5 reasons striking can be a liability in law enforcement
Relying on striking as a default or even the primary empty-hand tool for officers is problematic
One of the challenges facing law enforcement today is identifying effective, legally defensible force options to train officers.
There are several reasons this can be difficult:
- Limited time and budget for training;
- A lack of skilled defensive tactics instructors;
- A lack of knowledge and support from administrative-level commanders.
Over the past several years, many agencies have transitioned their defensive tactics programs from a primarily striking-based program to a curriculum with a heavier emphasis on Jiu-Jitsu/grappling techniques that use positioning, leverage and strategic weight distribution to gain control. However, some agencies are still hesitant to incorporate Jiu-Jitsu-based training and instead favor striking-based systems.
The common mantras of “we don’t want to grapple” or “we don’t let it go to the ground” are used as justifications for maintaining strikes as a primary option for defensive tactics techniques. Those excuses are oversimplifications at best, but most often just plain unrealistic when confronted with the reality of use of force engagements.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that striking is never an appropriate option in a use of force incident. In some instances, a well-timed, correctly placed strike is the most reasonable and effective method to end a use of force engagement. However, relying on striking as a default or even the primary empty-hand tool for officers can be problematic for various reasons. In this article, I will describe five of them.
1. Striking relies primarily on pain to gain compliance.
In some cases, this is sufficient. However, as virtually all experienced law enforcement officers know, many assailants are impervious to pain. Subjects under the influence of alcohol or drugs, in a heavily adrenalized state, or merely incredibly motivated all fall into this category. In addition to this shortcoming, it can be extremely difficult to determine if you are dealing with a subject like this until well into the incident.
2. Striking carries with it the potential of injury to the officer.
Depending on the type of strike, this could be substantial. For example, a closed fist punch to a bone structure may injure the officer’s hand to such an extent that tool manipulation or the ability to use handcuffs becomes compromised. Boxers wrap their hands and then wear padded gloves in preparation for a match to protect their hands from injury more than anything else. In law enforcement, officers are not able to do this before a use of force incident.
3. Striking does not offer the same advantage of scalability as grappling techniques that use weight and leverage.
When an officer strikes a subject, it is difficult to know the extent to which injuries will occur. Bruising, broken bones, bleeding and swelling are all possible injuries that may result from the use of strikes. While these may be justified in the totality of the circumstances, they may bring into question the proportionality of the force used.
4. Striking requires solid technical skills to achieve proper placement at the appropriate distance to be effective.
The simple fact that effective striking requires regular training to achieve the desired result is not a reason to discount striking. Still, it certainly is a factor that trainers and administrators need to consider when designing and teaching their defensive tactics curriculum. If officers are not highly trained in striking, the chances of successful use are greatly diminished.
5. Striking looks unquestionably violent.
Some people will respond to this by saying any use of force is not pretty. While that may be true, if law enforcement can use control measures that are effective but don't look as "violent" as other techniques, it is beneficial to use them. For example, an officer using strikes on a subject in front of a crowd may increase the hostility of the bystanders. Whereas a Jiu-Jitsu-based technique may offer superior control and by its nature appear less violent than strikes. An example might be a subject refusing to put his hands behind his back while on the ground. An officer could use strikes to achieve compliance, or the officer may use leverage-based techniques. Both may get the job done effectively, but the leverage-based strategy will undoubtedly appear less violent to observers.
Some people will read this and be resistant to the idea that strikes are not the best option for police officers in many circumstances. Others will read this and surmise that I am suggesting that striking is never a practical option. What I am suggesting is that Jiu-Jitsu-based training is essential for law enforcement. In addition, I believe officers should understand the positives and negatives associated with striking and adjust their response to resistance accordingly. Train hard and be safe.
What do you think? Share your opinions in the box below.
Police1 readers share their opinions
Striking is no more a liability than any other tool that an LEO can use, they all share the same problem – time training, intended purpose and political fallout. To be blunt, the actual amount of time spent on official training regarding weaponless defense – no matter the hold, strike, sweep, or whatever your using – is laughable. Let’s say you want to start martial arts, go to class 2 x a week, 1-2 hours per class, 2-4 hrs per week, 8-16 hours per month. Depending on the style/system, 4-6 months to go from a white to the next belt, so that’s 32 to 48 hours low end, 64 to 96 hours high end to advance. You have multiple belts to get to what should be considered basic knowledge of the system, the black belt. Everyone thinks a black belt means master or some such nonsense, no, that means you know the basics of the system, that’s it. The degrees of black belt start to rank you on that basic knowledge after that. So, let’s take our police recruit who goes to the academy and gets maybe 40-50 hours of weaponless defense training. They also get additional hrs in impact weapons, another 20 hours, so you’re looking at 60-70 hours maybe total time spent training in this area. Look to my belt time frame, these people haven’t even trained enough to be considered anything but a white belt, yet they are thrown to the streets as the next Chuck Norris, Steven Segal and Bruce Lee all rolled up into one package ready to handle anything with their hands. They get into an altercation, many of them for the first time in their lives, and that minimal training goes out the window and it's back to the playground in 2nd grade when kids were fighting with ineffective slaps, grabbing headlocks and rolling around on the ground. The saving grace is usually the LEO has other people coming to help and the suspect hopefully doesn’t. Physical altercations are ugly, nasty, living, breathing organisms that aren’t pretty and there is no way to make them look that way. This isn’t the movies where the good guy grabs the bad guy, twists, flips, slaps and cuffs, looking cool as heck, which is what the public wants to see on our bodycams. Now back to the question of strikes vs grappling, they are both important and should be trained, period. There are situations where grappling is great and can be used effectively, then there are those where going to the ground with someone and rolling around might not be a great idea and other options should be available to the LEO. All this takes time and is a perishable skill, so a 4-8 hours refresher course every year or every two years is a joke. The total time spent on use of force training by LE is minimal. The problem with training is that injuries will happen, and agencies don’t like any training that will have a possibility to injure an employee and keep them from working. Sorry, they need to treat this like a sports team where they practice, they get hurt. If you need more staffing to cover to get the training in, get extra staffing. All this is a dream anyway, as there is no admin out there that will agree to the type of training that will actually give usable skill sets to their line staff that becomes muscle memory.
As a force instructor in all ranges of response for many years, I found that training needed to start with re-enforcing the mindset of who your cops are and what their mission is. I started by saying, "You are cops using force. This can potentially evolve into a violent encounter, you're not fighters in a cage... there's a difference." This will likely determine the tactics that are deployed. They were told at the beginning of every class and because of the emotional, psychological, and physiological shifts that can occur when suiting someone up for scenario training, I reminded them again at the start of each force-on-force scenario, that they were a police officer in a police uniform performing police duties. If you don't say this, everyone knows how emotionally some officers respond during force-on-force training, and improper responses can be enforced. I believe training your officers to start their contacts from a nonviolent posture, can assist in possibly de-fusing a volatile situation while protecting yourself from an attack. This also lets the public know, through your body language, that your intentions are to make de-escalatory efforts to resolve the problem. The need to articulate force starts even before any physical contact is made. Another mindset shift was teaching officers that the title of our training is wrong. It shouldn't be arrest and control, it should be control then arrest. This is what needs to happen before you can effectively take anyone into custody, you must have control before you can arrest. This along with my initial statements will determine what tactics are used – grappling, striking, or both. Lastly as eluded to earlier, no matter the tactics used, articulation of why you employed those tactics are equally if not more important than the tactic or range of response itself. Eric Daigle says, "The why makes the what effective." Think of that while you are training your officers to make the decision on what tactic or range of response to deploy.
There is no "one size fits all" approach when it comes to defensive tactics. In my academy 30 years ago, we were taught a lot of Aikido-based escorts and takedowns, along with striking and limited groundwork. Based on experience, the Aikido portion was only effective on subjects who did not actively resist. My beliefs are there is a strong movement toward BJJ-styled groundwork and grappling-based techniques, albeit too strong. Groundwork does have a place in defensive tactics, however, it should not be used as the only or primary method. It, like all other techniques, has its limitations. Namely, it is sport-based and teaches pain compliance submissions or choking the opponent out, which is a controversial topic. Also, what people don't understand is when officers are grappling with people, it presents a whole new set of issues for the officer such as weapon retention and bites. The key to effective defensive action is swift, effective measures that allow the suspect to be taken into custody quickly, whether it be a justified use of OC, baton strike, a TASER, an empty hand strike, kick or takedown. In our world, the longer it takes to subdue someone the more there is a risk of injury to the officer and can often be mistaken for excessive force. To sum things up, there is no pretty or perfect way to get someone into handcuffs who is actively or aggressively resisting.
Here's an outside-the-box idea. How about spending some time educating the public on complying with law enforcement as required by law, which would mitigate many use of force situations, instead of re-inventing the wheel and having law enforcement jump through hoops to make arrests appear more friendly to appease how others view and critique their efforts and techniques. Most use of force is precipitated as a reaction due to the actions of the perp. Another fact is that use of force situations predominantly are defensive actions, not offensive actions and that's another aspect or point that the public should be educated on.
Striking has its advantages when a lone officer is in a sudden attack situation and the officer isn't afforded the luxury of completely losing awareness of their surroundings. BJJ and wrestling are a must for hands-on confrontations. But I hate the one-size-fits-all approach for officers. Each individual officer needs to find out which defensive tactic they excel in, as long as they are doing something. The fact is law enforcement is a fluid environment and we have to constantly improve and stay ahead of the offenders.
Agencies need a use of force program that covers the entire spectrum of options. Striking, defenses, locks, throws, takedowns and ground combatives all need to be included. The real problem is the lack of interest that officers have to train outside the agency on their own time and own dime. You cannot properly train in combatives during an annual 8-hour training session, so it will behoove LEOs to train in some form of combatives outside of their agency training. Having a fully encompassing program is truly the best way to keep your personnel properly trained, as well as reduce liability. Incorporating the most effective tactics from systems like BJJ & Krav Maga would be the best option for department use of force trainers. It will save time, and resources when you are building your agency's training program.
Striking is a tool and like all tools, must be used selectively and effectively. BJJ is good, but it's not the be-all and end-all. Krav isn't either. I've trained in both. My tools and training are in Filipino martial arts (FMA) and when I teach I utilize boxing and FMA footwork, empty hands, some Thai and wrestling clinch work, and some BJJ for ground. If you have me on the ground, then we're in a fight whether you're striking me or not. So I teach striking as a base to get me where I need to be when necessary.
It is not a liability when used properly. In fact, it can be an effective alternative to deadly force if used expeditiously and properly executed. I wrestled in high school and college and I hold a brown belt in Judo, but my primary sport is boxing. I fought in the golden gloves in college and I won the International Police Olympics a couple of times as a heavyweight boxer. I also taught boxing as part of defensive tactics training at the police academy for 20 years. I don't like the idea of going to the ground with a subject when I am wearing a gun belt loaded with weapons.
Everything you do has a possible liability these days. I laughed out loud at #2. I have seen officers using BJJ techniques quickly take someone down only to be fighting for control of their weapon a split second later, to include a backup gun or other devices. I have seen fingers and wrists broken from unforgiving concrete. If you are intellectually honest, you should know that the first thing you do not want is for your troops to give the suspect any chance at using the officer's weapon! And how do you know that the suspect is not armed? The incident might start (as usually happens) when the cuffs come out.
The real problem is agencies do not train on DT. The most I have seen on a regular basis is an annual 8-hour refresher on something they were never trained proficiently on to start with. BJJ in and of itself is not the answer but is definitely part of a well-rounded solution.
Officers need to have as many tools/skills available as needed to get the job done. Unfortunately, most agencies will not commit the time (money) to have officers train in martial arts training. If you are going to use joint lock manipulations, or some other mechanical martial arts maneuver you have to train, train and train to be able to call on that skill at a moment's notice. Strikes are useful but should never be taught as a first option; however, officers should never be timid to use a strike when appropriate. While I am retired now I have noted over my last few years that officers rely on TASERs too much. It seemed to me at times that officers were afraid to go hands-on with a resisting subject. It will vary from officer to officer as to the reason. I would suspect some are afraid of administration and appearance. Some may just lack the right stuff. Regardless, when needed, an officer must be confident and competent to engage a restive or combative suspect. To be able to do this the officer must be provided with time to maintain strength and flexibility and endurance to accomplish the goal of a successful arrest. The officer must be properly and adequately trained in multiple skills with all the tools provided to them.
BJJ is a great skill, but Krav Maga, in my experienced opinion is a better option. First, Krav is extremely rapid. We do not get into long protracted fights. We know 70% of all altercations will go to the ground, but the ground is a very dangerous place to be, especially when alone and most especially when there are other potential aggressors. If you have multiple officers, then BJJ is a good option and good training to have.
Krav does not rely on pain compliance, whereas BJJ does and bad guys do not tap out. Krav relies on sudden, bursting violence of action to overwhelm the aggressor, especially in weapons defense. I cannot begin to guess the number of times I have demonstrated a technique on an individual and the class and the individual say, "That was so fast."
Now, once on the ground, BJJ is very beneficial, but in Krav, we want to get back up as soon as possible due to the danger. I would highly recommend you locate a Krav Maga for law enforcement instructor near you and check it out before you make uninformed, possibly dangerous decisions.
Striking can be a liability when used incorrectly. As discussed above, it can look bad to the public and an officer can potentially break their hand resulting in the inability to use it. For years I tried my hardest to teach my officers how to strike correctly, but with the time constraints some looked awful, so I’d revert to teaching palm strikes. I feel it’s important to teach proper striking and footwork, but I’m a huge advocate of clinch work and ground fighting. As a 24-year cop, a black belt in Hapkido and Jiu-Jitsu, and ex-MMA fighter, I know it is popular to say the words BJJ training. But to me, it’s more about teaching control and survival techniques. On your feet, you need to be comfortable in the clinch with someone and then transitioning to cuffing or a takedown. Then on the top position on the ground, officers need to know total control, underhooks and to be comfortable there. If you can take the fight out of the bad guy while they are on their back and you are chest to chest with them, then once they realize they are being controlled you will order and transition them to their belly to be cuffed. The biggest thing is being on your back. Officers need to learn how to stay calm, safe and believe it or not, comfortable, in a bad position on their back, then learn how to get out of those uncomfortable positions.
It all sounds so simple, right? Well, it takes consistent training. Not just the standard once-every-two-years training class. I just started a program at my agency that all probationary officers are mandated to train with me for two hours every two weeks (still not enough but I’ll take it). This is also offered to all other sworn officers. So the probationary officers in 18 months will have enough training to feel very confident in the clinch and on the ground. Hopefully, after their probation, they will continue to come and/or go join a school by their house.
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer but knowing how to be a well-rounded fighter can’t hurt. It’s up to the individual officer if they want to put in the work. Lots of cops think they look awesome in their uniform but can’t defend themselves and then rely on a tool belt that they are unsure how to use and, for most of the time, are ineffective.
Striking does have its place, however, it is very limited. In my career in policing, I have used Jiu-Jitsu more times than I ever did striking techniques. Jiu-Jitsu just simply works better. Every LEO needs to be a minimum of a blue level. If the LEO does not train, they are more at risk and a greater risk when providing cover to the partners. Every department needs to and should provide Jiu-Jitsu training to its LEOs. Wake up LEO community. Get on the mats and TRAIN!!!!!
If you’ve gotten to the point of striking, that means that you are in a fight. If you are in a fight, then you are being assaulted. If you are being assaulted, you have an obligation to your family, your department, your community and the law enforcement community to WIN. Strikes have worked for hundreds of years and I don’t want to give the antis more ammo. As many have stated, leadership and training have always been crucial. Just me but I would rather strike an advisory once, really hard, than wrestle around for several minutes, so it isn’t so problematic. Still a great discussion but remember KISS and WIN.
Strikes have their place. It’s very difficult to apply control restraining techniques if you are being beaten with fists, feet, or a blunt instrument. Striking can help you disengage and try other things, it can tell your opponent that this is not all going their way, and it can even save you from a continued beating or worse. The psychological impact on your assailant is important. Restraints are great for the uncooperative flailing subject but if it’s time for fighting strikes are a good option. Sadly, training, confidence and practice, practice, practice are essential to winning whether it’s restraint, strikes, baton, or firearms skills that are employed. Ending the conflict quickly reduces injury to both parties. Two seconds of strikes or five minutes of wrestling, which looks worse to the uninformed public? Don’t forget policing is the only job that everyone knows how to do better than the police!
The REALLY big problem is that, for the most part, departments don't train us in any unarmed use of force. Three years here, and the only force training at all is firearms qualifications. Recently, our captain told us we can not use any strikes at all above the shoulders unless it's deadly force (regardless of any other factors such as size difference, etc.) And still, after further hamstringing us, no provision has been made to teach us grappling or any other fighting technique to give us other tools. We are on our own, and our supervisors are no help at all.
Any use of force is a liability when used improperly or if an officer is not trained and comfortable using it. We face a three-tiered issue in this country when it comes to use of force: experience, buy-in and public opinion. We need to be extending academy time to properly teach use of force across the board. This is the number one issue facing the profession and we spend minimal time covering it because of budget and manpower issues. We need more time in the basic academy as well as mandating a 30-day refresher academy solely for use of force every 2-3 years. We should be going back over the basics and current concepts of empty hands/less lethal/lethal force in 10-day blocks. We need buy-in from command staff that proper use of force needs to be defended 100% by all levels of command including the politicians. No, it isn't going to be pretty and yes, it looks bad on TV, but if it was reasonable and necessary under the circumstances, leadership needs to own it for both the officers involved and for the public. And we need to educate the public on how and why we use force. Get out in the communities, hold meetings, run them through mock scenes, give them shoot no-shoot drills to do themselves, MAKE THEM UNDERSTAND. We as a nation throw away money on social concepts that don't give a good return on the investment and are completely a waste of time and money. How about spending those dollars to provide the best-trained officers and best-educated communities so they understand why we do what we do instead of letting some activist or talking head on Twitter be their only source on police use of force "expertise."
The real problem is that police administrators are politicians and not police professionals. Trainers have acknowledged for decades that training is often not proper (things taught that don't fit the need of the job), inadequate (not enough hours), inconsistent (changing techniques or systems constantly) or not regular (not reinforced on a regular basis). It doesn't matter what you argue for. Police administrators and local governments will not consider the above factors. They never care or learn. That said, control techniques (Jiu-Jitsu or Aikido-based controls) are appropriate for resistance. Striking is appropriate for self-defense. Striking should ideally be done with batons, not your hands. Notice that most departments do not use or know how to use a baton. Police training is left in the hands of young officers who have a small amount of training in some particular skill like MMA, boxing, karate, Jiu-Jitsu, etc. If you are skilled, you can usually prevail in most situations with control holds even if it is a self-defense situation. There will always be times when you have to hit someone who is attacking or where none of your control skills were successful. Ultimately, it is a moot point. Law enforcement training will remain inadequate.
No. I'm sorry but the last thing an officer wants is to go to the ground. Not only because of ground hazards such as glass, rocks, spit and shit, but landing on your back on your cuffs or other equipment can cause serious injury. Trying to grapple and move on your back with a gun, TASER, cuffs, baton and magazines is difficult and places the officer at a disadvantage. Grappling techniques are great as a last result or if you find yourself on the ground, but in my opinion, we should never strive to go there.
There is a place for grappling and a place for striking. Officers are in the awkward position of having the authority to use force but lacking the training to efficiently navigate the use of force incident with their available tools. It's oversimplifying the problem to say that the answer is BJJ for cops, just like it is oversimplifying the problem to say that less lethal weapons are the answer. When police are only training hard skills for half of one percent of their on-duty time (0.25% to 0.4% on average), it is not surprising that they would lack a balanced set of skills for close-quarter confrontations. Empty hand training has to improve and become a requirement on equal footing with soft skill training.
If you are in a fight, you are in a fight. It is the job of leadership to explain the actions of the officers and they aren’t very good at it. I mean let’s face it, there is a wildly held false belief of rampant police brutality and that is the fault of leadership. Striking is necessary in some fights. It is less about pain and more about distraction so the officer can get an opportunity to gain control. I agree that there needs to be more submission training, but that training looks brutal too. Eric Garner was put in a "seat belt" and the media called it a chokehold without rebuttal from command staff. So the problem isn’t striking, it is bad leadership. We need to think twice about scaring officers away from tools.
I've trained in Bujinkan martial arts for 30 years. I've put the time into my training with professionals. I've successfully used this version of bio-mechanical Jiu-Jitsu for years for compliance and control. Once, in 2017, I used a two-handed strike to disarm a knife-wielding mentally impaired person rather than shoot him. I concur that strikes can injure the officer more than the perp and I've seen many officers injured in the old days by punching the perp. No one move, strike or technique can be used for everything.
I see some valid points in the article in reference to the need for LEOs to train and understand grappling in the application of use of force. I believe officers need to understand striking as well. Use of force is rarely a linear function. Strikes can set up grappling techniques and vice versa. Trainers need to spend more time teaching officers the principles, concepts and context of two humans engaged in a fight for control. Many times, trainers, and I'm a trainer for the record, spend time running through techniques for worst-case scenarios just to check the box off on a training agenda and less time on grappling principles and concepts of positions and pressure, angles of attack, conserving energy and much more that is learned in BJJ. But again, strikes have their place. The problem with today's times is how things look instead of how things are. Some will, including myself, say use of force is ugly. Strikes combined with grappling can wear a subject's will to resist. As long as you are using the appropriate force at the appropriate time, you should be justified no matter if there were strikes involved and how someone "in hindsight" thought it looked.
- We have gone to a primarily grappling-based system. Overall striking tends to be the end result for those who are properly trained. This is often something that includes panic on the part of the officer. There are the additional factors of injury to the officers, which happen very frequently with un-gloved striking, as well as how it looks on video. We all know that video is a huge factor for administrators as it relates to public media challenges.
- It all depends on the totality of the circumstances and the actual striking technique used. Any force technique used, if used due to losing self-control, will not look good. Even Jui-Jitsu can be deemed harsh if say an officer, instead of using a simple leg sweep takedown, chooses to take a suspect off their feet and slam them down. It is the same difference between using a palm heel strike as opposed to a closed fist punch. There is a proportionality that needs to be adhered to based on the situation, size of the suspect, amount of backup, exact offense, etc. I have employed a combination of techniques in dealing with resistive or violent suspects, having employed a combination of strikes, tools and grappling all in one incident.