Martial Arts and Police Training: Where Do They Intersect? Part I

Originally written for an American History course during my graduate career, the following is the first part of a study that describes how continued martial arts training within the American police force can help better prepare officers for the situations that await them. This is the first part of a two part article. Read the second part here.

Introduction

In the past ten years, American police departments and how they handle situations regarding use of force has come to the forefront for the American citizen. Though protests and riots are nothing new in American social and political history, many have occurred in the last ten years from police activity. Most recently include the numerous riots and protests in response to George Floyd’s death while in police custody. Before this current outbreak, there were also, most notably covered by media, the 2014 Ferguson Unrest in Missouri and the 2015 Baltimore Protests/Riots in Maryland. All three of these major protests and riots focused on the officers’ use of force, police militarization, and racism in policing.

In attempting to offer solutions to the problems and issues facing the police, the American government presented its suggestions and recommendations both in Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1967 The Challenge of Crime in Free Society and Barack Obama’s 2015 Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Though almost fifty years apart, the themes of both reports parallel each other in creating a better standard for the American police force when interacting with the general public. After reviewing both reports, one has the sense that a number of the problems facing the police now are still several of the same problems as fifty years ago. Despite this, both reports seem to also agree that the local and state governments cannot adequately fund and finance their respective police departments to maintain a level of policing standards, suggesting that the federal government support the further development of police departments around the country.[1] However, would such funding help reform the American police force?

Increased funding is but one of the many opinions, suggestions, and recommendations to help in the way of police reform to ensure a solution to the aforementioned issues. Other such opinions and recommendations include abolishing and defunding the police, a stronger third legal party, and either increased or decreased militarization. Another such opinion is the implementation and further emphasis of martial arts training for police officers to reduce similar incidents; but is there any merit or validity to this option of reform? To some, like sports journalists Dan Tom and Dan Shapiro, allowing more training time to learn and arm themselves with martial arts, specifically Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, will be or could be corrupted by the violent culture that is inherent to the police force and will be used to continue their oppression of minority groups and communities. Others, like law professor Cynthia Lee, director of MRI Christopher Bates, and physical researchers Peter Renden et. al, advocate the inclusion and furthering martial arts-based training for police officers due to their benefits in personal development, negotiation and de-escalation, and the high percentage in controlling a subject, among other benefits.[2]

While this author may be biased slightly to the benefits and positive effects of martial arts and its training, he does share in the concerns voiced by Tom and Shapiro. Martial arts training alone, without the change or reform of other aspects of the police force, is not the “magic solution” to the problems and issues currently facing the American police force Lee identifies in her 2016 article. To believe that one method can change and/or fix all issues currently in the multifaceted machine that is the police force is a bit foolhardy. That being said, what will be presented forthcoming is but one suggestion to possibly help better a certain aspect of the American police force.

For police departments and civilians to fully realize and appreciate the benefits of martial arts training, two issues that plague departments nationwide must be addressed: the militarization of the police force and the use of force spectrum. Lawyer Joseph Doherty and criminologists Bryanna Fox et al. discuss the negative psychological effects of the militarization process on both police officers and civilians alike, creating more aggressive police officers without full knowledge of their new, military-grade weaponry and use of force policy. Such effects, as well as others, of increased police militarization, as professor of Criminal Justice Peter Kraska asserts, blurs the line between the roles of guardian and soldier which creates an “Us vs. Them” mentality.[3]

The use of force model, as pointed out by criminal justice professors William Terrill’s and Eugene Paoline III’s 2012 article, is not a standardized spectrum or continuum across the country, but rather different and varying types of models used and defined by individual police departments. Even Lee’s 2004 article suggests that having clearer guidelines, levels, and sanctions against those who violate the use of force models would help mitigate the implementation of deadly force, especially on minority communities.[4] Once clearly defined, police departments can better place martial arts training and application on various use of force models, however, a standardization of a use of force model across the country would be helpful to the police departments.

To understand how martial arts training would fit into the context of police training, we will take a brief look at the history and effects of police militarization in America; after which, we will review the benefits and disadvantages of such training on police officers, and where the application of martial arts falls within the use of force models. Martial arts training is viable and beneficial to the police force due to its applicability in real situations, in de-escalation, and in self-discipline; however, such effects cannot be fully realized or appreciated until a reduction of police militarization and a standardization use of force model(s) are issued.

A History and Effects of Police Militarization – In Brief

While there are a few in the literature who would place the origin of police militarization in America during the late eighteenth century (after the Revolutionary War), many assert or agree that the issues facing the police force today stem from the turbulent times of the 1960s, with various counterculture, political, and racial movements becoming the source of tension between communities. It was within these tensions that police departments across America felt that militarism in the police – a belief that justified the threat of or the use of force as a necessary means of problem solving – was needed to face the growing social unrest; enter the Special Weapons and Tactics unit, better known as SWAT, into police arsenals. Initially created out of a need to help quell the increasing protests morphing into riots and based upon the military’s guerilla warfare tactics used in the Vietnam War, SWAT soon became the focal point of police militarization, as it became the new face of the police force in Johnson’s War on Crime. As the Vietnam War came to an end in 1975 and crime rates began to decrease, SWAT became one of the mainstays of the American police force as Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs in 1971 became one of the major influencers to maintain and increase a police department’s arsenal of military equipment. With this new focus on waging war on undesirable aspects of society, the stage was set for increased federal funding and support to all levels of police departments in America.[5]

Such federal support first began to be more than just financial in 1981 with the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act, which allowed the military to become more involved with police departments across the country during the War on Drugs. This involvement lead to these police departments acquiring military research, equipment, and use of bases for training. The act set the foundations for the 1208 Program in 1990 and the 1033 Program in 1997, allowing the transfer of military equipment to police departments throughout America, either at a very minimal cost or free of charge. According to Kraska, by the end of 1995, about eighty-nine percent of police departments had SWAT units with military grade technology and weaponry. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 2001, such militarization for police departments increased as the War on Terror began to take hold of America. Between 2006 and 2013, according to geography professors Steven Radil et al., the military transferred roughly 2,329,000 units of equipment to about eighty percent of the police departments all over America, valuing in the hundreds of billions by 2013.[6]

Weapons and equipment are not the only material being transferred to the police departments. Within this transfer, police departments began to take on more aspects from the military, like rank, training methods, and employing veterans into the police force. Even the “Us vs. Them” and the warrior mentalities have transferred over with these military exchange programs.[7] Perhaps at face value, this is helping to decrease crime around the country, but at what cost? The effects of these transfers demonstrate themselves in the ways and methods police conduct themselves during their duties.

One of the major effects of police militarization begins with the “Us vs. Them” mentality, as noted above. This mentality, as lawyer Anta Plowden mentions in his 2017 article, causes the police to view civilians as suspects almost immediately when coming into contact with them. From this, asserts Doherty, police act like a federal military force to put down protestors and troublemakers. Radil et al. claims that the overall police subculture is one of deep suspicion of the public and values high uses of force. Combine this mentality with Doherty’s use of the psychologist phrase “Weapons Effect,” and the result is an officer who is overly aggressive due to both the larger firepower s/he currently wields and viewing civilians as possible threats and suspects. This blend of othering and hyper aggression creates police officers willing to quickly draw their firearm or another weapon when a suspect resists or flees from them.[8]

As many scholars have pointed out, the combination of the “Us vs Them” mentality and the psychological “Weapons Effect” creates a large amount of uneasiness and distrust within civilians. This distrust is present in civilians who encounter militarized police officers, commonly seen in minority communities. The constant uses of SWAT in drug raids, racial stereotyping, and the aggressive reactions to civilian and suspect actions result in a further strained relationships between such communities and local police departments. From these strained relationships, according to politics professor Jonathan Mummolo, members of minority communities retaliate against police officers, furthering the “Us vs. Them” mentality in both the police and civilians. Such swiftness to deadly force is what caused the Ferguson Unrest in 2014. Inevitably, as some police officers may say, the “Us vs. Them” mentality will always be present because there are going to be “aspects of policing that many who are not police will not fully get or fully understand.”[9]

Perhaps there is a positive aspect to this militarization of the police force: the warrior mindset. As Sergeant Harry Gill and other police officers points out, those veterans who later become police, they are able to use that warrior mindset and thrive in high-stress situations. This thriving under pressure is a direct result from the training military personnel experience to “better develop [their] skill[s] under such conditions.” To Gill, the individual who is able to productively use the adrenaline and the warrior mindset are better suited to make the quick decisions that could better control a situation; “it’s all muscle memory.”[10]

Even with the above benefits of police militarization, there are a plethora of authors, scholars, and journalists who have published many an article to demonstrate the negative effects of police militarization. Just as there are a plethora of advocates against police militarization, there are just as many opinions to combat the growing militarism in the police force. Some, like lawyer Jaclyn D’Esposito and social scientist Brian Lockwood et al. advocate for community policing to create more trust and communication between communities and the police. Others, like Plowden advocate holding police accountable for their actions. Others still, like Doherty, assert the need to reallocate police funding and eliminate police militarizing programs like the 1033 Program. Lastly, there are those like law professor Cynthia Lee, police officer Arnold Anderson, and former police officer Timothy Sholtz who claim that martial arts and what they teach are beneficial not only in the physical state of the officers, but in the mental state as well, helping them to keep a cool head while chaos goes on around them.[11] Perhaps martial arts training is part of the answer to quell the growing militarization of the American police force.

This is the first part of a two part article. Read the second part here.


[1] Jack D. Douglas, “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society: A Report by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice.,” American Sociological Review 32, no. 4 (August 1967): ix, 107, 282–84; President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, “Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing” (Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, May 2015), 20, 53, 56–58.

[2] Dan Tom, “To Think Martial Arts Training Could Fix Police Brutality Is Short-Sighted,” MMA Junkie (blog), June 15, 2020, accessed July 15, 2020,  https://mmajunkie.usatoday.com/2020/06/martial-arts-training-wont-solve-police-brutality-george-floyd; Dan Shapiro, “Teaching Killer Cops Brazilian Jiu Jitsu May Be the Dumbest Idea of Them All,” Deadspin (blog), June 9, 2020, accessed August 1, 2020, https://deadspin.com/teaching-killer-cops-brazilian-jiu-jitsu-may-be-the-dum-1843971066; Cynthia Lee, “Race, Policing, and Lethal Force: Remedying Shooter Bias with Martial Arts Training,” Law and Contemporary Problems 79, no. 3 (2016): 166–68; Christopher Bates, “Lessons from Another World: An Emic Perspective on Concepts Useful to Negotiation Derived from Martial Arts,” Negotiation Journal 27, no. 1 (January 2011): 96–97; Peter G. Renden et al., “Police Arrest and Self-Defense Skills: Performance under Anxiety of Officers with and without Additional Experience in Martial Arts,” Ergonomics 58, no. 9 (2015): 1502–3.

[3] Joseph B. Doherty, “Us vs. Them: The Militarization of American Law Enforcement and the Psychological Effect on Police Officers and Civilians Notes,” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 25 (2016): 416–17; Bryanna Fox, Richard K. Moule, and Megan M. Parry, “Categorically Complex: A Latent Class Analysis of Public Perceptions of Police Militarization,” Journal of Criminal Justice 58 (September 1, 2018): 34; Peter B. Kraska, “The Military-Criminal Justice Blur: An Introduction,” in Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and the Police (UPNE, 2001), 4, 12.

[4] William Terrill and Eugene A. Paoline, III, “Examining Less Lethal Force Policy and the Force Continuum: Results From a National Use-of-Force Study,” Police Quarterly 16, no. 1 (2012): 46–47; Cynthia Lee, “But I Thought He Had a Gun – Race and Police Use of a Deadly Force,” Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal 2 (2004): 34.

[5] Anta Plowden, “Bringing Balance to the Force: The Militarization of America’s Police Force and Its Consequences Notes & Comments,” University of Miami Law Review 71 (2017 2016): 284; Doherty, “Us vs. Them,” 417–18, 424–26; Gina Robertiello, ed., “Part 3: Law Enforcement in an Era of Political and Social Upheaval (1950-1975),” in The Use and Abuse of Police Power in America: Historical Milestones and Current Controversies (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2017), 94–95; Fox, Moule, and Parry, “Categorically Complex,” 34; Richard K. Moule et al., “Assessing the Direct and Indirect Effects of Legitimacy on Public Empowerment of Police: A Study of Public Support for Police Militarization in America,” Law & Society Review 53, no. 1 (2019): 84.

[6] Doherty, “Us vs. Them,” 431–32, 439–40; Moule et al., “Assessing the Direct and Indirect Effects of Legitimacy on Public Empowerment of Police,” 84; Steven M. Radil, Raymond J. Dezzani, and Lanny D. McAden, “Geographies of U.S. Police Militarization and the Role of the 1033 Program,” Professional Geographer 69, no. 2 (May 2017): 207–8; Jaclyn M. D’Esposito, “Are Officers Equipped to Protect and Serve Their Communities – An Examination into the Militarization of America’s Police and Police Legitimacy Note,” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy 30 (2016): 407–8; Fox, Moule, and Parry, “Categorically Complex,” 34; New Economic Thinking, How Militarization Has Transformed America’s Police—For the Worse, 2018, accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z64-YottcNo; Kraska, “The Military-Criminal Justice Blur: An Introduction,” 7; Plowden, “Bringing Balance to the Force,” 289.

[7] Timothy Roufa, “The Changing Role of Law Enforcement,” The Balance Careers, February 6, 2019, accessed March 18, 2019,  https://www.thebalancecareers.com/law-enforcement-changing-role-974558; New Economic Thinking, How Militarization Has Transformed America’s Police—For the Worse; Jonathan Mummolo, “Militarization Fails to Enhance Police Safety or Reduce Crime but May Harm Police Reputation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 37 (September 11, 2018): 9182; D’Esposito, “Are Officers Equipped to Protect and Serve Their Communities – An Examination into the Militarization of America’s Police and Police Legitimacy Note,” 409–10; Plowden, “Bringing Balance to the Force,” 297.

[8] Plowden, “Bringing Balance to the Force,” 297; Doherty, “Us vs. Them,” 417, 443; Radil, Dezzani, and McAden, “Geographies of U.S. Police Militarization and the Role of the 1033 Program,” 204; Lee, “But I Thought He Had a Gun – Race and Police Use of a Deadly Force,” 17–20; New Economic Thinking, How Militarization Has Transformed America’s Police—For the Worse.

[9] Lee, “But I Thought He Had a Gun – Race and Police Use of a Deadly Force,” 5, 17–20; Doherty, “Us vs. Them,” 444; Mummolo, “Militarization Fails to Enhance Police Safety or Reduce Crime but May Harm Police Reputation,” 9181–82; Radil, Dezzani, and McAden, “Geographies of U.S. Police Militarization and the Role of the 1033 Program,” 206; Kurt Eichenwald, “Why Militarized Police Departments Don’t Work,” Newsweek, August 18, 2014, accessed April 11, 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/2014/08/29/why-militarized-police-departments-dont-work-265214.html; Fox, Moule, and Parry, “Categorically Complex,” 35, 38; Interview with a Police Officer, interview by Antonio Aloia, In Person, October 2020.

[10] Interview with a Police Officer; Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Sergeant Harry Gill,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), November 2020, accessed November 11, 2020, https://maytt.home.blog/2020/11/13/interview-with-army-sergeant-harry-gill-army-combatives/.

[11] D’Esposito, “Are Officers Equipped to Protect and Serve Their Communities – An Examination into the Militarization of America’s Police and Police Legitimacy Note,” 417-4–19; Brian Lockwood, Matthew D. Doyle, and John G. Comiskey, “Armed, but Too Dangerous? Factors Associated with Citizen Support for the Militarization of the Police,” Criminal Justice Studies 31, no. 2 (April 3, 2018): 124; Plowden, “Bringing Balance to the Force,” 309–10; Doherty, “Us vs. Them,” 447–49; Lee, “But I Thought He Had a Gun – Race and Police Use of a Deadly Force,” 35; Lee, “Race, Policing, and Lethal Force: Remedying Shooter Bias with Martial Arts Training,” 166–69; Timothy Sholtz, “On Law Enforcement: Three Critical Reasons for LEO’s (Law Enforcement Officers or Police) to Train in Martial Arts,” MMA for the Working Man (blog), February 6, 2020, accessed July 13, 2020, https://mmafortheworkingman.com/reasons-law-enforcement-officers-train-martial-arts/.

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