Opinion: Why use-of-force training is failing police officers

We cannot allow officers to use outdated, ineffective and dangerous techniques

By Deputy Chief (ret.) Mitch Cunningham

One of the most enduring TV shows still airing is “Survivor.” I confess I still watch it. The latest season featured recent winners competing against champions from earlier seasons. Interestingly the most senior and well-known players were pushed off one by one. The younger players, more adept at the newest and best strategies, beat the older and supposedly wiser winners. It showed that life moves on and, despite all your experience and reputation, if you fail to change, you lose.

As an LEO, do you fall into that category? Do you still use old use-of-force approaches that are “tried and true?” But do they really work, or are you one video away from being embarrassed or worse, sued or administratively or even criminally charged?

Two officers controlling a subject. Note how the leg and the arm are secured.
Two officers controlling a subject. Note how the leg and the arm are secured. (Photo/Mitch Cunningham)

Viral videos expose lack of training

Thanks to YouTube if you don’t know what you are doing when trying to control a resistant subject, expect to be exposed as someone whose physical subject control tactics are embarrassing. Viral videos show police officers don’t know how to grapple or use holds to bring a subject to the ground for handcuffing. Fellow officers on scene often appear to be unsure how to engage, whether to use their TASER or apply force to the arrestee.

A recent video shows officers attempting to arrest a subject who wrestled a TASER away from one officer then used it on them and fled the scene with the officers racing to catch him. He actually escaped until being arrested later.

Many videos show officers going hands-on but being pushed back, then using their fists hoping that will force the subject to comply. Time and again we see efforts at pain compliance being applied with little or no effect, yet police recruits are still being trained to use pain compliance with resisting subjects as opposed to more effective grappling techniques learned in wrestling or in some martial arts.

Steps law enforcement must take 

There is plenty of blame to go around starting with state training commissions that only require use-of-force training during the police academy and rarely thereafter.

How many police chiefs receive updates from their associations about the most effective types of hands-on use-of-force training? How can law enforcement find itself in crisis every time new video surfaces with officers flailing around trying to place a person into custody? It damages our credibility in the community. It gets officers hurt and placed into bad situations.

In recent months former presidential candidate, Andrew Yang proposed that all police officers reach the status of purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’m not sure he is wrong about that.

So, what can be done:

  1. Regular, supervised, hands-on, mat room training must occur multiple times throughout the year. Use- of-force grappling techniques must be constantly practiced. This includes extracting suspects from vehicles as well.
  2. We must reassess the concept of pain compliance. It should be a last resort after everything else has failed. Pain compliance with drunk, drugged or mentally deficient subjects is usually ineffective.
  3. We need national standards of best practices for hands-on use of force. No agency is training nearly enough to attain a level of proficiency that is reliable in these highly dynamic and stressful confrontations.
  4. Finally, we must confront the absence of physical fitness standards for many law enforcement agencies. You can’t apply force effectively if you cannot move under duress and are gasping for breath. The fact that heart attacks and strokes are leading causes of death for police officers tell the very real story of how much there is do here.

Our officers are asked to endure so much in this extremely demanding profession. The stress they are under is unprecedented. We cannot allow our officers to use outdated, ineffective, dangerous techniques. They deserve the best training and tactics that will help them meet today’s expectations of performance.

About the author

Deputy Chief (ret.) Mitch Cunningham has been in law enforcement for over 34 years. Over his career, he has initiated a number of efforts to include multi-jurisdictional task forces, regional data-sharing collaborations and opioid intervention programs. He is also active in establishing mental health wellness programs to address police suicide. He is currently a training coordinator for regional law enforcement in North Carolina where he is a certified general instructor and teaches at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. 

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