Most newsworthy police events start as low-level contacts that quickly move to a high-level event. Improving one’s ability to remain calm and confident will allow the officer to quickly flow competently and efficiently to a higher level of force if needed. Being proficient in arrest techniques is a foundation for building and sustaining confidence.
Officers have limited time in which to establish a communication mode that minimizes the risk of violence. Agitated individuals can often be directed away from violence with the use of specific communication skills. Verbal de-escalation techniques are geared to “set up” those being contained so that physical control techniques are enhanced if they become necessary.
Physical control or defensive tactics (DT) have been repackaged and formatted since they were birthed after World War II. A 1951 FBI Defensive Tactics manual states, “simple and effective maneuvers from age-old arts and sports such as judo, Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, wrestling, rough and tumble, football, soccer, and fencing, have been selected, and with some variations, molded into one system which is particularly applicable to the work of the officer.”
Force training is less about evolving than about having the time and resources to train, practice and master.
Jump forward 70 years: Control holds may have new names, but the punches, strikes, kicks and arrest techniques remain essentially the same. Better documentation, packaging of training, understanding of use-of-force continuums and the growing need for dedicated training time have certainly evolved.
Some would argue that police arrest tactics training has failed to evolve with best practices. However, there are only a limited number of core techniques that could change — the body can only be contorted in so many ways to control or immobilize it. Martial arts have essentially stayed the same since 50 BC with the creation of Taekyun, one of the earliest forms of Korean martial arts. Force training is less about evolving than about having the time and resources to train, practice and master.
The current state of DT training
The policing environment varies widely from the East Coast to the West Coast, and from metropolitan to suburban to rural agencies. Unlike countries that have a national police force with a commonality of training, American policing has more than 660 police academies involving 18,000 different agencies, with a wide range of DT packages deployed.
A DOJ report stated that, on average, academy recruits spent 71 hours on firearm instruction, 60 hours on self-defense instruction and only 21 hours on the use of force. Recruits received a median of 16 hours of nonlethal weapons training. Even though officers utilize self-defense techniques and deploy nonlethal weapons at much higher rates, use-of-force training typically focuses on deadly force situations.
Back in the day, I was an active hands-on trainer and went through DT instructor, baton, OC, handcuffing, officer survival and use-of-force instructor courses. I could provide a basic plate of skills that could be taught to and mastered by the linebackers and meat-eaters as well as the small-stature and overweight officers.
There is a wide range of talent and ability among the one million law enforcement officers in the U.S., but there is a critical unfilled need to master core skill sets. Depending on the size of an agency and resources, additional training or in-service training varies widely.
The skills that are needed
Officers must be able to embrace tactics that involve a cold start. This requires applying a defensive technique to a suspect, without a warmup, with confidence, in a street situation, and it must work. To work, techniques must focus on gross motor skills, which can be performed under stress. If a technique is centered on mostly fine and complex motor skills, that will not do well under stress and will require extensive practice repetitions.
Basic techniques to first master should focus on the tactics to defeat the most common types of resistance that officers routinely face. These are:
- Tactical or speed-cuffing to ensure proficiency in using the most-used tool on a duty belt
- Pressure-point control tactics to counter passive resistance
- Joint locks and takedowns when escort position resistance occurs
- Counterstrikes for active aggression
- Batons and impact weapons to counter assaults
- Weapon retention and disarming to enhance officer survivability
Not one of these techniques is dependent on physical strength, and all can be mastered by the full range of police officer skill abilities and physical stature.
Over the past decade, mixed martial arts and ultimate street fighting triggered some police trainers to embrace ground fighting, or grappling. These skills require additional training, time, repetition and application for the average officer to master. There is currently no mandated grappling-related training required at most academies, even as some agencies are beginning to incorporate the grappling arts into their training programs.
Much has been made of refocusing defensive tactics to embrace jiu-jitsu or other martial arts. Yet this training journey, according to practitioners, can take 10 to 15 years to master as they climb a ladder of belt accomplishments. Embracing training that has only been applied in the dojo rather than in a law enforcement setting is risky. How much gym time is currently part of police training programs? Very little.
Who has not heard “Do more with less”? That is a fake and dangerous statement.
The importance of investment
Within the law enforcement profession, there is a divergent range of DT training. There is federal training offered by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), plus state training agency systems, national or regional private vendors and professional associations across the nation. It is hard to say what a true defensive standard is.
It is safe to say that officers often lack access to regular and effective arrest, control and survival training. Some agencies may only offer four to eight hours annually of hand-to-hand arrest training. Many trainers believe that to be effective and in control while using force requires at least one hour of training a week. Coupling de-escalation skills with the generally accepted “plus one” theory of force is a critical piece of the training pie.
It is not so much that force training has failed to evolve, but that work expectations have increased, demanding more in-service training topics such as legal updates, OC, tasers, firearms, vehicle operations, officer survival, CIT, first aid, tactical medical training, and the list grows longer and longer, often with no increase in available time or funding to complete it.
What agency hasn’t suffered from cuts in training budgets, and reduced staffing from either funding cuts or recruiting and retention challenges? Who has not heard “Do more with less”? That is a fake and dangerous statement to use. If there are efficiencies, new techniques or processes to use, that’s fair game. But you do not get more with less; you only get less with less. Policing has been challenged with that political chant for years, if not decades.
We can minimize injuries and maximize trust with effective community support by investing in a plate of in-service DT training that offers repetition, ease of technique acquisition and mastery by the greatest number of officers. That plate may be large or small depending on each agency and its political, budgetary and leadership environment.
Regular arrest tactics training breeds confidence and enhances successful hands-on force application while building the mind to stay focused during moments of danger — moments that police officers often find themselves in daily. A well-trained officer builds confidence in their ability to respond to and survive a physical confrontation. Maybe focusing on mastering the basics remains a key goal for law enforcement training.