Prior to becoming a police officer, I worked in bars. First as a cook, then a bartender, then a manager, I saw a broad spectrum of violence and violent behavior. I learned quickly that the loud troublemaker was not the most dangerous person in the room. Time and again, I saw men who I knew could handle themselves (Navy Seals or semi-pro boxers, for example) walk away or talk their way out of potential fights. I also saw nervous fools and insecure greenhorns get their butts kicked in fights they had talked themselves into with unnecessary bluster and posturing.
There’s a confidence and patience that comes from knowing how to fight: from having been there. The guy who can count on his ability to win in a scrap can stay calmer, speak more effectively, and choose to start the fight when it’s best for him. Any police officer with more than a year on the job knows exactly what I’m talking about. The suspect running his mouth at a traffic stop is rarely the alpha male of the group. But the wise officer learns to keep an eye on the quiet, slightly older guy sitting in the passenger seat.
Where we often fail to observe this behavior is in our fellow officers and ourselves.
Gun Fights & Other Fights
LEO culture sets a high value on shooting skills. In my particular state, officers are required to qualify day and night with the guns they carry at least once a year. Individual departments have the option to raise the required minimum scores. Every go-getter officer I can think of spends his or her own time and money at the range getting extra practice in. Most of our S.C.A.T. (Subject Control and Arrest Techniques) revolve around drawing, retaining and recovering our firearms.
One drill I remember vividly from my academy days involved covering our holster and waiting for help while another officer tried to drag the gun out. I recognize the outcome of this training when I see dashcam video of officers getting punched and kicked unconscious while they have both hands occupied covering their holsters.
There’s a time and place for an officer to draw a gun. There are certainly plenty of situations an officer can face when it is necessary to pull the trigger, and any academy or recruiter who doesn’t prepare a candidate for this possibly is failing in his or her responsibility.
But I have a suggestion. While we as a profession do a good job training for the most violent encounters, we’re sorely lacking when it comes to teaching lower levels of force. To be perfectly clear: Too many officers are coming out of training without ever having punched or been punched by another human being. They’re competent gunfighters, in theory, but poor warriors.
This focus on the gun comes at the cost of training on how to deal with the assault we encounter most often: the less-than-lethal kind. Recruits are rarely given training and practice time learning what to do after being sucker-punched. Few departments offer classes that give officers safe hand-to-hand combat experience after the academy. No agency I’m aware of requires yearly handcuffing qualification.
Benefits of a Scrap
When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon or criminal for two sets of parents to look the other way if their sons got in a fist fight at the park—as long as it was a fair fight. Those days are long gone, probably for the best, but it means most new officers on the street have never been hit. They don’t have the experience to know that a bloody lip or black eye doesn’t mean the end for the fight. The fear of that unknown causes them to bluster and posture, and when the suspect doesn’t back down, officers will reach for whichever tool their department has spent the most time training them with. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
As many trainers have noted, predators seek prey. Criminals know when an officer is scared, just as they know on an instinctual level which officers can handle themselves. They’re emboldened by the idea that they’re more experienced at fighting than the average officer, and they know that media scrutiny is starting to take the firearm out of play, just as it did the baton.
The uneducated believe that technology will solve this problem. Tazers, pepper spray, whatever new gadget they develop next year—the public and the policy makers hope each one will mean no officer will ever have to put hands on a non-compliant subject again. The officer on the street knows those hopes for what they are. Each new device requires training time resources to become proficient with. No forward-thinking department is going to accept the liability of issuing new technology to officers and not take the time to teach them how to use it. Where does that time come from? Learning to actually fight.
Though it seems contradictory, improved and consistent hand-to-hand combat training for police officers will lower the amount of deadly force encounters in which we find ourselves by:
- Removing some of the individual officer’s fear of the unknown;
- Giving officers confidence that they can handle a physical altercation without having to automatically go for the highest level of force available;
- Allowing officers another option if less-than-lethal technology is impractical or outright fails;
- Diminishing the urge to bluff their way out of an altercation by blustering and posturing; and finally
- By restoring the belief in the criminal population that physically assaulting a cop is a losing proposition.
While it may be almost impossible for some departments to correct this misappropriation of time and focus through policy, we as officers can make considerable headway by changing the culture. Roll those wrestling mats out. Dust off those boxing gloves. Ask the chief for a chance to get some hands-on training. Make it as socially acceptable to go to the gym or the dojo on your night off as it is to go to the range.
If you have an officer who already runs everyday, you don’t even half to ask him to take time away from his family. Spend one of those running days boxing. He’ll still get a cardio workout, but he’ll learn to breath while he’s fighting (something almost all runners forget to do the first time they box) and learn to move when he’s pinned in a corner. If you have a deputy who’s a CrossFit devote, get her to change her Thursday WOD (trademark) to an hour of wrestling. She’ll still get a her core workout, but she’ll also learn not to panic if someone is on top of her and how to get back up when a suspect drags her to the ground.
Whether you’re a rookie or a grizzled veteran, now’s the time prepare yourself and your partners for the streets—and that means preparing for physical fights.