornered a woman in the park with threats of violence if she didn’t obey him?  Probably not.  Additional facts make up the decision to use force, and a road map exists, but we will get to that, first let’s look at another misunderstood situation.

He wasn’t threatening/pointing it/didn’t have it in his hand

At what point should force be used against an armed, but not actively threatening individual?  Say a man has a gun in his hand or tucked in his waistband, or held at his head but he’s not pointing it at anyone (else).  Obviously these are three very specific situations, but they occur commonly.  At what point do you use force against this person?  How many verbal commands to drop the gun should be given?  There is a concept known as the Law of Diminishing Returns; it’s rooted in the psychology of economics but it transcends that focus and applies to all. Basically, the more I do something without seeing an improvement, the greater the risk that it will not produce, or stop producing favorable results; a steady decline in effectiveness or an outright stop depending on the variables.  If a citizen or an officer says “drop the gun, or I will shoot you,” and the threat does not comply, will a second conditional threat with the same wording be as effective?  More convincing?  A verbal command is only as good as its ability to invoke compliance and this compliance is totally dependent on the bad guy deciding to comply.  Guess what?  You can threaten all the force you want if they don’t, but the ultimate decision is up to them and there is no way for you, or for anyone, to predict their intentions or future actions.  Intent is unpredictable.  We can make assumptions based on their words or actions, but still not have anywhere near 100% reliability in our predictions on what they will actually do, just what we think they may do.  How many verbal commands should be given?  Zero? Ten?  There is no magic number, unfortunately.  Each situation is going to be unique, but what you are not required to do is issue a set number of commands before you can use force yourself.  If a threat does not drop the gun after one verbal, should force be used?  Barring other possible options, my opinion is yes.  Each additional verbal command is a gamble with your personal safety.  Maybe even the first verbal command is a gamble.  Think of it like this; no matter how fast someone is, action is almost always going to be faster.

In 2011 the Force Science Institute conducted a reaction time study12, what they found is that when an officer was at full presentation on an armed threat and the threat either had a gun held to their own head or pointed at the floor at their side, the threat was able to fire on the officer before the officer was able to recognize the threat and fire first.  In 159 shootings, the threat was able to fire on the officer in an average time of 0.38 seconds, whereas the officers were able to return fire in an average of 0.39 seconds.  The “threats” used for this study were college students.  The officers had 10 years or more in law enforcement with 5 years or more on a SWAT team.  Hardly matched skills, right?  Even though the average split was 0.01, these rounds were passing each other in mid-air and the officer was at a much greater risk for injury.  The officers all issued at least one verbal command, some more.  Even with the weapon in a “non-threatening” or “self-threatening” position, the bad guys shoot first.  Does this mean that verbal commands shouldn’t be used?  No, but what it does mean is that even if you gain that 0.01 edge, your risk of being injured is greater the longer you wait for compliance.  Gunfights are not required to be fair, only legal. The use of force doesn’t require equal force, at all.

The decision to use force.

An “unarmed” threat or an armed threat that isn’t actively using the weapon is still a threat.  Many factors go into the decision to use force, but the rules for when you may use force are fairly standard.   The same common sense rules that govern law enforcement use- of- force serve as an excellent guide for personal self-defense, though some states make self-defense more complicated.   In these states (17 states as of writing) make it a legal requirement to either seek escape, or prove no escape was possible before using lethal force.  In other states, Stand Your Ground  laws allow an individual to defend themselves before without a legal need to attempt to flee, in most of these states (23 as of writing) this law covers home and public places.  The middle ground is known as Castle Doctrine and is limited to real property (home, private office and in some states, personal vehicles) and allows use of lethal force in self-defense without first attempting to flee.  Some states have small, but critical differences in the writing of their laws which makes knowing the law critical wherever you live or travel.

Outside of the geographical requirements for lethal force, there is the basic formula that aids in the articulation of facts.  No matter how right a self-defense is, lacking the ability to articulate your feelings into facts (that caused the feelings).  When a situation exists that warrants the use of violence to defend yourself or others, violence must be used as quickly and effectively as possible.   If you are anywhere you have a right to be, the law can protect you as long as the law is followed.  The law in general makes it quite clear that you have no right to self-defense in a situation that you create, and the amount of force you can use is only governed by the facts of the situation as you know them at the time.  Despite the somewhat complicated nature of self-defense legal speak (California, for example has self-defense related laws in separate sections of categories such as PC Section 198.5, CALCRIM#505/#506, and case law interpretations like People v. Hecker and People v. Newcomer etc.) it remains the same in the moment of defense.  Your actions must be reasonable under the circumstances, having a belief (backed by facts) that you or someone else was facing imminent personal harm and you may only use force so long as that threat exists.

The facts are what causes you to use force to begin with; your personal perception of a situation, weighed against how much you can actually perceive (low light, poor eye sight, injury, hearing loss, etc.), the environmental facts, and who you are (personal training, life experiences, knowledge of the attacker, their actions, words, mannerisms, attire, etc.).  All of this combines into a factual account of why you used force, and what specific moment you did.  There is NO legal requirement for the force to be equal, or for you to give your attacker a chance.  All that is required (outside of those states requiring some attempt to escape, if possible) is that you reasonably feel you may suffer lethal harm if you do not act.

An “unarmed” man, as already shown, is lethal.  A man with a knife or gun more so, yet the basic requirements remain the same.  Self-defense is an individual issue, one that many people have not (and will not) ever had to deal with, yet the possibility exists.  You have no legal requirement to issue a warning (though doing so makes perfect sense in some situations, no sense in others) and you have no legal requirement to match force for force.  Gun store advice and the clatterings of keyboards on the internet are not reasonable sources of advice and are certainly not reasonable legal advice in any way.  With so little actual experience out there, a wise person would seek out those that do, consult lawyers and ignore the emotional reactions of those with little to no factual experience in lethal force.  The only gamble is in not knowing when you can use force, and not being actually prepared for that moment when it comes.

One shouldn’t rely on conjecture, rumor, stories or theoretical advice, the formula is simple; threat exists, reasonable belief of harm exists, imminent danger exists, verbals can be used if time and situation allow, violence is used to stop threat.  Its that factually simple, we over complicate it by constantly trying to look at the entire possibility through the lens of one example or another.  All self-defense situations are unique, and no one situation can serve as a road map to successes or failure for any future situation, train for the rules, not one example.


1) Defense Manpower Data Overview (2013)

2) Defense Manpower Data Overview (2013)

3) The Other End of the Spear: The Tooth to Tail Ratio in Modern Military Operations, Combat Studies Institute Press, Ft. Leavenworth, Ks John Mcgrath (1953-ongoing)

4) US Department of Justice Federal Law Enforcement Officers statistics, (2008)

5) US Department of Justice Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies (2008)

6) US Department of Justice Contacts between Police and the Public (2008)

7) Major US Supreme Court cases governing the use of force, Graham V Connor and Tennessee V Garner

8) FBI Uniform Crime Report, Expanded Homicide Data, table 14 (2012)

9) Violence Policy Center, Firearm Justifiable Homicides and Non-Fatal Self-Defense Gun Use (2013)

10) National Crime Victimization Survey, Criminal Victimization (2012)

11) Concealed Carry Permit Holders across the United States, Crime Prevention Research Center (2014)

12) New reaction-time study addresses what’s ‘reasonable’ in armed-suspect encounters, Force Science Institute, (2011)

4 Responses to The Fallacy of Equal Force

  1. hardh8 May 30, 2015 at 3:27 am #

    We get the point. Police are scared and with some justification.

    • Mike June 2, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

      Apparently you missed the point entirely.

    • David Spicer June 8, 2015 at 2:40 pm #

      Mr hardh8
      If we were so scared we would not go out and do the fucking job. Now that said we are developing a real fear of the media and fucking politicians with agendas who have never been in potentially life threatening situations. Am I scared when I leave for my shift each night? Yea, I’m scared of doing my job right and still getting jammed up because of the climate that this fucking president is nurturing.
      As a cop we can not lose any altercation because there is always a gun involved. Once I lose consciousness the criminal has free reign to finish me however he or she sees fit. This is one job that trying to treat people with dignity and compassion can be a signal for someone intent on doing harm to move in.

      One aspect that everyone seems to overlook or want to dismiss is that we RESPOND to peoples actions. We go where we are called, we react to what people are doing. We do not go out and start situations. If people are not committing crimes, we are not usually dealing with them in a negative manner. In each of the high profile cases lately the officer reacted to something the suspect was doing. I apologize if this comes across as harsh and defensive but try looking things from behind the badge. Most have no clue and could not believe the things we see.

      David Spicer
      Oath Keeper

  2. Nate May 30, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    Thank you sir,
    I frequently hear people say that all you need is to be in fear for your life but they are unable to articulate why a reasonable person would have been scared.

    Fear has nothing to do with the justification for the use of force only the articulable facts that lead a reasonable person to believe they were in imminent threat of bodily injury or death.

    I don’t know that guy, it’s dark, I don’t know what he got, he or she is xyz race or a man or scary looking or dressed like a biker or thug. By themselves to not meet the statutory requirements in Texas for deadly force.

    Those facts made be used in conjunction with actions by the aggressor, not immutable characteristics, to reach a totality of circumstances that would be reasonable to use force. In other words, the aggressor must DO something threatening not just be there and be