The Myth of Pain Compliance

October 2, 2018

Almost 20 years ago, I attended a conference and listened to law enforcement trainer Phil Messina talk about the problems of using pain compliance to stop a violent attacker. This was well before I went into law enforcement myself, and, at the time, I scratched my head and wondered why he was spending so much of the limited class time to make an argument that seemed self-evident. After all, the act of attacking someone is inherently painful. If someone is angry enough, drunk enough, or scared enough to swing a fist at something as hard as my head, he probably isn’t going to mind me pinching that little meaty tab between the thumb and forefinger.

After I became a police officer, and later when I became an LEO instructor, I finally understood what Phil was talking about. Almost all of the training I received depends on causing an attacker so much discomfort that he or she quits doing what the officer is telling them to stop doing. Pressure points, pepper spray, strikes, even to a lesser extent ECD—they all attack the nervous system (i.e., they do little more than cause pain).

Pain will not stop a motivated attacker.

Like It or Not, It’s Demonstrably True

Most departments require their recruits to experience OC spray and CS gas, and some make this a part of their ongoing training. When done right, these exposures put officers and recruits in immense pain, and then they are required to successfully complete a task such as punching, kicking, and/or handcuffing someone.

The same thing is true in ECD training. I could write an entire article about how valuable this aspect of training is, but for now, just accept that thousands of men and women hoping to enter law enforcement get Tazed, gassed, and sprayed every year. The vast majority of these recruits manage to complete the assigned tasks, often with more force and aggression than they would normally be able to summon.

Why? Because they’re motivated: Motivated to complete their training. If pain doesn’t stop recruits, why do we keep believing it will stop someone fighting for their freedom? Or, in some cases, when they believe they are fighting for their life?

Try this experiment. Imagine your child is dangling from a bridge and the only thing keeping him or her from falling is your grip. How much pain would you endure without letting them go? Would a thumb in your mandibular angle do it? A little pepper spray? A baton strike to your thigh? You’d probably power right through all that. Well, the suspect gripping that street sign or an officer’s shirt may be just as motivated in his/her own mind.

How Did We Get Here?

As body camera footage becomes more and more accessible, even non-law enforcement folks can see how often pepper spray, ECDs, and baton strikes to large muscle masses fail. So why do we depend on them almost exclusively?

Following are some theories.

The idea sounds cool. I get it. If I were an administrator and someone told me “I have a device/technique that I can sell you that will mean your officers will never get punched or have to punch anyone,” I’d jump at it, too.

It seems like it creates less liability for departments. Applying a thumb to a pressure point on a suspect is less likely to generate a lawsuit than planting him face down on the ground. … Unless, of course, the pressure point doesn’t work and the officer has to escalate force from a position of disadvantage. 

It requires less training. Once an officer is taught how to pull the trigger on pepper spray, training is pretty much done. Teaching that same officer how to effectively roll a motivated suspect over on his stomach takes time and requires ongoing training to keep the skills sharp.

Theoretically, it works for officers regardless of their size, strength, or fitness levels. It opens up the pool of potential officers immensely when departments don’t have to consider a recruit’s ability to prevail in a fight.

Finally, we are using otherwise effective techniques for situations they weren’t designed for. Pepper spray and baton strikes to large muscle masses can be very effective in a given set of circumstances. If you’ve seen an ECD successfully deployed once, it’s tempting to think it’s the right tool for all problems.

The Alternative

If pain compliance doesn’t work on motivated subjects, what’s the alternative? Mechanical manipulation. That’s a fancy term for knowing how to use leverage and angles to physically move a suspect into the position where he can’t hurt himself or others. In highly violent encounters, it also includes techniques, both striking and grappling, to disable an attacker. That means damaging the parts of the attacker that allow him to do damage to others.

No one needs to reinvent the wheel. The techniques are there. There are multiple arts and systems that don’t count on a subject’s susceptibility to pain in order to prevail. Want to put a violent subject on the ground when he doesn’t want to go to the ground? Judo has an answer for that. Want to get a subject’s hand out from under them and away from their body? Brazilian Jujitsu has an answer for that. Want to get an attacker to drop the stick or break their grip on your partner’s duty belt? Escrima has an answer for that. So do a lot of systems.

What’s needed to move from pain-based defensive tactics to mechanical manipulation? Training, for one. Can a giant, strong, powerful officer just rip a subject’s arm out from underneath them with no special training and no particular technique? Of course. As long as the subject isn’t stronger. I will argue just as vehemently with someone who says that size doesn’t matter as I will with someone that says size is the only thing that matters. Strength helps, but please don’t misinterpret my statement to mean that departments should only hire powerlifters.

The best officers I’ve seen in a fight aren’t the biggest or the strongest, not by a long shot. That said, smaller officers need to know more about leverage and body mechanics in order to be as effective in a scrap as another officer who happens to be bigger and stronger. It’s not fair. It’s just the way the world works.

Training takes time and commitment from officers as well as their departments. The techniques we teach in the academy should include options for dealing with subjects who are merely non-compliant as well as options for aggressive subjects who aren’t affected by pain. Departments need to give officers the tools to win a fight, even if those tools look “aggressive,” and officers in turn need to do the work to keep those tools sharp. We as a profession must start including hands-on combatives during our regular in-service training, just like we do with firearms.

The most important piece of the puzzle, in my opinion, is to come to terms with the contradiction that a good use of force can be brutal to watch, while at the same time saving lives and preventing injury. If an officer smashes his baton on the hand a subject is using to try and take weapons off his belt, that subject will probably have some broken bones. But more to the point, he will lose the mechanical ability to take the officer’s gun, thus saving his and/or the officer’s life. A subject who has his arm removed from his waistline with an armlock might have a shoulder strain, but he’ll end up in cuffs rather than a hospital bed. And an officer who plants a violent subject on the ground using a leverage throw might raise cries of “police brutality” from people who watch a five-second clip of shaky cell phone footage, but that is far preferable to all parties when the alternative is whacking him with collapsible batons until he falls over.


A wise man once said that the quicker a fight is over, the less chance there is for things to go wrong. We’ve made great strides in technology and techniques for law enforcement over the last several decades, but somewhere along the line we have forgotten that part of the job requires us to put hands on people, people who will often violently resist that process. Much of the time, suspects are completely compliant with our commands. We train for that. Occasionally, they try to kill us. We train for that. More commonly though, and getting more frequent by the day, suspects fight and actively resist and will not be dissuaded by discomfort or even outright pain. The bulk of our training should be focused on techniques that enable officers to win in those situations. The quicker and more broadly effective those techniques are, the better for everyone.


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