Unarmed Security Officer Training: De-escalation v. Self Defense v. Defensive Tactics

Which type of training should unarmed campus security officers receive? Here are the pros and cons of de-escalation, self defense, and defensive tactics.
Published: June 27, 2024

Article authors Andy Altizer and Tim Murphy will present “University Emergency Management’s Response Role in Civil Unrest” at this summer’s Campus Safety Conference being held in Atlanta, July 8-10. Register today at CampusSafetyConference.com.

Police officers complete a variety of important training, including de-escalation and defensive tactics. This training prepares them for a variety of confrontations and assaults. Dealing with angry and/or aggressive people is not a pleasant part of the job, but it is, indeed, part of the job, and training to prepare for such situations is critical.

What about  campus unarmed security officers? Are they expected to intervene in potentially dangerous situations? Are they charged with protecting others by putting themselves in danger? The answer to these questions depends a lot on the environment and expectations placed on security officers.

Regardless of the campus security officers’ assignment, they should be prepared to defend themselves, or others, in worst cases scenarios. But, what type of training should they undergo?

Security Officers Might Need to Defend Themselves

Most states have a required training curriculum for unarmed security officers that include a wide variety of topics, including the role of private security, legal aspects, patrol and observation, incident response, security resources, customer service, and first aid. Most agencies using unarmed security will likely require unarmed security to become certified in CPR/AED, and a number of other essential tasks. Much, if not all, can be accomplished online, so even in those states that require some kind of de-escalation training, the classes can be completed without any kind of scenarios-based activity.

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It is likely that defending oneself, or others, is not part of the normal duties of an unarmed security officer’s job, but it’s a possibility.

The question then becomes, what kind of training should be offered to unarmed security? De-escalation, self-defense, and defense tactics are all options, and again, it depends on many variables, including the specific job responsibility (duty to protect others), threat and risk environment, and setting/location. It also depends on what additional security measures are in place. For example, some educational institutions employ both unarmed security and police officers. Training in de-escalation, self-defense and defensive tactics are all considerations.

De-escalation Training Helps Officers Avoid Using Physical Force

Today’s unarmed security officer has become a professional observer. They look after people and property but generally do not make prohibitive physical contact. The litigiousness of modern America has created an atmosphere of tentativeness on the part of those who would employ security officers as well as among the officers themselves. Security officer presence is probably the most important job function to serve as both a deterrent, and quite often, as a customer service representative. Security officers have essential duties of “observing and reporting.” Regardless of their specific roles and responsibilities, interacting with internal personnel, including students and the public, can often lead to conflict.

Related Article: Dealing with Difficult People: 10 Tips for Defusing Toxic Situations

Enter the innovative pragmatism of the educational community that will usually come up with measured responses as a means of mitigating liability while still allowing a cheaper alternative to solve the problem.

Security is in a precarious position in that they have the advantage of a focused professional who is present on the property, but security officers are also a risky option. They must gain compliance for the protection of property and personnel while operating within a dynamic that generally doesn’t allow for physical force or compliance. Good training can help to make up the performance differential at this pay grade. An excellent skill to focus on is de-escalation.

De-escalation Training Pros

  • It sets the standard that physical force is not the first nor most favored option.
  • There is no expectation that force is a requirement on the part of the employee unless they deem it necessary to preserve life or prevent great bodily harm.
  • If the training goes well, it can give the employees the tools necessary to mitigate “hot” situations without going hands-on, or worse.
  • The pressure is removed to stop the “suspect” at all costs…if a detention cannot be accomplished then it’s okay to revert back to “observe and report” and let the police deal with the situation. Stopping the illegal action and having the suspect leave the scene without harming anyone is a win.
  • Promoting a posture of non-violent intervention on the part of the employee can go a long way in preventing civil losses.

De-escalation Training Cons

  • Security Officers may not have the skills to defend themselves and others.
  • With limited training that does not include the ability to defend, they may get the unfair stigma of a “rent-a-cop.”

Self-Defense Training Varies Widely

Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Center defines self-defense as the use of force to protect oneself from an attempted injury by another. If justified, self-defense is a defense to a number of crimes and torts involving force, including murderassault, and battery.

Self-defense training is designed for self-protection, although one could argue, the skills learned in self-defense could be used to defend others as well. This type of training ranges from a wide-variety of martial arts styles (karate, taekwondo, jiu jitsu, Krav Maga, etc.), a series of self-defense classes, specialized classes for women, and one-and-done seminars.

Self-Defense Training Pros

  • Provides some kind of self-protection so an unarmed security officer has at least a chance to survive an initial physical confrontation.
  • Most martial arts self-defense training includes some kind of attack-defender component that simulates a likely attack – shoves, take downs, punches, chokes, etc.
  • Advanced and sustained training begins to enhance skills designed to survive a deliberate attack and may even include self-defense techniques against knife attacks and more than one aggressor.
  • A hidden benefit of sustained martial arts training is confidence building and physical fitness, which are important in surviving an attack.

Self-Defense Training Cons

It’s hard to think of many cons for people, including unarmed security officers, who want to learn to better protect themselves – and, possibly others, but a few cons may include:

  • Providing a limited amount of self-defense training may instill over confidence and even give someone that false sense of a skill set that might discourage a better course of action when confronted with a potential aggressive person (escaping, de-escalation, calling for assistance).
  • Learning self-defense may lead an unarmed security officer to take action beyond their job description.
  • Beyond a short series of classes, an accomplished martial artist with the skills that would provide someone with adequate self-defense skills takes time. Subjective opinions may suggest that becoming an accomplished marital artist would take between five to seven years of training, attending several times a week. However, one study suggests that approximately 38 hours of training are needed to teach proficiency of the identified defensive and offensive technique.
  • Like the time aspect, a martial arts program will likely be fairly expensive. But one could argue that the money to protect yourself is worth the cost.
  • Discrepancy in training designed for self-defense often depends on the style and the instructor. Choosing the right style is extremely important.

Defensive Tactics Training Has Its Strengths and Weaknesses

Defensive tactics (DT) for unarmed security officers are a method of controlled defensive and offensive movements designed to respond to aggression or resistance of another person. This is used in defense of the security officer or a third party with the goal of stopping the aggressor and possibly even detaining the subject until law enforcement arrives.

Related Article: 11 Roles of Unarmed Security Officers in Active Assailant Incidents

In many states, nonsworn unarmed security personnel cannot make arrests for most criminal acts that they observe. However, they may use force to protect themselves and/or another person.  They may then detain the person and call law enforcement.

With this in mind, defensive tactics training for unarmed security officers may be appropriate.  This training would consist of more than just self-defense tactics. It would train security officers in the methods of offensive tactics to restrain and detain aggressive and dangerous suspects.   This should be on-going training and not just a one-time class.

Unarmed security officers are not trained like or expected to be police officers. However, as a comparison; police officers generally receive at least 40 hours of defensive tactics training in the academy. This is normally ongoing, in-service training they receive annually. This training usually includes pressure points, strikes, wristlocks, escort/arm bar tactics, and ground fighting. Use of impact weapons such as batons and handcuffing are also included. Most departments also train officers to use pepper spray and conducted energy devices as part of the DT program.

Defensive Tactics Pros

  • Officers are better prepared to protect themselves and others from violent criminal behavior.
  • The protection of people would benefit the organization that employs security officers.
  • This could mitigate civil liability for the organization or institution.
  • The confidence of the security officers may be enhanced with DT training.

Defensive Tactics Cons

  • As with any training, there will be a cost associated DT training.
  • Security officers may be injured during the training. This could impact staffing and create workers comp issues.
  • Some security officers may be resistant to this type of training.
  • The legal division of the organization/institution should review and approve the training.
  • Security officers with this training may overreact to situations and use force when it is not appropriate.

De-Escalation, Self Defense, and DT Are All Good Options

When unarmed campus security officers are employed, there should be a determination made on the type of training they receive based on their roles, responsibilities, and expectations, as well as their specific workplaces setting. Leadership should clearly set the expectations and provide training for the officers. De-escalation, self defense, and defensive tactics are all good options.

The main goal should be to define the mission of the security officers and support it with the desired training. The safety of the students, faculty, staff, and security personnel may depend on these officers, and the officers’ lives may depend on their training.

Andy Altizer is emergency management coordinator for Westminster Schools. Jim Hodge is security manager for Westminster Schools. Tim Murphy is captain of the special operations division at Kennesaw State University. 

The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine. 

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