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Police defensive tactics: Rethinking the leg sweep

As instructors teaching defensive tactics, we have an obligation to teach our students techniques that are effective and don’t result in unnecessary injuries

By Kirk W. Bonsal Jr., Special Contributor to Police1

Law enforcement defensive tactics training is typically based on one of the many forms of martial arts. The majority of the defensive tactics instructors that I have trained and studied with are practitioners of the arts. Unfortunately, the students to whom these techniques are taught are not martial artists.

The nonmartial artists are forced to attend defensive tactics classes consisting of multiple martial arts techniques that they are then expected to adequately demonstrate before the end of the training class. Most of the students will not train or practice what they were taught after leaving training. One technique of particular importance is the “leg sweep.”

Once learned, leg sweeps are a martial arts technique that has to be practiced to ensure continued proficiency. Continued practice is vital for both students and martial artists to be able to effectively maintain and use this skill.

Unintended consequences
As instructors teaching defensive tactics, we have an obligation to teach our students techniques that are effective and don’t result in unnecessary injuries. The sweep is a martial arts technique used for throws and takedowns of an opponent. The leg sweep is used to take the legs of your opponent out from under him, causing him to fall to the ground. It is an outstanding tool that I have taught to martial arts students for many years. In self-defense, it is a wonderful technique, when done correctly.

Ideally, this technique is taught in a controlled environment with mats and students who have presumably been taught how to fall. As a defensive technique, a leg sweep can be devastating, causing the opponent to fall backward onto a hard surface such as concrete, gravel and parking lots.

However, when a leg sweep is executed, often times the opponent will try to stop the fall by grabbing onto the person executing the throw. There is a good chance that the opponent will panic, especially if falling backward from the sweep. This could result in the opponent pulling the officer down with him, causing the officer to fall on the opponent and exposing both parties to the risk of injury.

As a law enforcement defensive tactics instructor, I had reason to rethink the leg sweep and its use to affect an arrest or takedown a suspect. There are several issues with using the leg sweep take down that are cause for concern. First, the severity of the injuries that resulted from officers using the leg sweep. The use of this type of takedown often resulted in complaints of excessive force, and prompted subsequent investigations of the officer’s conduct. Several incidents of leg sweeps resulted in serious head injuries, and more than one incident resulted in the death of the opponent. This resulted in the officers being the target of excessive force investigations, as well as a target of a homicide investigation.

Secondly, police cadets and police officers do not consistently train or practice the techniques taught in class. This is why simplistic techniques involving gross motor skills have to be taught. During many training sessions it is not uncommon for a student to execute a leg sweep and end up on the ground with the opponent as a result of losing his or her balance or the opponent holding on and bringing the student down with him. Ending up on the ground with an opponent creates an entirely new set of problems and requires a different set of skills to survive.

A third issue to be considered when teaching leg sweeps is whether the officer’s agency authorizes them. As an instructor teaching defensive tactics, mechanics of arrest, and use of force, I believe I have a responsibility to teach officers how to protect themselves not just from opponents but from allegations of excessive force. In 2012, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Montoya v. City of Flandreau that an officer was not entitled to qualified immunity for using a leg sweep. In this case, an officer who used a leg sweep on an arrestee was sued for using excessive force. The court declined to describe this use of force as “objectively reasonable.” Therefore, the officer was not afforded immunity and the suit was allowed to continue.

Two years later, in Denton, Texas, a jailer was fired for using an authorized leg sweep to taken down a prisoner after a reviewing agency found the force used to be excessive.

An alternative to consider
As an alternative, students should be taught “controlled takedowns” that do not involve the leg sweep. The leg sweep taught to law enforcement officers to gain control of an opponent or to take them down to affect an arrest opens the officer and the agency to legal liability. I have removed the leg sweep from the law enforcement defensive tactics training program that I conduct for this reason.

As instructors, we have to evaluate the techniques we are teaching, keeping in mind that the technique will be evaluated to determine if the actions the officer took were reasonable. The question of what is necessary and reasonable will be evaluated on several levels, and could include a criminal inquiry. Instructors and investigators must ask themselves: Is the leg sweep a reasonable technique to use to affect an arrest, risking injury to both the officer and the arrestee?

As police officers and trainers of police officers we have to teach our students alternative takedown methods that are easy to use and easy to remember, especially for those who do not train frequently. There are several “controlled takedowns” that we can teach our students, such as reverse arm-bars, wrist lock takedowns and shoulder lock takedowns. My personal favorite is the arm-bar takedown which allows for verbal commands to be given so that the opponent knows what you want done. This has an advantage over the leg sweep — which happens quickly — making it less likely that verbal commands can be effectively communicated.

About the Author
Kirk Bonsal holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Sam Houston State University and is a Texas Master Peace Officer with more than 28 years of experience. Kirk is a criminal investigator working in the Civil Rights Division of the 3rd Largest District Attorney’s Office in the country. He is a member of the International Police Defensive Tactics Institute and certified defensive tactics instructor. Kirk is an adjunct Instructor at the University of Houston-Downtown Criminal Justice Training Center teaching defensive tactics, mechanics of arrest and use of force. Kirk is also an Adjunct at San Jacinto College-Criminal Justice Department.