There is a proverb that declares, “You do as you are trained.” If you are trained to always defend yourself with feet and fist a blazing, then be prepared to possibly go to jail, face criminal charges, or lose everything you own in a civil suit.

The vast majority of civilian-based martial arts programs have a “cookie cutter” approach to self-defense. They use the exact same amount of force, delivering a variety of defensive and offensive techniques, regardless of the opponent or the circumstances.

Whether it’s one point sparring or freestyle sparring, most practitioners visualize their training partner as “the generic attacker.” The generic attacker is someone who comes at you, but they have no specific reason for attacking you, there is no history leading up to the attack, and there are no special circumstances surrounding the impending event. It’s just an attack. Of course, in order to effectively deal with a generic attacker you must deal with them generically; be it with a kick, punch, take down, or any combination thereof.

Unfortunately, in real life the generic attacker does not exist. Every individual is unique, and every situation will not only be itself unique, but radically different from the next. For example, what will you do when your unarmed attacker is a drunken old man trying to hit you with his fist? Do you punch him like you would a 20 year old? What action do you take when the attacker is a sixth grader trying to stab you in the leg with a pair of scissors? Do you strike her in throat with the knife-edge of your hand because she is using a weapon? Would you use lethal force on someone who purposely threw bleach into your eyes? The possible scenarios are endless. Do you train for such unconventional attacks?

Law enforcement training vs. civilian training
One area where I believe that law enforcement training is light years past civilian martial arts training is in the area of the appropriate use of force in conflict situations. Every law enforcement agency across North America has a Use-of-Force Policy (a written document) found in a Manual of Rules and Regulations. The policy sets forth broad guidelines, which recommends that officers use physical force, which is both reasonable and necessary to overcome resistance, and to protect lives and property. The articles are generally loosely worded since any incident would be evaluated in its “totality of circumstances.” We’ll get back to this term later.

In addition to the Use-of-Force Policy, law enforcement officers are taught early on in their careers, starting at the academy, the Control Continuum. This is a fancy terms which means that there are various levels of threats, and therefore require the appropriate level of response to control each one. The five levels of threat (the threat being from our would be attacker) are: 1. Intimidating demeanor 2. Passive resistance 3. Active resistance 4. Assault 5. Aggravated Assault. The five corresponding responses to these threats are: 1. Command Presence 2. Verbal commands 3. Controlling Force 4. Impact force 5. Deadly force Now, if you’re not a cop you’re probably wondering how this all applies to you. Here’s how. Although law enforcement officers are held to a higher standard than civilians, guess what? If you use force on someone you will be held to similar standards. In fact, who do you think is going to make the first judgment call concerning your actions? That’s right, a law enforcement officer who, by the way, has all of these terms deeply ingrained in their head. Then, when you get to court, the lawyers and the Judge, will also be swinging these terms around. Therefore, as I go through the list, these terms will also apply to you should you ever find yourself “post self-defense.”

Command presence
This is a very popular term in “cop speak.” It basically means, appearing confident and in control. The mere presence of such a person demands respect, or at least instills a healthy dose of “the fear of God.” Likewise, you can use command presence to avoid a fight just by coming across bold to those you come into contact with. Advice typically given to women in rape prevention courses is, “Walk like you have a purpose, so as not to look afraid and vulnerable.”

In addition looking squared away, you should always look people directly into their eyes, and keep your face emotionless when dealing with people who are trying to intimidate you.

Verbal commands
When I was off duty one day with my wife at a hot dog stand a transient approach us to pan handle. I politely told him to move on, but he insisted on getting some money from me. I then jumped into the next level of my command presence and told him that if he didn’t get out of my face that I’d call the cops. He was shaken by the tone of my voice, muttered some profanities, and then scurried off. Oh sure, he could have just as easily have pulled a knife and lunged at me, in which case I was also ready for that, but he didn’t. My “tactical talking” had worked. Not just at that incident, but good strong verbal commands have worked for me hundreds of times when in uniform.

The key is to look like your going to back up your words with the proper body language. Thus, verbal commands go hand in hand with command presence.

Controlling force
Controlling force means lying hands on someone, but it is less than fighting. For example, if an obnoxious drunkard gets into your face and won’t step to the side when politely asked, then you may have to push them out of the way. Or you may find yourself holding down a child who is throwing a tantrum and being violent. When the kid accuses you of abuse, you’ll simply state that you were controlling them by holding them down in order to prevent them from injuring them self and others. Teachers run into these kinds of problems all of the time. It may not be high risk, but it is conflict.

Of course, anytime you touch someone who is agitated may suddenly lash out at you. Therefore, never drop your guard when you are using controlling force. Be prepared for a rapid escalation of force.

Impact force
If somebody attempts to punch or kick me, as a law enforcement officer I have the right to use impact weapons. My impact weapon is a police baton. Or, if I have the time, and the opportunity, I may select to use my pepper spray (such chemical agents fall into the category of controlling force by some agencies). The law is designed so that the officer is always on a higher level of force than the subject. Impact force can cause pain or blunt trauma injuries, thus it is reserved for assault situations.

As a civilian you have the legal right to defend yourself or others against assault. Although you may not be able to take a baton to someone (that is a felony in most states), you may be permitted to use chemical agents (which is legal in my state of California) and you will most definitely be able to use your martial arts skills; those which are reasonable and necessary to end the attack. What constitutes “reasonable and necessary” you’re probably wondering. The standard is this: what would the average person do in exact same situation? If the average person would react like you, then you’ll have no problem. But, if the average person (the jury) feels you went over board in using physical force, you’re going to have a difficult time convincing them that it was justified.

Deadly Force
If somebody is trying to inflict great bodily harm against you, or someone in your immediate presence, you have a legal right to defend yourself. In some situations this may require deadly force. The law does not state that you need feel that your death, or someone else’s, is a prerequisite to using deadly force. The law states that great bodily harm has, or will, occur.

If you use a weapon for self-defense, you will be question about such a weapon. Before you carry any weapon you should consult with your local law enforcement agency as to what is legal to carry and what is not (provided that you are concerned about local, state, and federal laws – the bad guys are certainly not).

Totality of circumstances
We’ve returned to this term. Should you ever have to appear in court in a use-of-force case, you will be judged based upon the totality of circumstances. In other words, all of the factors will be evaluated to determine if your actions were reasonable and necessary. Factors that the court system will take into account are: your skill level, the suspect’s skill level, physical condition, weapons involved, influence of alcohol or drugs, fatigue or injuries, the environment, and of course your actions and that of the suspect’s. It’s not merely enough to say, “I was afraid for my life” as many instructors will advise their students to say, although that would definitely be a factor if it were true.

The following example is a situation of unreasonable and unnecessary force. Let’s say that you chase a thief down the street for stealing your watch. You catch up with him and jump him. You beat him senseless, and you get your watch back. No member of the jury is going to buy it that you were “afraid” for your safety. Seriously injuring somebody just over property (petty theft), who was in the act of fleeing, does not justify the use-of-force.

Approximately 10 years ago officers were told that they had to follow the Control Continuum in the exact order as they appear. First you started with verbal commands, and then if things got bad you went into controlling force, then impact force, and right up the line. However, this idea was abandoned because administrations realized that actual situations don’t always go in sequence. You could end up talking with someone one moment, then using deadly force against that person the next because they pulled a knife on you. It would be suicide to use controlling force on somebody with a knife, and impact force won’t stop him or her in time either. Therefore, the system is merely a guideline, which must be flexible.

By committing the levels of force mentioned to memory, you will be prepared to effectively defend your actions should the need ever arise.

Putting all of this into practice
Realistic training (or often called reality-based training) is the first step to knowing when and how to employ the proper use-of-force concepts. Just as in real life, not all conflicts end with punching and kicking. Your training should also include confrontations (scenarios) that requiring verbal commands or a bit of controlling force, such as attempting to separate disputants or telling an aggressive transient to back off. Sure it burns a few more calories being creative, but it’s going to develop your skills at other levels seldom exercised.
If you conduct your training in this manner you can proceed to the next phase, which is justifying your actions (explain why you did what you did with your training partner or instructor). As one of my academy instructor’s used to tell my class, “You can do whatever you want to do in this job. You just have to be able to explain why you did it.”

The promotion
You probably noticed the title in front of my name has changed from Officer to Sergeant. Yeap, I got promoted. I’m back out on Patrol and recently assigned to my department’s Dignitary Protection Unit. Thus, you can be assured that the information in this column each month is not just theory coming from the safety of four walls of a school somewhere, but it’s information, which I myself take to the streets and implement in my own training.

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Jim Wagner
Jim Wagner, one of the first self-defense instructor to introduce techniques, tactics, and training methods to survive terrorist attacks and modern crime (active shooters, criminal chemical attacks, drive-by shootings, etc.). His teaching is based on his tactical career as a U.S. Army combat soldier, corrections officer, police officer, S.W.A.T. officer, team leader of a Dignitary Protection Unit for America’s fifth largest Sheriff’s department, a U.S. federal agent counterterrorist during the Global War on Terrorism, Reserve Military Police soldier, military bodyguard, Terrorism Liaison Officer (TLO), Security Forces sergeant, and a team leader of a military Special Reaction Team. He worked in the private security and bodyguarding sectors, most notably protecting Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and working for the Walt Disney Company. Since 2003 Jim has been teaching his Reality-Based Personal Protection system around the world and in martial arts schools, where he offers self-defense instructors a way to increase their business by teaching Terrorism Survival, Crime Survival, and other courses. If you want to become certified to teach at your school, you can purchase the Jim Wagner Reality-Based Personal Protection Instructor Package at a discount through by using the code USARBPP1706.