A movie about police training? Count me in! Recently, a new documentary chronicling how the martial arts have influenced police defensive tactics training was released. The documentary is called Wrist Lock and is well worth your time. Speaking of time, which do you think takes longer: watching this 91-minute movie or attending a police officer’s yearly minimum defensive tactics training? The answer may surprise you.
The Wrist Lock documentary is about “the influence of martial arts on police use of force training.” This movie is a collection of interviews of high-level trainers and practitioners discussing the chasm between the training needed to maintain proficiency in defensive tactics compared with how the average officer is actually trained. (For clarity, I am using the term “defensive tactics” to describe what may otherwise be known as arrest and control techniques, hand-to-hand skills, etc.) Throughout the interviews with police trainers and martial artists, they all agree on one key fact: the average police officer is insufficiently trained.
Too often, the focus is making sure the officer met a predetermined standard number of hours, with little thought given to whether learning occurred.
Minimum training standards vary by state — if any standard exists at all. As a California police officer, it took me longer to watch the documentary than it would have taken to attend my yearly required defensive tactics training. Sound unbelievable? Let me explain.
In California, police officers are required to attend four hours of defensive tactics training every two years. That means every other year, there is no requirement to attend defensive tactics training at all. In other words, if I don’t complete any type of training in physical control skills for a period of one year, I would still be perfectly compliant with the standard. But consider this question: Would I be trained? Let’s take a closer look at conventional California defensive tactics training and I’ll let you decide.
During the year it is required, the four-hour minimum will include things like instructor introductions, bathroom breaks, instructor lecture, the ever-present PowerPoint slide deck, etc., so in actuality I won’t be receiving a full four hours of training. Also, because many students will rotate through the various training evolutions, there will of course be some downtime. This means the actual time an individual officer like me will spend physically training on a motor skill like handcuffing or control holds may be just a few minutes per skill. The focus will be on techniques, and the instructors may have a checklist of steps that each student must complete in order to perform the technique correctly. Students may go though a handful of scenarios stations, where the focus is on safety instead of realism. (After all, if an officer gets hurt, that will affect the already dismal staffing situation on the street.) I’m sure you would agree this training standard is feeble. Worse yet, many states do not even have this feeble hourly requirement.
But is this really training? The word “training” is prevalent in the law enforcement industry. Agencies of any significant size will have their own training unit, and officers will routinely attend a day of activity that is referred to as “training.” But would a more accurate term for the activity be “compliance”?
After the tragedies in Uvalde and with George Floyd, there was a lot of discussion about how the officers were trained. In both
cases, media outlets were quick to point out that the officers attended training. In the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer who was convicted of killing George Floyd, the jury spent hours analyzing how many hours of training Chauvin received. They failed to ask a more important question: Did he learn anything? Simply attending training isn’t synonymous with being trained. The purpose of having officers attend one, two or even 100 hours of training may really be more about being compliant with a requirement versus actually training them to perform. Too often, the focus of such activity is making sure the officer met a predetermined standard number of hours, with little thought given to whether learning occurred.
As the movie Wrist Lock points out, society cannot ask police officers to perform skillfully in the field without providing them the training to do so. Training, real training, should involve officers embedding information into long-term memory and developing the skills to retrieve that information when it’s needed. Training should involve helping officers operate in the tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances they so frequently see in the field. Training should involve helping officers develop sense-making and decision-making skills. Yes, there should be compliance as well, but if we as a society have to choose, I would rather the officer be trained than compliant.