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‘Wrist Lock’ calls for a reimagining of police culture

Award-winning indie filmmaker Jason Harney’s new documentary provides the icebreaker for a discussion on priorities around police training and use of force


“Wrist Lock: The Martial Arts’ Influence on Police Use of Force,” the new documentary by award-winning indie filmmaker Jason Harney, should be viewed by everyone involved in making decisions about policing, police training and police budgets, and I’m looking forward to its release on streaming platforms.

The poster looks like a promo for an action movie. And the soundtrack is driving and dramatic, like an action movie. However, Harney presents the film as a history. In it, martial artists, trainers, counselors, even a cardiologist – most of whom have also served as law enforcement officers – explain how martial arts techniques have been incorporated into police training over decades.

However, it’s a history designed to provoke questions:

  • If police training is based in martial arts, why are there so many viral videos of use-of-force failures?
  • What happens between academy theory and the reality of the streets?
  • What can be done about it?

Contradictions of a “system”

The film moves from discussions of martial arts training to questions of physical fitness and mental wellness, pointing out the contradictions of a “system” that isn’t and raising difficult questions about police culture.

Master martial artist and instructor Jon Gentile remarks, “I’m less likely to use force, knowing that I can use force effectively,” as he demonstrated the style he teaches. Another trainer (and retired Las Vegas Metro police sergeant), Mike Bland, matter-of-factly states that officers need to practice techniques a thousand times to become proficient, but more importantly, need to understand the principles behind them. He recommends training in defensive techniques two to three times per week, year-round. Retired MMA fighter and UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin makes nearly the identical statement a little later, and so the theme develops.

The interviews are informative. The footage of fighting and defensive techniques is fascinating to watch (Bob Hindi’s demonstration of his Duty Belt SAFETY System made me think irreverently of Batman’s famous utility belt). And, as the film progresses, the comparisons between the rigors necessary for proficiency, the unrealistic expectations of the public, and the inadequacy of actual training provided for modern cops, grows frustrating.

Mixed messages

What kind of mixed messages are officers (and the public) getting, when many departments offer little or no ongoing defensive tactics training after the police academy? However desirable it may be, how practical is it for today’s police officer to train and practice defense techniques two to three times a week? The expectation seems to be that officers should train independently to fill the gaps the department training leaves, but is that realistic? How many officers have access to the kind of training they should be getting, even if we assume they can pay for it themselves?

Ray Beshirs, a defensive tactics instructor remarked, “Agencies treat training like a vaccine: one shot and you’re done.” I watched the smooth throws and disarming techniques on screen, and just as I said to myself, “I really want to see a short, skinny guy, or a girl do this,” judo expert Marcus Martin stated, “We don’t train to our lightest person, to the least likely to succeed.” When the narrator asked, “Why is training one size fits all?” I knew that’s what “Wrist Lock” is really about.

What about small agencies?

Since I have never been a cop, I invited one to screen “Wrist Lock” with me: my husband Dan, a retired California LEO. He brought his skeptical officer eyeballs to the viewing, along with experience in small departments from patrol to investigations to department head.

His observations reinforced the film’s underlying themes: if officers in big agencies aren’t training sufficiently, what’s happening to the officers who are working two side jobs just to pay their bills? Dan noted it was a struggle to keep his small department compliant with California POST standards while juggling costs, staffing and access to POST-certified trainers. Yet California, one of the more stringent states, only requires four hours training each in arrest and control and use of force techniques every two years. How much harder does it get for officers where nothing is actually required, once they’ve graduated from the academy? And how much does that conflict with the public’s expectations, when they’re watching bodycam footage of police use of force on the news?

While most of the trainers highlighted in the film worked for larger departments, more than half of the departments in the country are quite small, and so are their resources. No department of any size provides or requires training two to three times a week, but all officers everywhere are subjected to public scrutiny and legal liability.

Reimagining culture

“Wrist Lock” calls for a reimagining of police culture, asserting that cops who are fit, confident and competent are less likely to use disproportionate force. If that’s the case, what could change if we actually did what it takes to get the expertly trained officers we say we want? Full-time fighters and professional athletes don’t compete all day every day. Instead, they spend hours each day preparing to succeed, with staff physiologists and dieticians, with equipment provided, even though no one’s life is on the line on a sports field.

Harney’s new documentary provides the icebreaker for a discussion on priorities. It will be released September 20 on Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play and the Microsoft Store. When it breaks, gather your decision-makers, watch it and start asking hard questions. You can follow Jason Harney on Twitter or LinkedIn.

NEXT: 4 steps to incorporate Jiu-Jitsu into your department’s use of force training

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.