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

Originally written for an American History course during my graduate career, the following is the second 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 second part of a two part article. Read the first part here.

Martial Arts Training and the American Police Force

Probably the most ironic part of the “martial arts in police training” argument is the fact that martial arts serve as the basis for many departments’ unarmed defense and control tactics. An aspect of this argument that gets overlooked is the varying required training hours that each department allots for their respective trainees. A 1968 Black Belt Magazine article found that the Los Angeles Police Department only required twenty-one hours of unarmed defense and related tactics, while Chicago required thirty-five hours, San Diego required twenty-six hours, and San Francisco required forty hours. Similarly, in a 1970 study the New York City Police Department required forty-eight hours of unarmed defense training. By the 1990s, according to crime researcher Robert Kaminski and police officer Jeffery Martin, various departments require anywhere from ten to 148 hours of training in unarmed defense.[1]

One can hardly imagine that such low training hours are enough to fully equip a newly trained police cadet for the physical risks and threats that await them once patrolling the streets. In a sense, that is what Kaminski and Martin found in their 2000 study of police officers’ satisfaction with their arrest and control tactics. Out of 800 participants, more than half relayed that the arrest and control tactics were not easy to apply on resisting suspects and not easy to apply when assaulted, while almost sixty percent felt that their respective police departments did not adequately prepare them for assault or arresting procedures. These statistics, however, are nothing new to the American policing world. In the aforementioned 1970 New York City Police Department study, it cited the reduction of hours spent on unarmed defense/arrest tactics by half due to officers’ lack of proficiency and quick memory loss of tactics learned in the hours allotted.[2] With more than half of the general population of police officers in America feeling unequipped in unarmed defensive tactics, how can such sentiments and concerns be reversed? Additionally, how can the American police force become more proficient and confident in their unarmed defensive/arrest tactics? According to both Kaminski and Martin and physical researchers Peter Renden et al., the answer is to conduct martial arts training outside the police department.

In both studies, the authors have found that additional and outside training in martial arts have greatly assisted in controlling, subduing, and arresting a suspect. According to Kaminski and Martin, about fifty-one percent of surveyed officers studied at least one martial art outside of the police department. In Renden et al.’s study, police officers were subjected to utilize and test their arrest and self-defense skills in low and high anxiety simulations. Across the board, the officers performed poorly when testing in the high anxiety simulations; however, those officers who had additional martial arts training performed much better than those who did not have additional martial arts training. Though the inclusion of additional unarmed defensive/arrest tactics in the form of martial arts demonstrates a positive effect on officers, perhaps the types of training methods utilized by police departments to better prepare officers for the high anxiety situations need to be modified to help replicate the situations they would face outside their departments’ walls, as Kaminski and Martin suggest.[3]

In a similar study in 2009 by researchers Arne Nieuwenhuys et al., they suggested something comparable when investigating Dutch police officers, concluding, “despite the regularity with which police officers normally use the skills, their performance suffered considerably when the skills needed to be executed in a high-pressure environment.” They also suggest including psychological factors into the unarmed defensive/arrest tactics training while focusing on the gross motor skills of such tactics. Additionally, they recommend that officers train and practice in anxiety-induced states to be better equipped for the stressful situations awaiting them out of their respective departments.[4]

There are more benefits than the physical applications of martial art techniques during stressful situations and scenarios. Firstly, according to Sholtz and Anderson, martial arts training hardens both the body and the mind, bringing the practitioner to a state of calm to be both better capable to handle stressful situations and aware of the surroundings and those within them. These stressful situations could be a myriad of scenarios, ranging from simple discussions with civilians and suspects to utilizing a side arm in an intense shootout. With a calm mind, a police officer can use the principles learned during martial arts training in a negotiation or a de-escalation situation. Secondly, according to lawyer Bruce Kahn and director of MRI Christopher Bates, the principles behind the physical aspect of martial arts can be applied to such circumstances. Kahn asserts that, much like the physical blending and responding to an opponent’s movements, an officer can do the same while interacting with civilians and suspects, especially when the interaction may become chaotic. In such predicaments, the officer can use another principle from martial arts by being flexible in their responses to a civilian/suspect. Bates concurs, explaining that this blending and responding to a civilian’s/suspect’s behavior and verbal queues is, “indeed, valuable to negotiators.” He continues that both martial arts and negotiating is all about problem solving and keeping a fluid and flexible posture or stance, both physically and verbally. These principles can help create a “dynamic form [where] movement [be it physical or verbal] can take place” and where a positive outcome for both parties can be achieved.[5]

Such principles would be useful in other stressful situations, like the use of a firearm during an encounter with a possible suspect. Lee, in both her 2004 and 2016 articles regarding deadly force and shooter bias, recommends increasing the amount of training in martial arts for police officers, as it would assist them in building calmness and self-control, physical strength and fitness, and mental and emotional well-being. Additionally, Lee continues, such increased training can establish a sense of confidence without resorting to the use of a firearm, de-escalating the conflict and opening the doors to better community policing and racial/cultural sensitivity training. To add to Lee’s point, some police officers feel that their confidence has increased with martial arts training. With increased confidence, many are assured to “take down and control a much larger person and not escalate any given situation.”[6]

While the benefits of martial arts training to police officers are plentiful, there are those who would argue otherwise. As previously noted, Lee mentioned such training is not the “magic solution” that will fix all the problems associated with the American police force; however, two such proponents of the counterargument fall in line with this thesis. According to sports journalists Dan Tom and Dan Shapiro, allowing more training hours allotted to unarmed defensive/arrest tactics and martial arts training is both “short-sighted” and the “dumbest idea of them all.” For these two journalists, following the idea that any sort of police force is, according to political writer Christopher McMichaels’ 2017 article, facilitating authoritarianism, state violence, and upholding the dominant social order. Following this idea, Tom asserts that police officers, regardless of how many training hours are dedicated to unarmed defensive/arrest  tactics, they “seemed to favor force above all, so long as it supports their perceived goal of order.” Shapiro’s argument agrees with Tom’s assertion, further stating even with such training, officers utilize controlling tactics, namely chokeholds, improperly and at inappropriate times, pointing towards the recent death of George Floyd. Additionally, both journalists claim that more training in unarmed tactics will be corrupted and used for nefarious purposes of lethal force by the police.[7]

By all means, the issue of the police department’s use of force is a valid and serious issue that needs to be dealt with. The argument is not to include martial arts into police training alone, but to increase the amount of required time that is associated with unarmed defensive/arrest tactics. Additionally, it is to increase the amount of on-duty training days to retain the information and body movements associated with unarmed defensive/arrest tactics. As stated before, martial arts training alone cannot solve all issues, but to better understand the role such additional training will have on officers in the future, we must view where the use of martial arts and unarmed defensive/arrest tactics fall into the various spectrum of the use of force.

Where Do Martial Arts Fit into the Use of Force Spectrum?

Before covering where martial arts fit into the American police force’s use of force spectrum, a definition and a summary of the issues associated with the use of force spectrums and policies utilized are in order. Use of force, as described by criminal justice professors Karry Sullivan and Marie Rosen, is divided into two types: deadly physical force and physical force. The former is, as it is described, to kill or seriously injure a suspect, while the latter is for lesser types of injury. They go on to assert that state criminal law statutes become the source for many of the use of force spectrums police department use. These statutes, however, are “extremely broad” and “very little detailed” to offer officers and departments a clear, cut-and-dry spectrum or model to use in such situations. Additionally, as criminal justice professors William Terrill and Eugene Paoline assert in their 2012 article, police departments are unsure where to place certain methods along the use of force spectrum. Furthermore, in the pair’s 2010 book chapter and 2013 article, such spectrums and models are not universally accepted or standardized policies within departments. Such policies and models, as laid out by Terrill and Paoline, are either vague or too restrictive to offer provide officers guidance so they can function within the policies and models. The results of this is, unfortunately, media coverage that effects public perception of the police and the policies/models they are currently using.[8]

Additionally, what needs to be taken into consideration is the purpose of the training. As mentioned in the previous section, the focus of police martial arts training is the unarmed defensive/arrest tactics used to subdue and control a suspect, thus, using non-lethal force.

While this study’s focus is not the many use of force models, a standardized model for all police departments to follow would be helpful in addressing the current issues facing the American police force and to better understand where martial arts and unarmed defensive/arrest tactics fit into the use of force models. For ease of argument, we will use the Reactive Control Model that Terrill and Paoline favor in their 2013 article.

Reactive Control Model for a use of force spectrum. Source: pimall.com

Within the context of the use of force model shown, martial arts and their applications fall under the “Non-Cooperative/Control” level. This level should be where the discussion ends, however, training officers to become proficient and confident in their own skills and techniques of unarmed defensive/arrest tactics becomes an issue when officers are both unsure of what to do based on the limited training time allotted to them and the applicability of their respective departments’ use of force models. As we have seen both from Cynthia Lee and the militarization of the American police force, officers are more likely to escalate and draw their sidearm during an interaction with a suspect. This mentality of using a bigger tool for a smaller project mentality extends to the use of Tasers and chemical-based sprays, leading to over-reliance and overconfidence in such tools and slight confusion when the tools do not produce the desired outcome on a suspect.[9] This reliance on tools is but another reason for officers to increase their training hours in unarmed defensive/arrest tactics.

Moreover, according to both social and cultural professor Meghan Stroshine’s and criminal justice professor Steven Brandl’s 2019 article, physical force, or the broader category that includes martial art applications, is the most common form of force used by police with a high degree of effectiveness. Stroshine and Brandl further report that roughly seventy-five percent of incidents in 2014 resulted in physical force against a suspect. In contrast, however, roughly fifty percent of the suspects sustained injury. While there are many factors in play while an officer is using physical force, Stroshine and Brandl urge for a higher proficiency in both de-escalation tactics and relatively safer unarmed defensive/arrest tactics. Based on these aspects and a recently published Black Belt Magazine editorial by Mark Jacobs, an officer with a basic knowledge and proficient use of unarmed defensive/arrest tactics can help not only themselves, but the suspect at hand, making sure all involved are relatively safe in a physical force situation.[10]

Conclusion

As demonstrated throughout this article, there are positive and applicable benefits from martial arts training, be it a better awareness of the surroundings, a more physically fit officer, or the confidence and proficiency in safely controlling a suspect. Martial arts alone, however, are not the surefire way to address and fix the problems and issues facing the American police force. The militarization of the police is an occurrence that needs to slow down or cease altogether in an effort to morph the police culture into something that can allow more room for de-escalation and unarmed defensive/arrest tactics to prevail. Additionally, the standardization of a use of force model for all American police departments can also help officers understand which types of situations require a nuanced use of force or a heavy-handed use of force. In doing so, this approach can help increase officers’ confidence in their actions. Lastly, an increase in training hours for unarmed defensive/arrest tactics, both in the academy and while on duty, can assist officers in becoming better prepared for the almost common use of physical force on a suspect. In addition to this increase in training hours, officers can be able to see the principles that are applied in such unarmed training in both negotiation and de-escalation tactics and techniques.

Such changes, if implemented and/or followed, will take time to see the effects they have on both the American police force and the communities they serve. Perhaps then, with the time needed to implement and produce officers with the knowhow of unarmed defensive/arrest tactics, a mindset focused on de-escalation, a standardized use of force model, and reduced militarization, incidents and media coverage that seemed to have sparked recent riots and protests, as well as the 2014 Ferguson Unrest in Missouri, and the 2015 Baltimore Protests/Riots in Maryland will decrease. In better equipping the American police with the correct tools and tactics for the situations present while patrolling, it is possible that such incidents will begin to decrease, and a level of trust will be restored between the police and their respective communities.

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


[1] Dan Rickey, “Police Dilemma: How to Control Mobs,” Black Belt, March 1968, 20–21; National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Police Training and Performance Study (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970), 152; Robert J. Kaminski and Jeffery A. Martin, “An Analysis of Police Officer Satisfaction with Defense and Control Tactics,” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 23, no. 2 (2000): 133.

[2] Kaminski and Martin, “An Analysis of Police Officer Satisfaction with Defense and Control Tactics,” 139–40; National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, ERIC ED056204, 152.

[3] Kaminski and Martin, “An Analysis of Police Officer Satisfaction with Defense and Control Tactics,” 141, 146–47; Renden et al., “Police Arrest and Self-Defense Skills,” 1496–97, 1502–3.

[4] Arne Nieuwenhuys et al., “Quantifying Police Officers’ Arrest and Self-Defense Skills: Does Performance Decrease under Pressure?,” Ergonomics 52, no. 12 (December 2009): 1460–61, 1466–67; Samuel D. Faulkner and Larry P. Danaher, “Controlling Subjects: Realistic Training vs. Magic Bullets,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 1997, 24–25.

[5] Sholtz, “On Law Enforcement”; Arnold Anderson, “Marshalling an Old Art: Martial Arts in Police Training,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1994, 24–26; Bruce Kahn, “Applying the Principles and Strategies of Asian Martial Arts to the Art of Negotiation,” Albany Law Review 58, no. 1 (1994): 227–28, 231–32; Bates, “Lessons from Another World: An Emic Perspective on Concepts Useful to Negotiation Derived from Martial Arts,” 95, 97, 100.

[6] 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,” 166–68; Interview with a Police Officer.

[7] Christopher McMichael, “Pacification and Police: A Critique of the Police Militarization Thesis,” Capital & Class 41, no. 1 (February 1, 2017): 122, 125; Tom, “To Think Martial Arts Training Could Fix Police Brutality Is Short-Sighted”; Shapiro, “Teaching Killer Cops Brazilian Jiu Jitsu May Be the Dumbest Idea of Them All.”

[8] Larry E. Sullivan and Marie Simonetti Rosen, eds., “Use of Force,” in Encyclopedia of Law Enforcement (Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 2005), 478–79; Terrill and Paoline, III, “Examining Less Lethal Force Policy and the Force Continuum: Results From a National Use-of-Force Study,” 39–40; William Terrill and Eugene A. Paoline, III, “Less Lethal Force Policy and Police Officer Perceptions: A Multisite Examination,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 40, no. 10 (October 2013): 1109, 1114–16, 1120–21, 1127; William Terrill and Eugene A. Paoline, III, “Non-Lethal Force by Police in the United States: The Various Lenses Through Which Appropriateness Is Examined,” in Police Use of Force: A Global Perspective (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 9, 11.

[9] Jose Torres, “Predicting Law Enforcement Confidence in Going ‘Hands-on’: The Impact of Martial Arts Training, Use-of-Force Self-Efficacy, Motivation, and Apprehensiveness,” Police Practice & Research 21, no. 2 (April 2020): 190; Michael D. White and Justin Ready, “Police Use of the TASER in the United States: Research, Controversies, and Recommendations,” in Police Use of Force: A Global Perspective (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 180.

[10] Meghan S. Stroshine and Steven G. Brandl, “The Use, Effectiveness, and Hazards Associated with Police Use of Force: The Unique Case of Weaponless Physical Force,” Police Practice and Research 0, no. 0 (March 4, 2019): 12–13; Torres, “Predicting Law Enforcement Confidence in Going ‘Hands-On,’” 188; Mark Jacobs, “Police and Chokes: Do They Mix?,” Black Belt Magazine (blog), July 29, 2020, accessed August 31, 2020, https://blackbeltmag.com/police-training-martial-arts.

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