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.
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 DT techniques.
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 DT techniques. (Photo/Tyson Kilbey)

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 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.

Is striking a liability in law enforcement? Share your opinions.

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