Is boxing safe for police training?

Full-contact training advances skills, but contains real risk of injury or death

Editor’s Note: I’m pleased to welcome Jeff Paynter to our growing roster of writers. Paynter is an accomplished Defensive Tactics Master Instructor and expert witness in the area of use-of-force incidents. Jeff will cover numerous topics, but will spend much of his time focusing on close-quarters / defensive tactics training. 

Recent deaths in law enforcement defensive tactics training have illuminated an important issue for law enforcement trainers: What is the proper place for competition-oriented techniques and drills in law enforcement training? 

Boxing, Muay Thai, and the sport of MMA are full-contact disciplines, and full-contact sparring is a central element of training as students advance to higher levels of skill. The rigors of this training require a significant investment of time and effort by the student in skill development and conditioning. In addition, permanent brain damage cannot be avoided in full-contact training, and there is no way to predict whether a given training event will have a lethal result for a police officer. 

Defensive tactics trainers must confront this problem: Do the benefits of full-contact training outweigh the inherent risks? How much full-contact training is enough, and how much is too much? Here, I will examine the dangers of full-contact training methodologies. In later articles, I’ll discuss the benefits and how to use full-contact methods in law enforcement training. 

The author, sparring at the Tacoma Boxing Club, September 2010. (PoliceOne Image)
The author, sparring at the Tacoma Boxing Club, September 2010. (PoliceOne Image)

No Complete Protection Against Injury
There is no safe amount of brain damage that can be delivered to police officers in training. Repeated knockouts and years of brain trauma contribute to neurological degradation, including slowed reaction time, depression, and possibly Parkinson’s. 

The mechanism of injury that results in a knockout (often a hook punch to the jaw or side of the head, resulting in trauma to the brain stem) is different from the mechanism of injury that results in a fatality (often the result of repetitive trauma to a fighter who is fighting on autopilot and sustaining significant, cumulative trauma). 

In other words, a fighter with “a good chin” who can take a lot of punishment without being rendered unconscious can be at a greater risk for a fatal injury. 

Brain Studies Show Damage
Wearing headgear in the ring does not offer any meaningful protection against brain injury. A 2007 paper by Dr. Max Hietala that analyzed brain damage in amateur boxers linked repeated blows to the head with an increase of proteins in cerebral spinal fluid that were markers of brain damage. 

Dr. Hietala’s study found that the tougher the beating, the higher the levels of proteins became. Headgear does provide protection from lacerations and other superficial injuries, and should not be discarded. However, its limitations are clear for law enforcement training. DT drills that involve head contact using headgear cannot therefore be considered completely safe. 

The 2003 study by Drs. Miele, Price, Becker, and Bailes, published in the Journal of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, indicated that the mechanism of injury differs between knockouts and fatalities. Fifty bouts were analyzed to determine the mechanism of injury. 

•    Knockouts resulted almost exclusively from single blows to the side of the head or jaw
•    Fatalities resulted from the cumulative trauma of repeated blows, none of which individually caused unconsciousness
•    Fighters who were “oblivious” to the damage they were taking were more vulnerable to sustaining a fatal injury

The significance of this study for DT trainers is glaring – if you have “hard core” officers who like to fight, they are at more risk of fatal injury. 

Is Full-Contact Worth It?
Instructors are (like it or not) part of the liability chain for their organization, and must bear the Hietala study and related research in mind when constructing training. Law enforcement officers are required by their chain of command to attend training, and they depend on the instructor to provide a safe training environment and methodology. 

Further, if DT instructors are responsible for “selling the training,” selling a punch to the face to the in-service crowd can be difficult. Another danger inherent in full-contact training is the danger that a DT instructor could train him- or herself out of a job by pushing the student officers too far. 

Why would any DT instructor want to use contact drills? In the coming weeks and months, I will discuss the benefits of full-contact training methodologies, and how we can make them safer for law enforcement application. 

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