If there are words to describe the way I’ve felt every time the word “killed” and “police” have come up in the headlines over the past few days, I don’t know what they might be. Between two more people being needlessly killed by police officers and the murders of five policemen who were defending the rights of civilians to peacefully protest the events of the previous two days, law enforcement and murder have recently been intertwined in sickening, heartbreaking ways.
I try pretty hard not to get political about these issues. My social media pages have been blowing up with people making some messed up statements about who deserved to be shot, who was justified in pulling the trigger, and who wasn’t. I simply believe that people should just stop shooting each other. There are zero hashtags that are going to make that happen. There are zero battles in zero comment sections of zero videos that are going to change the fact that too many people are trying to solve their problems by unloading a gun into another human being.
But what else are we supposed to do, right? We’re angry, we’re sad, we’re sickened, but is there really anything we can do to help cut down on police brutality and the spider web of violence that it incites?
Ordinary people might say no, but we’re not ordinary people. We’re martial artists, and when we’re faced with a problem, our first question is not if we can fight our way out of it, but how.
As it turns out, that line of thinking might be just what’s missing in many cases of police brutality. According to Jay Hanley, a student at Mark Shrader’s Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Washington, PA and a member of the Waynesburg police force, most police officers he knows are seriously lacking in martial arts knowledge.
Hanley has twelve years of experience in police work, which began because he wanted to stand up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves. His career in martial arts has spanned a much shorter time – only three years – but it’s already helped him in his career and his life.
“It’s made me more humble,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s given me a lot more confidence. I know what I can do with my own body to protect myself and others around me.”
Hanley claims that his training has enabled him to be more at-ease in high-pressure situations.
The problem is that Hanley is the exception rather than the norm; most police officers have limited martial arts experience. He says that the only formal training he went through was the defensive tactics course that everyone goes through if they want to become a police officer.
But that training is less focused on effective self defense techniques and more focused on, say, getting a suspect’s arms in the right position to be handcuffed.
Unless cops have either been through a more rigorous training program or have spent their own time and money learning martial arts outside of work, they’re not likely to know how to properly manipulate joints and apply chokes in a way that keeps both themselves and suspects as safe as possible.
This can be particularly problematic because most jurisdictions don’t allow police officers to apply air chokes. However, blood chokes are often permitted. The reasoning for this is that normal people who feel they’re being strangled are going to fight to breathe, which can put both themselves and the arresting officers at risk, as both parties fight harder and harder against each other.
Blood chokes, on the other hand, will simply put a person to sleep. But how many people who haven’t done jiu-jitsu actually know the difference between air choke and blood choke applications?
Hanley says that although he was briefed on the difference between the two chokes in his police training, he didn’t feel that the topic was covered sufficiently for him to truly know if he was applying the right one, especially in a real-life scenario.
Not only that, but many police officers don’t know when to let go of a choke. This can escalate their actions from being a way to subdue an agitated suspect to becoming a life-threatening attack.
This technicality is one of many controversies that made “rear naked choke” a trending keyword when a cop used it on Eric Garner in 2014, ultimately causing the man’s death. This case makes me particularly upset because it goes against everything we learn about when to use our martial arts knowledge. Any decent instructor will teach you that the submissions we learn in jiu-jitsu should only be used in the real world for self-defense, and that we should be letting go when our opponent either surrenders or is incapacitated. The cop who choked Garner did so as a way to attack him rather than to defend himself from an attack. Then, after Garner had been wrestled to the ground and had his air supply completely cut off, the officer held on. And on. And on.
It’s hard not to wonder if Garner would still be alive today if the officer who choked him had been trained in jiu-jitsu.
Would he have tried to choke him at all?
If so, would he have used a choke that didn’t allow him to breathe properly?
If so, would he have held that illegal choke for nearly twenty seconds?
Sadly, we can only speculate at this point, but my guess is that the answer to all three questions would have been a hard “no.”
That’s not to say that jiu-jitsu is appropriate in all situations. If Hanley responds to a call in which someone is brandishing a knife and is within 21 feet of him, he’s permitted to respond with deadly force. While 21 feet might seem like a lot, it can become zero feet in the blink of an eye when the person holding the knife charges towards you.
Tasers are sometimes an option, but the fact that both bolts have to be inside of the target for the connection to work often makes them a less-than-effective choice. No matter how good you are at jiu-jitsu, it’s hard to armbar a knife or a bullet, so in situations where the responding officer believes her life is in danger, there are often devastating split-second decisions that have to be made.
However, if every police-related death involved a suspect with a gun or a knife, there would probably be far fewer protests going on around the country right now. Even if you take out factors such as race and criminal records, the fact remains that although the overwhelming majority of police officers are genuinely good people, there are still civilians who are needlessly killed every day at the hands of law enforcement.
While some of these deaths might be due to the occasional power-hungry or blood-hungry cop that slips through the cracks, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt and assume that many who have pulled their guns out on unarmed people did so because they were genuinely fearing for their own safety – although whether or not that fear is justified is a whole other issue. When you’re in a situation that involves a person you believe could harm you and you’re not sure how to use your own body to control the situation, it makes sense that you’d reach for the weapon you do know how to use.
The problem is that for police officers, that weapon often leaves someone dead.
Imagining a world where the use of martial arts would prevail over the use of guns in law enforcement sounds unrealistic, but Hanley has already used his martial arts training in instances where another officer might have pulled out a weapon. He’s employed various types of joint locks, kicks, and takedowns to subdue aggressive suspects.
“Being trained as I am [in martial arts], I never go for anything on my belt,” he says. “I know how to use it all, but now, I’m more comfortable being up-close and hands-on. Knowing what I know in jiu-jitsu and MMA has helped me become confident enough that I don’t feel like I need to automatically reach for my gun if things go wrong.”
One can’t help but wonder if similar confidence might have been the difference between life and death for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were both killed by police this past week. Would an officer who knew how to distribute his weight and properly trap an arm have felt the need to shoot Sterling, who was on his back when he was killed? Would a cop who didn’t feel like his gun was his only line of defense have shot Castile, who was apparently complying with the officer who had pulled him over when he was shot to death in front of his girlfriend and her young daughter?
We’ll never know for sure, but if there’s even a slight chance that proper martial arts training could prevent deaths like these from happening in the future, I’d say it’s worth a try.
Hanley is adamant that all cops should train martial arts, not only to protect civilians, but also to protect themselves. Even if deadly force is warranted and necessary, there’s always the chance that you won’t have access to the weapon you need or the proper range to be able to use it effectively. Just like a gun or a baton, the human body can be a dangerous weapon if used correctly. Jiu-jitsu won’t work in every situation, but neither will a taser; that doesn’t mean eliminating either as a valid option for law enforcement is a good idea, though.
The silver lining to all the police-related tragedies we’ve seen this past week is that there is something that all of us – civilians, cops, and gym owners – can do to work toward making situations like this less common. Hanley has coordinated with his professor, Mark Shrader, to get other cops from the Waynesburg police department learning career-relevant martial arts to protect themselves and others. Tom DeBlass has offered law enforcement a free month of training at his gym in August, and other instructors are following in his footsteps.
Call your local senators and representatives and urge them to implement laws requiring police officers to undergo more intense hand-to-hand combat training. If you train at a martial arts gym, push your instructors to offer a similar incentive for police officers. If you own a gym, do it. Not only will you be helping society as a whole, but your academy will benefit from the good publicity that comes with helping to make the world a better place.
And if you work in law enforcement, seriously, go sign up at a local jiu-jitsu, MMA, or krav maga gym. You’ll learn techniques that could save your life or someone else’s while becoming more fit to handle the physically demanding nature of your job.
Somewhere between all the extreme statements about law enforcement and civilians lies a moderate solution that can benefit everyone. Hanley has only been training for about three years, and he already knows enough to use his skills in high-pressure situations on the job. You don’t need to be a black belt to do a Kimura or hold a struggling person down in side control, but knowing how to do so can keep you and the other person safe.
This might not be the perfect solution, but it can act as a way to offer support to our police officers while still recognizing that something in the way they’re being trained has to change. We’ve all seen first-hand how martial arts can change individual lives.
Now it’s time to see if it has the power to change the world.