What if They Taught the Police Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
Weekly Newsletter 05
Originally published in Medium’s The Apeiron Blog, on May 9, 2021.
If there’s anything I feel qualified to speak on, it’s the physical and mental health benefits of martial arts. I have a lifetime of experience in combat sports, specifically wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Okay, I lied. Not really a lifetime of experience—nearly 12 years to be exact. But for teenage victims of police brutality like 13-year-old Adam Toledo, that is a lifetime.
The most frustrating part about the worldwide police brutality problem is that there aren’t really any “good” solutions being thrown around to combat the outrage. One argument that was suggested in my inner circles is that requiring police officers to learn martial arts — like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu—could help reduce instances of police brutality.
At first, I thought this was bro-science. I really didn’t think that improved police training would do anything to fix a clearly broken law enforcement system. However, new evidence has recently been presented that offers a new perspective on just how important proper training can be for reducing violent police encounters.
These numbers are undeniably interesting, and they certainly warrant deeper exploration.
A (Very Brief) History of Police Brutality
Today, we primarily think of police brutality as a manifestation of oppression and systemic racism towards minorities and African-Americas. While this is undoubtedly true, the history of police brutality even predates the Civil War.
Early incidents of police brutality began in England during the Industrial Revolution as an attempt to stop workers who protested unfair wages and harsh working conditions. The term “police brutality” didn’t appear until an 1848 news publication called “The Puppet-Show” used the term to complain about the violence the police force exercised on citizens who were protesting for fair wages.
Over the years, police violence has gotten worse, not better. Not surprisingly, it’s gone up as the police have been militarized. Of the 1021 people killed by the American police in 2020 alone, 121 were killed at traffic stops.
The militarization of the police has included an increase in weapons, armored vehicles, and military-grade equipment. It does not in any way include self-defense and martial arts training. The reason the police are killing people is not that they’re “too good” at martial arts.
How do I know? Well, it’s primarily because there is little to no hand-to-hand or conflict de-escalation training happening in police departments and academies today. In fact, compared to the rest of the world, there’s very little training happening at all.
Police Officers Are Not Well-Trained
In Japan, police officers are required to go through 2 years of training before they can join the force. In some European countries, training lasts 3 years. In America, it’s an average of about 6 months. In Hawaii, zero basic training is required.
I’ll say that again: zero basic training is required.
The current police officer training protocols are undeniably ineffective (and honestly, pretty easy). I will often train martial arts more in a single day than the average American police officer does in a year.
“You can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist. That’s insane. ” — Colin Kaepernick, activist and former NFL quarterback
If the George Floyd incident revealed anything, it’s that most police officers don’t know how to properly restrain someone, and neither do most legislators. Combat between 2 untrained opponents is nothing like Bloodsport or the UFC, it’s completely reactionary. When you add in guns, the situation is even less controllable.
One of my friends has been training Jiu-Jitsu for less than a year. A few months ago, a man who was just a week away from graduating from the police academy came into our gym to try Jiu-Jitsu. In a post-class sparring match (which happens every day in Jiu-Jitsu training), my friend made the soon-to-be policeman look silly. He took him down, positionally dominated him, and submitted him multiple times, despite only having 3 months of Jiu-Jitsu experience.
The soon-to-be officer never returned to Jiu-Jitsu. Nonetheless, that man currently has a badge, a gun, and the authority to enforce the law.
Is This All “Bro-Psychology”?
At worst, the “teach cops to fight” argument comes off as a meathead’s approach to a complex issue that doesn’t factor in hundreds of years of history. At best, it fails to consider deeper aspects of the problem.
But instead of being the end-all solution to police brutality, what if we just looked at improved training as a step in the right direction?
There’s no evidence that suggests that martial arts training can undo racism, but there is new evidence that suggests that training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for just one hour per week can reduce the number of violent incidents that a police officer will encounter by nearly 65%.
The Case of the Marietta Police Department
In 2019, the Marietta County Police Department (located in Marietta County, GA) instituted a new training protocol that made weekly Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training mandatory for all new hires during the (too) short 5 months that they were in the academy. The results of this program were so successful that the department then extended the training opportunity to all in-service officers.
Now, 95 of the 145 Marietta PD officers practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for 1 hour per week. 50 do not. Though 1 hour per week might not seem like much, the average American police officer receives about 4 hours of hands-on defensive tactics training per year. That means that one hour of training over 52 weeks is already 13 times more training than the average officer.
You can read the full results of the one year of Jiu-Jitsu training study at the link above, but these are the cliff notes:
Since the program was created, the department has seen a 23% taser use reduction in the BJJ trained officer group
The department saved an estimated $66,752 in workers comp as a result of the program (the program cost the department $26,000, meaning $40,752 in net savings for Marietta PD)
Serious injuries to suspects are 53% less likely to happen when engaging with BJJ trained officers
No BJJ-trained officer was injured during the study, however, 15 non-BJJ-trained officers were injured.
Making Sense of Marietta
What’s really interesting beyond these results is the initial reason that this Jiu-Jitsu training program was developed. In April 2019, Marietta Police Department officers were recorded violently arresting a civilian at an IHOP.
The video was posted to Facebook and went viral. Obviously, this was something that the department did not want to repeat. So, they developed this relatively intense (compared to other departments) Jiu-Jitsu training program in an effort to reduce Use Of Force (UOF) cases in their department.
The training was at a regular, civilian-owned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy. Graduating officers said that the initial training program in the academy was something that made them more confident than ever before. Again, this was with only 1 hour per week of Jiu-Jitsu training.
1 hour of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu per week is the bare minimum to improve someone’s proficiency. The average BJJ student is recommended to train 3 times that. I often will train for 3 hours in just one day. Imagine if officers spent even more time training than just one measly hour per week. 20% of the time on the job. 30%.
Perhaps improved officer training could also lead to time being spent on other issues that police officers appear to lack proficiency in like conflict de-escalation or mediation.
The goal of training isn’t to make police officers American Ninjas Warriors, the goal is to decrease the “amygdala hijack” that takes over in extreme and potentially violent situations. The goal is to create more clear-headed officers.
In police departments around the world, many of the techniques used in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are outlawed unless the situation is life-threatening. However, the fewer tools an officer has when approaching a violent situation, the more likely he is to reach for his gun or his taser. This is what the Marietta case attempted to illustrate.
Furthermore, the evidence showed that Jiu-Jitsu training can help police departments save money, which is vital as the calls to defund the police get louder and louder. I’m no government financier, but perhaps it’s possible that teaching police officers Jiu-Jitsu could help them improve their skills while simultaneously allowing local governments to allocate funds to other public departments, like education or social work.
Policing as you and I know it is violent. To an outsider, teaching police to better wield their tools might be seen as fighting fire with fire, but I see it as a teaching moment. Officers today literally do not know the best way to apprehend people and end violent situations. They’re also scared.
With improved training, there is also a better case for improving the accountability of officers who commit violent acts. There shouldn’t be even a case for officers like Derek Chauvin or Daniel Pantaleo to not serve jail time. By giving officers the skills to avoid turning to their firearm or taser, we also give them the responsibility to not do so when it’s inappropriate.
Most police officers are under-trained. That is a difficult fact to argue.
The power dynamics that are created by giving everyday citizens a gun and badge have created a lingering hostility that isn’t going anywhere fast. It’s a hard problem, and hard problems don’t have easy solutions.
Obviously, the argument that police officers currently don’t know what they’re doing doesn’t justify their actions. If anything, it’s the leading reason why the law enforcement system should be rebuilt with a focus on competency, knowledge, and safety. Perhaps we can also improve the training protocols to include self-defense Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, conflict de-escalation, and mediation.
I know I’m writing this from a place of privilege. I’m a white man who is trained in martial arts. If that discredits what I’m saying, so be it. But regardless, I find the data from the Marietta Police Department compelling and at the very least, I believe it should be investigated further.
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A Couple of Not-So-Random Quotes From a Badass Samurai
“To know ten thousand things, know one well” — Miyamoto Musashi
“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world” — Miyamoto Musashi
“The ultimate aim of martial arts is not having to use them” — Miyamoto Musashi
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Wishing you the best,