A Police Perspective On Jiu-Jitsu

I am consistently amazed at the number of martial arts instructors who claim to teach self-defense but have no concept of how the law applies to self-defense situations.

These past couple of weeks, tragedy has struck American law enforcement and society as a whole. In this time of hate and inflammatory rhetoric, many jiu-jitsu instructors have opened their doors in big ways to police officers. These schools have been offering discounts, free seminars, and in some cases, even waived membership fees for officers.

As a long-time jiu-jitsu practitioner, instructor, and police officer, this reaffirms my faith in jiu-jitsu as a vehicle for social good. I challenge every police officer to take advantage of these offers; and if there is no offer advertised in your area, then train anyways. Practicing the art of jiu-jitsu has helped me in my career and personal life in innumerable ways.

Whether or not you are one of the above jiu-jitsu academies, chances are you have police officers in your school. As an instructor, it’s important to remember these students will train with you for reasons far different than the twenty-two-year-old competitor or the middle-aged working professional. These students will be using what you teach in real life. Jiu-jitsu for them will be a tool used to protect themselves and others from harm.

So, as you teach your everyday classes, here are three realities to keep in mind. An in-depth knowledge of these subjects will not only help you teach police officers, but will help you teach self-defense to all of your students. If you are a jiu-jitsu student, these subjects will apply to you in any self-defense scenario.

Fighting Equals Chaos

Do you remember your first tournament match? Do you remember the butterflys, the pressure, the fear? As you stepped on the mats, you were taken over by a feeling of almost existing outside of your body. Upon contact with your opponent, you went into a blender of strength, speed, emotion, and hopefully moments of clarity.

This process was your body’s autonomic nervous system reacting to the stress of a fight. You dealt with this stress over the hours of the tournament with days of preparation, and with a supportive team behind you; and through continued competition, you learned to ride this waive of emotion.

Now, let’s take that feeling of the first tournament and condense all of those emotions to about thirty seconds of sheer terror. Remember, as a police officer or anyone who has to defend herself, there is little warning and no warm up. Your moment may come eight hours into shift, at 3:00 in the morning, or maybe five minutes after you ate lunch. You might not know the rules your opponent will play by, if he is attempting to flee, or if he is going for a weapon to kill you. Your environment may be unfriendly with no team to back you. It may be a hostile crowd that turns from screaming and videotaping you to assaulting you or assisting your opponent. It could be dark, raining, snowing, or 110 degrees and on asphalt. The list of possibilities is endless. Riding this waive of chaos is no easy task.

Hands Kill

A stalwart strategy of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is “position before submission”. This is as true on the mats of competition as on the street in self-defense.

During free rolling, we focus on pressure and body positioning.

But how often do we focus on our opponent’s hands?

In law enforcement the saying is “hands kill; control the hands”.

So, why so much focus on controlling the hands?

A hidden hand can access a weapon. If the person you’re fighting can get to a knife or gun, the fight can change instantly, even if you’re in a dominate position. Losing track of the hands could mean the opponent also accessing your weapons.

A good experiment to do with yourself or your students is to just play around with plastic knives or guns while free rolling. Have a student hide a knife or gun on her person and sometime during the match try to access it and use it. This will have an immediate impact on your free rolling.

Remember, a slash of a knife to a major artery can kill within a minute and a severed nerve can make a limb completely useless. A firearm, even when trapped inside a pocket, can still discharge with disastrous results.

Keep playing until you have control of the weapon. The hand is the limb that is the farthest away from the body and has the greatest degree of mobility. Learning to control the hand while using proper body positioning adds a new level to the game of grappling.

The Law

I am consistently amazed at the number of martial arts instructors who claim to teach self-defense but have no concept of how the law applies to self-defense situations. It’s the equivalent of a doctor administering a drug without knowing the possible side effects. The drug may have the desired outcome or it may ruin the life of the patient. An instructor should insure that her students can explain and articulate their actions in a criminally and civilly defensible manner. For the most part this is not difficult, but as an instructor, you need to occasionally have these talks with your students.

Police officers must make use of the law at another level.  In every encounter, police officers sometimes make complex computations of legal doctrine in seconds. This starts upon initial contact and begins with why the officer is there, where he is, what level of suspicion does he have, has the perpetrator met the elements of a crime, and continues in to the use of force.

This is a level beyond what is expected of a martial arts instructor. If you’re going to teach courses marketed at law enforcement, you must know these factors inside and out. If you’re just teaching BJJ in general, familiarize yourself with some basic knowledge. Know the laws governing use of force in your area and some foundational case law. Also find out if choke holds are legal for police in your area and if they are considered deadly force by the court system.

Final Thoughts

The above three thoughts just scrape the surface knowledge within the realm of law enforcement and self-defense. No instructor can be expected to have all the answers to every situation and not every class should be focused on self-defense scenarios. Every time you step on the mat, challenge yourself, and break a sweat, you are more prepared than the day before.

With that being said, every instructor who claims to teach self-defense should have a familiarity with the reality of self-defense. This knowledge could help you answer a technical question from a police officer student.

And that help is a service to your community.


  1. I’ve been a deputy for over 10 years and going to ground still scares the hell out of me. Going to the ground can easily be death sentence. Maybe not from the person you are fighting, but from people jumping in to help the guy you are fighting. It is especially bad in the environment I work. I work at a county jail surrounded by inmates.

    The best way to describe why I train in BJJ is not to choke out, tap out, or look like a bad ass when fighting with an inmate. I train BJJ so that when I take the fight to ground I know how to position myself to get back up as quick as possible. I also train so that when/if I get taken to the ground I don’t panic.

    In addition to BJJ, I also train Judo. Judo is, for me, a better martial art to utilize in the corrections setting. It allows you direct when and how the fight goes to the ground. Then once on the ground you can transition to BJJ or stick with Judo pins.

    Great article. Thank you for posting it.

  2. I have only been training for about a year and a half and BJJ has helped me several times. My only regret is not having listened to a co-worker with the sheriff’s office where I work and started sooner. Now I am the one trying to get other deputies to go to training.

  3. Good Article,
    Trooper for 20 plus years, training BJJ for 1.5 years have learned a lot.
    Totally agree Instructors I have learned from are great BJJ practitioners but weak on the legal application side.


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