Police Embrace Jiu-Jitsu to Counter Emerging Threats
By Esmeralda Coronado Valles
For Reporting Texas
Central Texas police officers and their employers are adapting self-defense training to a world where the popularity of extreme fighting has changed the way civilians and police interact.
Indeed, both the Austin Police Department and UT System Police Department have changed their self-defense curriculum to include Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a result of police officers’ being required to deal with more and more individuals in the community with martial arts backgrounds.
According to APD records, 1,992 police officers were assaulted in the line of duty in 2012, 473 more reports than in 2010. Ninety-eight percent of those assaults were committed by unarmed individuals who used only their personal weapons – fists and feet – to assault the officers.
“This evolution of self-defense tactics at [the Austin Police Department] has come out of the necessity to fight a resistant suspect and the popularity of UFC,” the televised Ultimate Fighting Championship, said Enrique Colorado, senior police officer and self-defense trainer at APD.
Glen Koen, police academy commander for The University of Texas System, seconds Colorado. “The popularity of Brazilian jiu-jitsu has done a lot to reshape the mentality of law enforcement,” Koen said.
Nonetheless, dissatisfaction with the defense and control tactics taught at police departments and academies has lead to police officers’ augmenting their training with private martial arts lessons. Although police departments encourage outside training, there is concern martial arts training could open them to liability claims.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a self-defense system that focuses on ground fighting and grappling. It’s derived from classical Japanese jujitsu, but where Japanese jujitsu focuses on disarming opponents, Brazilian jiu-jitsu emphasizes submission techniques.
Austin police introduced a ground-fighting class called GAGE, ground avoidance ground engagement, in 2010 as an elective-level course for sworn police officers to continue their training, according to Sgt. Duane Peed. Peed, who works in APD’s learned skills department, said the class is offered every couple of months when there is availability and enough training officers to help. The class is not mandatory, and Peed said they see “fairly decent involvement.”
Colorado said Austin police have “always” learned Brazilian jiu-jitsu-type techniques but that the training has built gradually over time. The curriculum, he said, “is a constant evolution… Our program now looks different than last year. In law enforcement, it’s important to stay up to speed and constantly be evolving.”
APD is “always looking to improve its system,” he said.
Police training programs face some common constraints. Koen said police departments lack training budgets or staff sufficient to ensure police officers receive the training they need in defensive tactics.
“Training at police departments may not be enough to make officers highly effective at particular defensive tactics,” Koen said. “To be very skilled, the key is repetition. It takes three to five thousand repetitions at technique.”
APD senior police officer Issa Kafena started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu seven years ago to get in shape and to accommodate the police lifestyle but has continued taking jiu-jitsu to improve his performance.
“There is only a certain amount of time they [police departments and academies] can devote to self-defense tactics,” he said. “They show you, ‘Here’s how to kick,’ but you’re just shown it. For me, that was never enough. If I don’t practice, I’m not going to get good at it.”
In November 2012, Kafena received his brown belt.
Jiu-jitsu has allowed him to recognize his limits both physically and mentally and to control his body, Kafena said.
“You’ll learn how to figure out what your threshold is and get around it, not necessarily how to break through it,” he said. “Jiu-jitsu helps you think when you are exhausted and… approach a dangerous situation with candor.”
According to Koen, the UT System police curriculum has 33 training topics. Defensive tactics is only one of them. Officers take refresher training every two years, but Koen said that’s not enough. He strongly encourages martial arts training because it allows officers to get regular training on defensive tactics.
Kafena, who trains three to four times a week depending on his work schedule, said jiu-jitsu has changed the way he views his job.
“A big part of the [jiu-jitsu] training is learning to swallow ego, recognize as a novice, even if you are a big, muscled guy, you’ll get beaten up by a person half your size,” he said. “Jiu-jitsu is made for the little guy. You become humbled very quickly.”
Although both the UT System and APD encourage outside marital arts training, officers are cautioned about using self-defense moves not included in departmental policy, which might lead to trouble.
APD never explicitly said no to jiu-jitsu, Kafena said, but if an officer uses a jiu-jitsu technique “and you break someone’s hand, there is more scrutiny on the disciplinary side because it’s a matter of city liability.”
Colorado confirmed that police officers who study martial arts need to make sure their techniques fit within departmental policy.
“If he can justify what he did, he is good,” Colorado said. “If he violates policy, he is on his own.”
For example, in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, combatants may choke opponents to submission. In law enforcement, an officer could use such a move only if threatened by “deadly force,” meaning the officer’s life is at risk. If a suspect pulls a knife or chokes the officer, the police officer is allowed to use any means necessary to defend himself.
Robert J. Kaminski, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, said it is useful for police officers to train in jiu-jitsu, but only if they are committed and are pursuing a belt. According to Kaminski, there’s a greater risk for an officer to hurt an assailant when subduing him if the officer applies tactics incorrectly because of insufficient practice.
“A little knowledge is dangerous,” Kaminski said.
Research has shown that people who study martial arts for a long time and are really dedicated end up with a different perspective on use of force and violence, he said. This emotional control is a product of getting “slapped around,” Kaminski said; if you don’t feel threatened, the less likely you are to use force.
In the last five years, Kafena has had only a few use-of-force incidents. Through jiu-jitsu, he’s learned to defuse situations verbally and use force as “a last resort.”
“I’ve learned that I don’t want to fight. I’ve been able to talk my way out of confrontations because I don’t care to fight,” Kafena said.“I know what my reactions are going to be, my capabilities, so if a situation goes bad, I know I can handle myself.”