Reasonable Use of Force, What you Can and Can’t Do

All extracts are taken from the “Safer Doors” book. Published by Geddes and Grossett. Copyright laws apply.

The main reason for the bad reputation that some doormen have, is the excessive force that they use in the execution of their duties. By virtue of the demands of the job, door supervisors tend to be well-built and physically fit, and unless they use the necessary constraints when dealing with unruly customers, they may find themselves liable to an assault charge.

Professional door supervisors must learn to carry out their duties without hurting the very customers they are hired to protect. Indeed, the results from some of the aforementioned training schemes run by the police and local authorities have shown a direct link between proper training and sharp reductions in the numbers of allegations of assault by doorstaff on members of the public in those areas.

Door supervisors do occasionally need to use force to carry out their duties, and under certain circumstances are legally empowered to do so. The law gives certain situations when members of the public are allowed to use force on others, and this section aims to explain those.

The authority for door supervisors to use force when necessary can be found in the following parts of the law.

COMMON LAW – The rules of self-defence.
If any person has an honestly held belief that he or another is in imminent danger, then he may use such force as is reasonable and necessary to avert that danger.

Furthermore, a person about to be attacked does not have to wait for his assailant to strike the first blow. Circumstances may justify a pre-emptive strike.

This basically means that if a door supervisor, whilst carrying out his duties, feels that he or someone else is about to be hurt, then he is allowed to use force to protect himself or that other person. If, for example, you come across a man physically attacking another man on the dance-floor, then the law allows you to use force to stop the attack. If the assailant then turns on you and assaults or tries to assault you, then you may use force to protect yourself.

In a criminal case in 1988 it was said that the common law has always recognised the right of a person to protect himself from attack and to act in the defence of others, and if necessary to inflict violence on another in so doing. Provided that no more force is used than is reasonable to repel the attack, such force is not unlawful and no crime is committed.

In another case in 1995 it was said that the necessity of using force was a question for the subjectivity of the defendant, whereas the degree of force was more objectively considered by the courts. This means that door supervisors have to decide themselves if and when to use force, whereas ultimately a court may have to decide whether the amount of force used was reasonable or not.

COMMON LAW – Preventing a Breach of Peace and Saving Life.
Any person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances to prevent a breach of the peace or to save life. (See ‘breach of the peace’ in Arrest chapter)

In another case in 1981 it was said that in relation to stopping a breach of the peace every citizen in whose presence a breach of the peace is being, or reasonably appears to be about to be committed, has the right to take reasonable steps to make the person who is breaking or threatening to break the peace refrain from doing so. These steps may include the use of reasonable force. Once again, though, what force is reasonable will depend on the facts of the particular situation.

You are also allowed to use force to save someone’s life. If, for example, an assailant is running at another man with a knife, then you would obviously be entitled to use force to stop the assailant from killing the other man.

This act gives everyone, including door supervisors, the authority to use “such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting (or assisting in) the lawful arrest of offenders, suspected offenders or persons unlawfully at large.”

The ‘prevention of crime’ element applies to any crime where the preventative use of force is reasonably required. This would obviously include protecting property from damage or theft, and protecting people from physical injury.

This piece of legislation again allows you to use force to stop a crime from being committed, such as breaking up a fight (assault) or stopping someone from smashing a window (criminal damage), and also allows you to use force if needed to arrest someone and to stop them from running away before the police arrive.

It is important to remember that the wording of this Act refers to ‘such force as is reasonable in the circumstances’, and previous criminal cases have pointed out that where force is used in these situations the amount of force used must be judged according to the particular circumstances. It is made very clear, however, that the excessive use of force is not allowed.

These three parts of common and statute law use the words ‘reasonable’ and ‘necessary’ when describing how much force can be used in those circumstances, and door supervisors need to know what these words mean.

What constitutes ‘reasonable’ is not always easy to define. It will depend on the particular circumstances, and careful thought will need to be given when door supervisors assess the seriousness of the threat. It would not, for example, be reasonable to punch someone who merely verbally abuses you. The use of physical force should only be considered when there is a real possibility of physical harm to yourself or to someone else, and even then the amount of force used should be appropriate and reasonable to the situation.

The test of whether the use of force in any given circumstances is reasonable or not is an objective one, and is assessed on the facts as the person concerned believed them to be at the time. A door supervisor claiming self-defence as an excuse for the use of force must be able to show that he did not want to fight, and providing that no more force was used than was reasonable to repel the attack, then the use of such force is not unlawful and no criminal offence is committed. If, on the other hand, a supervisor has already ejected a customer from the premises but continues to use force on him to ‘teach him a lesson’ or to ‘stop him coming back again’, then that extra and unnecessary use of force would not be seen as ‘reasonable’, and would make the supervisor liable to criminal proceedings for assault.

Door supervisors need to ensure that they use graduated and appropriate levels of force in response to the varying levels of aggression and violence used against them.

The law is quite clear on the term ‘necessary’ with regards to the use of force, and there are many precedents in old cases that explain it. Necessary force is not what is deemed necessary by someone considering the facts from a safe and comfortable place well after the events, but what the person carrying out the acts in question considered necessary at the time. As mentioned earlier, only the person using the force can say whether and why he thought it necessary to use the force at the time, whereas a court may have to ultimately decide whether the amount of force used was reasonable or not.

The law supports the pre-emptive use of force only where it is reasonable and necessary. The pre-emptive use of force as a means of physical defence is proper in the right circumstances, and it has already been used as a defence in court. The courts have in the past also commented that for a person to wait to be hurt before doing something is no defence at all. Defence is all about not being hurt. Provided that no more force than is reasonable is used to repel an attack, then such force is not unlawful.

If someone was running at you with a broken bottle in an attempt to assault you, for example, then you would not need to wait for the person to strike you first before you hit him. In those circumstances it would certainly be reasonable to strike that person before he had a chance to hurt you with the bottle.

If door supervisors consider that every time they use force against another person that they may well have to justify their actions, then they should be able to act reasonably in any given situation. If, however, they are reckless as to how much force they use, or deliberately use excessive force, then they will have to answer to the police and possibly even to a court.

The questions that are likely to be asked about any use of force are:-

  1. Was there was a need to use the force ?
  2. Was the amount of force used was reasonable or not ?
  3. What was the extent of the injuries compared to the amount of resistance given ?
  4. What was the size and build of the injured party compared to the door supervisor ?
  5. Were any weapons used or threatened by the other party ?
  6. At what stage did the door supervisor stop using the force ?
  7. Was the force applied in good faith or in a malicious way ?

Door supervisors are allowed under the rules of trespass to physically eject customers from the premises when all other methods of persuasion have failed, and they are obviously allowed to protect themselves if they are attacked. What the law does not allow is the excessive use of force, or causing unnecessary or malicious injuries to any person.

You must always be able to justify your actions, and if you remember this during every potential confrontation with a customer, then you should prove to be effective within the security function without getting arrested into the bargain.

Under no circumstances may anyone employed on security duties carry any type of weapon. In the past doormen have been known to carry knuckle-dusters, coshes, iron bars and even baseball bats to assist them with violent confrontations. In fact, even the large 8-cell torches that some doormen carry may be classed as offensive weapons if used during an ejection or some other disturbance.

As a door supervisor you will occasionally become involved in aggressive, frightening and potentially dangerous situations. You will sometimes have to make split-second decisions with regards to those situations, decisions that could have serious implications for members of the public, fellow members of staff and for yourself. Particularly when deciding whether to use force or not, and then how much force to use, door supervisors will have to quickly assess situations, contemplate the risks, consider the consequences, and then act.

When deciding on suitable degrees of force to be use in different circumstances, the police use something called the ‘conflict resolution model’. This system was devised as a set of guidelines to indicate how much force can be used in certain circumstances, and can also be used to help justify actions after the event.

The column on the left lists the varying degrees of offender/customer behaviour, ranging from compliance when everything is running nicely, up to serious or aggravated resistance where there is a serious risk of serious harm or even death. The right-hand column shows the corresponding levels of response. The list in the centre shows what are called impact factors, facts within the circumstances which affect how the door supervisor decides to act.

The police model has been adapted to show suitable actions to be taken by door supervisors when dealing with members of the public. The decision as to how much force can be justifiably used in any situation must be made taking into account the other person’s behaviour, and any relevant impact factors.

Compliance (no resistance) Sex/age/size/strength Door supervisor presence (observing, passive control)
Verbal resistance (refusing to co-operate, swearing, threatening) Skills/knowledge Tactical communications (verbal and non-verbal)
Passive resistance (refusing to move/leave) Alcohol/drugs/mental impairment Primary control skills (carrying out, low level of force)
Active resistance (pulling or pushing away, struggling) Injury/exhaustion/disadvantage Secondary control skills (increase in force, arm-locks and holds etc)
Assaultive/aggressive resistance (fighting, punching, kicking) Numbers/weapons/danger Defensive tactics (blocks, strikes and takedowns)
Serious/life threatening resistance (armed or serious attack, risk of serious harm or death) Serious imminent danger Serious or deadly use of force (action likely to or could cause serious harm or even death)

It is important that for their own protection door supervisors make some form of written record every time they have to resort to the use of force. In the chapter ‘Records’ there is a list of the most relevant points to note when recording incidents where force has been used by a door supervisor during the course of his duties.


  • Only use force when absolutely necessary
  • Only use such force as is reasonable and necessary
  • Never use weapons
  • Ensure you can justify your actions
  • Record your actions and inform the management

It is important that door supervisors exercise maximum self-control when dealing with potentially violent situations, and they need to ensure that they only apply levels of force appropriate to the circumstances. Any use of force used by a door supervisor will be judged against the levels of resistance or violence offered towards him. Varying levels of aggression and violence require varying responses, which must be proportionate to the circumstances, ensuring that that the door supervisor’s actions are always seen as reasonable.

While there are no national guidelines on restraints or holds that door supervisors should use, there are two important considerations to be taken into account when door supervisors decide to exercise their right to use force on a member of the public.

The use of neck restraints or holds is strongly discouraged, because of the significant inherent dangers in using them. There is a very real danger of causing someone serious or even fatal injuries when neck holds are applied, and door supervisors must be aware of the serious risks of using them on customers when either lawfully ejecting them from premises, or arresting them for an offence.

Although stabilising a violent person’s head via the neck may seem an effective way of controlling them, we must remember that the neck contains the throat, the windpipe and the voice box, all of which are easy to damage. If steady or heavy pressure is applied to these areas, the person’s ability to breath will be restricted. A strong neck hold could also crush the windpipe or rupture the voice box. A blockage in the windpipe can quickly lead to death. Furthermore, the carotid arteries run down either side of the neck from the back of the ears, and any sudden or steady pressure here could slow down the flow of blood to the brain, seriously reducing the amount of oxygen that can get through.

Applying pressure to the front of someone’s neck by using a hold can also be extremely painful as well as restricting breathing, which can cause the person to struggle even more violently, which is not what we are trying to achieve. If someone starts to struggle even more, then the tendency is to tighten the hold on him, which could cause serious harm or may even have fatal consequences.

A door supervisor engaged in a violent struggle may find it difficult to avoid applying some form of pressure on a person’s neck, but there are serious risks involved, and such pressure on or around the neck should be avoided if at all possible. Although serious steps can be taken in serious situations, neck holds of any sort should only be used as a very last resort.

Door supervisors also need to know about a fairly new phenomenon known as positional asphyxia. This is basically when someone stops breathing because of the position he has been physically forced into, usually when being restrained during a non-compliant arrest situation. It is when his ability to inhale and exhale are impaired, and he cannot move out of that position to stop the situation.

This can be caused when a person is lying face down with pressure on top of him, or when his head is forced down putting pressure on his windpipe and restricting his breathing. When a person is physically held in this position, and cannot breath properly, death may occur in just a few minutes.

The main factors that can contribute to this condition include complete or partial airway restriction, the inability to escape the position, alcohol or drugs intoxication, obesity, restraints (handcuffs), stress and severe fatigue.

The most common signs and symptoms of the condition include being physically held down and unable to move, pressure being applied to their back when lying face-down, when their face turns blue due to lack of oxygen, gurgling or gasping sounds, a sudden change in behaviour from violent to subdued, panic or when the persons tells you cannot breathe. If any of these signs occur you should immediately change the position of the person to relieve the situation (by sitting them up or getting them up to the kneeling position), and perform first aid if it is required.

Positional asphyxia can result in death within a fairly short period of time, and so door supervisors must make themselves aware of the reasons, signs and symptoms of the condition, and ensure that they act carefully and responsibly in violent situations. Such awareness, coupled with thoughtful actions, should reduce the chances of the condition affecting people they deal with.

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