Asked & Answered – 5 Questions About… Assault

Security operatives in the UK are frequent targets of violent assault. It’s a situation that, although once dismissed as a mere ‘occupational hazard’, has today become untenable – and is continuing to worsen.

Studies conducted in 2015 by the SIA, in 2020 by the University of Portsmouth and in 2021 by this very website depict a dangerous trend of security operatives being verbally abused, physically assaulted and even hospitalised, with large numbers also exhibiting classic symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition strongly linked to depression and suicide.

In extreme cases, security operatives have even been murdered

It’s a serious issue that definitely raises a lot of questions. In this feature, we will attempt to ask and answer 5 of the most common questions surrounding assault. We will do this from the perspective of – and addressing concerns specific to – a UK-based security operative.

We hope this feature is of interest to you. If you have been the victim of assault at any time, please know that help is available to you. Relevant links will be featured at the end.

1.   Why is the Law Around Assault Difficult to Define?

Essentially, laws against assault define the act more loosely than other laws define crimes because the circumstances of assault are often more complicated.

UK law defines assault as the infliction of intentional or reckless harm upon another person. To this end, the law recognises three main forms of assault as criminal acts. These are:

1)   Common Assault

2)   Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)

3)   Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)

Common assault occurs in instances where one person harms another or causes another to believe that they intend to cause them harm. Common assaults can range from very minor incidents (which, in some cases, do not even require physical contact to occur) to slightly more serious fare such as pushing and shoving. The key components of common assault are always either physical harm being committed or the threat of same.

Incidents of actual violence that occur after this are more likely to be classed as ‘battery’ or ‘assault by beating’.

In order for actual bodily harm (ABH) to be committed, physical violence must take place and the consequences of that violence must be more than minor. A simple scuffle, for example, would fall under the definition of common assault, as opposed to ABH.

However, in cases whereby one person has been seriously harmed by another (specifically, the assault has left physical evidence on the person’s body such as bruising), ABH charges will likely apply.

Grievous bodily harm (GBH) is considered to be a very serious offence. Of the three definitions of assault, this is the charge most likely to result in a prison sentence. Accordingly, GBH is only said to have occurred in instances where serious harm has been caused.

There are two forms of GBH. These are known as ‘unlawful wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm’ and ‘causing wounding/grievous bodily harm with intent to do wounding/grievous bodily harm’. The first implies that an altercation may have gotten out of hand, whereas the second is more serious, suggesting that the entire affair was premeditated on the part of the attacker.

So, the law must define the act of assault in broad, as opposed to narrow, terms because assault is such a varied concept and the ways in which it can occur are so very numerous.

There are almost as many possible instances of assault as there are people in the world. So, in order to remain as fair and impartial as possible, it is incumbent upon lawmakers to offer blanket descriptions of these possibilities (based upon the amount of harm caused to the victim) and then allow the courts to decide under which description the incidents fit.

Accordingly, the law provides a multitude of definitions for assault. So, once an assault has occurred, it’s a (relatively) simple case of filing charges based on the proper definition.

2.   How Can I Defend Myself?

As a security operative, you are only permitted to use reasonable force in self-defence or instances of noncompliance.

The term ‘reasonable force’ is another relatively loose definition, mainly for reasons similar to those stated above.

In order to be considered ‘reasonable’, any force employed by a security operative must always be proportional to the threat being presented at the time. It must never exceed this, lest it be termed ‘excessive force’.

Essentially, any amount of force that is absolutely necessary to protect yourself or your property from unlawful aggression or harm is considered ‘reasonable’. This means that, if one person attacks another with a weapon, that person may also defend themselves with a weapon.

To unpack this a bit and couch it specifically in terms of security work, it means that you may only respond to an aggressive act in a proportional way.

It is not, for example, necessary or reasonable to put hands on a person that is being verbally abusive, unless that person is refusing to comply with verbal commands and/or has given you cause to believe that they will attempt to harm you or somebody else if they are not immediately restrained.

However, you may restrain a person that has become physically aggressive or violent and employ any amount of force equal to the threat being presented by them.

Any actions taken by you in this regard must be taken defensively, as opposed to offensively and must be undertaken in the interests of your own safety, the safety of others and/or the rules of the building or venue.

The two times where the use of reasonable force is acceptable are:

1)   In the ‘heat of the moment’ (this means as the incident is occurring or is about to occur)


2)   If the perpetrator of a crime is trying to escape and needs to be restrained (in such cases, a tackle may be acceptable).

If these rules are not strictly adhered to, you run the risk of being charged with the use of excessive force, which is a form of assault in its own right.

Physically harming a person that is not presenting a threat at that particular moment is an example of excessive force. If you commit an act of excessive force, it is likely that you will lose your job and your license and you may even face criminal charges, so it pays to understand these definitions and apply them at all times.

3.   Is Anything Being Done to Help Security Operatives on the Front Lines?

At ‘Working The Doors’, we have repeatedly suggested that the British government should include security workers in the ‘Assaults on Emergency Workers Act (2018)’, an act of Parliament that introduced stiffer sentences and/or higher fines for people who attack police officers, fire fighters, NHS staff, prison guards, parole officers and others.

To this end, we petitioned Parliament, gaining over 4,000 signatures. Sadly, the petition ended in February 2021 without garnering enough support to trigger a parliamentary debate.

We are at present in the process of petitioning Parliament once again, this time with the request that the government draft a piece of legislation similar to the ‘Assaults on Emergency Workers Act’, but specifically aimed at protecting security workers.

We have called this the ‘Security Workers Act’ and would hopefully provide an at-risk workforce with greater protections, thus improving their personal safety, as well as strengthening the industry as a whole and increasing public safety at the same time.

Beyond these efforts, we have also advocated for a higher degree of ongoing training, as well as for security managers to spend some time on the doors, in order to gain a greater appreciation for the challenges being faced by their employees.

We have also looked into initiatives such as ‘Pubwatch’ and proposed that venues either join the venture or create a new one on their own (it might be called ‘Clubwatch’), as well as researching and advocating for preventative technologies such as improved CCTV and security systems, SmartWater and other taggants, as well as a high standard of company-issue equipment.

We also regularly upload content discussing in detail various de-escalation strategies and psychological techniques that can be effectively used to calm aggressive people and situations.

On a professional level, you can train and educate yourself, as well as taking free or affordable training courses on your own time and keeping your working practices as sharp as your instincts.

4.   How Can an Assault Impact my Life?

Any kind of abuse can negatively affect a person’s life. There is a wealth of hard evidence that proves this.

Every year, we hear awful stories of schoolchildren that have taken their own lives as a result of bullying, or adults that have done likewise after being subjected to prolonged abuse at work or even on social media.

It has been shown now that emotional abuse can even cause PTSD.

If words, attitudes and sentiments can be that destructive, then physical assault must be at least as damaging.

In most cases, security operatives will simply ignore verbal abuse. After a while, ‘shrugging it off’ becomes a skill in which security operatives are among the best in the world.

Whilst this is a good approach to take/skill to develop, there may come a bad spell in your life, when things simply aren’t going your way. This could involve relationship issues, bad health news (or anxieties around yourself or somebody else’s health), personal setbacks, spiritual crises, money troubles or family issues, along with a plethora of other possibilities (they say, ‘life is good’, but nobody ever says it’s easy). In these instances, verbal insults may cut deeper than usual and could actually have quite a severe effect on you.

An assault, of any kind, is an invasion, both of your personal space and your general wellbeing. It can damage your pride and put a dent your self-worth. It can make you feel afraid or anxious about an environment that you must regularly visit (in this case, work) and it can negatively impact your confidence. It’s a serious thing to be assaulted and the sheer number of times it happens to security workers can have a profound effect on their psychology.

As a security operative, you are at a high risk of developing PTSD. Our recent study confirms this, with 57% of our 1224 respondents claiming that an incident at work had stayed with them for more than 24 hours after it occurred and 48% reporting experiencing either flashbacks or nightmares relating to a specific event.

As a result, it is important that you recognise the symptoms. These can include intrusive thoughts, memories, dreams about a specific incident or flashbacks. They might also include mood swings (such as becoming excessively negative or irritable), feeling constantly ‘on-edge’ (and thus being easily startled or disturbed), trouble sleeping, fits of rage, increased heart rate, self-harm, self-destructive behaviour, emotional numbness and isolating yourself from others to a greater extent than is usual for you.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may be suffering from PTSD. Although it is a complex condition, with a long, sad history behind it, PTSD is actually very treatable and even mostly curable in some cases.

5.   Where Can I Get Help?

You can self-refer for free psychological help by visiting the Steps 2 Wellbeing website. This is a life-saving service run by trained NHS professionals, offering digestible courses of therapy that can be conducted around your work and home schedules.

Other options/organisations include:

Victim Support – Victim Support offers emotional and practical support for anybody affected by a crime. They can be reached either via the link provided or on 0808 168 9111.

BACP – The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy can provide information for free, as well as recommending a list of accredited therapists. In most cases, you will have to pay for these services, but the results are undeniable.

The Samaritans – The Samaritans are a wonderful organisation that is open 24/7 for anyone who needs to talk, about anything, at any time. By calling 116 123 (there is no charge for this number), you can speak confidentially to one of their many dedicated employees. You can even visit some Samaritans branches in person. Samaritans also have a Welsh Language Line on 0808 164 0123 (7pm–11pm every day).

It may seem like the best option is to ‘tough it out’. You may even believe that no one can help you, or that ‘it’s all mumbo-jumbo anyway’. You may even feel that you’re being strong and protecting others or putting them first by not seeking help. However, all these feelings are illusory. They are fear reactions that speak, not to personal cowardice, but specifically to the stigmas surrounding mental health in many cultures.

In reality, you find no shame in going to your GP for a consultation, check-up or to obtain a prescription. In fact, if your arm or leg were injured in an assault, one of the first things most of us would do is seek medical attention. If nothing else, working with a bad injury could negatively affect your job performance and put other people at risk. Why is it then that when a person’s mind is injured, they feel ashamed to get help for it?

Our minds are powerful, resilient and gravid with creativity, memories, dreams and potential, but they are also fragile, flawed and easily damaged. It’s time that we, as a society, learned that our mental health is at least as important as our physical health.

Assault against security workers is a serious and ongoing issue in the UK, but help is available and there are a lot of people dedicated to improving the situation. It may take a while, but we’re confident about getting there.