Teaching Defensive Tactics in the 21st Century

Photo courtesy of Marietta Police Department

How the Marietta Police Department Made Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Mandatory

by Major Jake King (on left) and Sergeant Clayton Culpepper 

Major Jake King - Photo courtesy of the City of Marietta Police Department Sergeant Clayton Culpepper - Photo courtesy of the City of Marietta Police Department

In a culture of intense scrutiny of police control techniques and accusations of brutality based off cell phone videos, it is imperative that law enforcement trainers evaluate what they are teaching their officers. Punching people in the face and striking them with batons may be a justified by a use of force policy in a given scenario, but the public perception may be totally different. They often see it as “lawful, but awful.”

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) has been around for many years but recently has gained popularity with its proven effectiveness in combat sports. Jiu Jitsu can be translated as “gentle art” and be used as an effective technique of police use of non-deadly force. It now has expanded into law enforcement, having proven to be an extremely effective way to control suspects in real life applications. Thus, the acceptance of BJJ as a law enforcement use of force technique has continued its momentum and become the basis for many (elective) defensive tactics programs around the nation. Meanwhile, there also has been a strong movement on social media, #bjjmakeitmandatory, where defensive tactics instructors are encouraging agencies to make BJJ a new standard of mandatory training for officers.

The number one objective for officers is to go home safely at the end of their shift. The number one objective for physical/defensive tactics instructors, is to teach officers how to accomplish that by using force when necessary and justified. However, the existing style of training does not escape backlash from the media when required force is used. Transition is now to BJJ, which is a form of grappling based on gross motor skills, leverage and body positioning. BJJ teaches methods to control a suspect and restrain them in various positions; controlling a suspect, rather than striking, reducing the risk of injury to the suspect as well as to the officer. BJJ is more effective, can be taught to anyone, and looks better on camera to the public and media. Therefore, if BJJ training is made mandatory, the term “defensive tactics” could credibly be replaced with “control tactics.”

The Marietta Police Department’s (MPD) defensive tactics (DT) instructors have been teaching limited BJJ techniques in-house for more than a decade. Our DT training is made up of a mandatory four-hour session taught annually and augmented with open-mat sessions offered monthly. Our department curriculum of in-service open mat and recruit training has morphed into mostly BJJ and less striking. However, our instructor staff believed this limited approach was not enough. The open mat sessions were having limited success due to schedules and logistics. There is also the factor of available instructors capable of properly teaching BJJ techniques. Our instructors train at a local gym, Borges BJJ and Fitness and their skills were limited to the education they had received. The certified instructors at the gym began offering law enforcement specific classes, which led to greater attendance from other MPD officers. The instructors explained that they felt sporadic and minimal (annual) training was not nearly as effective as it should be. They believed officers should train “a little a lot” throughout the year versus the existing “a lot a little” mentality. Training on a regular basis is the key to becoming proficient. This viewpoint led to the desire to permanently incorporate BJJ mandatory training for all MPD recruits before, during and after the academy. The concept was that they would be required to attend weekly training up until the time they begin working the road.

The turning point for the MPD was when a command staff member, a Major who is also a certified police instructor, decided to attend a training session with some of the officers during a scheduled DT session at a local BJJ gym. The class was taught by the owner, Humberto “Beto” Borges, who is a BJJ Third Degree Black Belt. He was impressed by the practicality of the training and how the grappling technique specifically applied to law enforcement. After that first session, he joined the gym and started taking night classes and quickly was impressed that size, strength, and fitness level were not important to the technique. His question became: “Why hasn’t law enforcement adopted this training sooner?” He pointed out to the DT instructors that most people agree average citizens do not like to see law enforcement punch violators, whether it is justified or not. To attempt to combat this preemptively, he collaborated with the MPD training staff and decided to move forward with a proposal to make BJJ training mandatory in our department for all new officers. Now it was time to develop a game plan.

In order to convince the rest of the command staff to consider adopting the program, it was immediately clear the program needed to consist of three things: be reasonable, sustainable and affordable. Certainly, the department could tell our DT instructors to offer more classes or have additional open mat sessions, but only a few of the dedicated officers would attend and it would put an unnecessary burden on our instructors. The gym we ultimately chose offered nine classes a week during the morning, afternoon, and evening, giving our officers considerable flexibility on when they could attend. So, two out of three main issues, reasonable and sustainable, were immediately achieved by choosing a creditable local BJJ gym.

As to the affordability aspect; we negotiated a lower rate with the gym we chose to what the department’s training budget could afford. In addition, the department purchased multiple Gi’s (training garments) from the gym so each recruit would be issued their own Gi and personally must be responsible for it while in the five-month program.

Our first group of officers who completed the entire five months was a diverse collection of seven officers. In the first week the recruits joined the department, they were required to attend training and continue every week for the next five months. This group completed a total of 159 classes over the five-month period with zero injuries. We now have several groups attending and a constant in and out flow of officers in the program, but 30 percent of the officers have continued training after the five-month period ended. Additionally, the MPD staff prepared a short press release and created social media posts about the program attended by these seven graduating recruits. It was apparent the media keyed in on the fact that this BJJ training is designed to reduce injuries to suspects as well as officers, generating a powerfully positive response from both the general public as well as from officers and supervisors from other law enforcement agencies.

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