(NewsNation Now) – A growing number of police departments are teaching Brazilian jiujitsu, saying hand-to-hand combat training leads to fewer injuries for civilians and officers, reduces the number of costly lawsuits facing policing and helps address eroding trust.
Research shows it can be working. Some departments that have incorporated jiujitsu training say they have reduce use of force incidents by nearly half. But that’s just one of the benefits, according to researchers and officers.
“It changes the culture of the department and the way we handle things,” said Sgt. Sean Zauhar, a trainer with the St. Paul Police Department who has been providing jiujitsu training for about seven years.
The emergence of jiujitsu comes amid a debate over how best to reform and support the police. President Joe Biden, in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, called for, among other things, funding better training for officers.
The St. Paul Police Department is one of the success stories. Jiujitsu training began there in 2015 and through 2020, police use of force has dropped 37%, suspect injuries have dropped 44%, and officer injuries have dropped 25%. according to department statistics.
Findings like these have departments in at least a dozen states across the country trying the training. Some officers seek training themselves. A non-profit organization raises funds to specifically pay for police jiujitsu training. There are jiujitsu clubs dedicated to police officers, commercial groups promoting a program, and there is even a hashtag: #BJJMAKEITMANDATORY.
“Traditionally, the role of the police was, ‘You’re the police officer, you better take care of it,'” Zauhar said. “Now we’re thinking, ‘How can we do things smarter? … How can we make it safer for everyone?
When it comes to physical conflict, officers have generally been taught to use punches or strike in self-defense. Jiujitsu proponents say that when these tactics fail, officers fall back on what’s on their belts: stun guns, pepper spray or a handgun.
This is where Brazilian jiujitsu is different. As a martial art of wrestling, officers learn to use physical leverage to gain control during a takedown. Proponents say it helps officers learn to stay calm and think clearly while developing muscle memory and giving them the tools to arrest suspects without needing to reach for a weapon as often.
Many studies have shown that in high anxiety situations, humans act from the least logical and most intuitive parts of their brain. This means relying on stereotypes – and the police are not immune.
A pair of studies focusing on police violence and martial arts suggested it was difficult for even the most motivated officers to avoid relying on stereotypes. But regularly practicing the strength to use, which happens in jiujitsu training, can reduce these errors.
Proficiency in jiujitsu gives officers a confidence in confrontations they didn’t have before, said Pete Blair, executive director of the ALERRT Center, a police training and research center at the State University of Texas monitoring data from Marietta, Georgia, where police adopted jiujitsu in 2019.
“Because they don’t feel scared, they make their use of force more appropriate,” Blair said.
It can also have financial benefits for taxpayers and police departments. The St. Paul Department credits the training program with a sharp drop in the amount spent on police misconduct settlements — reportedly the lowest in a decade.
Mariette Sergent. Reinaldo Figueroa champions Brazilian jiujitsu as part of officer training because he knows the extreme stress, fear, and disembodiment an officer experiences when someone resists arrest.
“They’re starting to panic,” Figueroa said. “Their mind slows down, their mind gets foggy. They can’t think straight. It’s because they have this fear.
Figueroa had only been in law enforcement for three years when he said he had to shoot a suspect.
“I don’t remember half,” he said. “And one thing that really caught me off guard was when I was asked how many balls I had fired, I said two. I actually fired five. … That’s how the mind works.
Marietta launched the program after an infamous video showing five of her officers battling Renardo Lewis on the ground sparked outrage in Georgia. Cellphone footage showed one of the officers punching the unarmed black man.
“Use of force incidents” are defined in Marietta when an officer hits someone or uses a baton, stun gun, chemical spray, or firearm during an arrest. It is also considered an incident if someone files a complaint that they were injured by an officer. Since the training was implemented, use of force incidents have dropped by 45%, according to ALERRT.
However, not all research on jiujitsu and the police is clear. While there is evidence that officers who complete the training are less likely to be injured during an arrest, when it comes to the public, the results are more hazy.
Blair said the overall decline in use-of-force incidents indicates it’s likely fewer people were injured overall. However, there was no significant difference in the number of times a civilian was injured during an arrest, according to ALERRT’s research.
Additionally, the data does not take into account the pandemic and police brutality of 2020; both events could have led to a drop in violent incidents, Blair said.
Some organizations that investigate misconduct complaints point out that jiujitsu training will not solve all violent encounters, or even the best approach to dealing with police brutality.
“A lot of the officers who make these (violent) arrests have training,” said Gerald Rose, founder and CEO of the Georgia-based New Order National Human Rights Organization. “In the heat of the moment, they weren’t thinking about training. They just tried to make sure they proved a point. … We’ve got a long way to go.”