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The Full Contact Officer

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, in the 10-year period ending in 2008, about 140,000 officers were assaulted and injured. What makes this important? The suspects wielded nothing more than their personal “weapons,” i.e., their hands, feet and head. During the same period, 44 officers were disarmed and killed with their own weapons. These statistics illustrate that law enforcement work is a brutal and full-contact profession.

The less-lethal weapons available to officers are much less than 100 percent effective; yet many officers rely heavily on these weapons for their protection. Additionally, the primary focus of many defensive tactics systems is on takedowns, control holds and handcuffing techniques. Nearly neglected are the more crucial aspects of realistic officer survival, such as footwork, blocking and striking techniques. This training approach ignores the fundamental fact that officers must first survive and neutralize a suspect’s striking attack before they can place him in handcuffs.

A number of training methods and principles from full-contact fighting are relevant to law enforcement, crucial to officer survival, and easy to implement. By adhering to these principles, officers can better prepare themselves for the brutal attacks they will inevitably face during their careers.

Officers must focus on four main aspects of survival in order to withstand a brutal assault: fighting stance, footwork, blocks and strikes. While officers are routinely taught various techniques that fall within these categories, not all of those techniques are effective in real-world attacks. There are a number of key points that officers can consider when determining which techniques are sound and which are inadequate for law enforcement work.

Fighting Stance

A proper fighting stance for law enforcement is one that provides an even mixture of balance and mobility while keeping the body bladed so the officer’s firearm is angled away from the suspect. The feet should be a little more than shoulder-width apart, and the lead foot should be a full step forward. The officer’s weight should be evenly distributed on the balls of both feet, with the head centered over the groin area. The chin should be tucked and the hands up near the cheeks, protecting the officer’s head. The elbows should be pointed downward and pressed against the torso to protect the officer’s body.


Officers should never cross their feet when they move during an assault because doing so will compromise their balance and turn their firearm side toward the suspect. The foot closest to the intended direction should move first, and the opposite foot should immediately follow in a sliding motion, returning the officer to the proper fighting stance. Movements should be short, quick and smooth. If officers’ feet become too far apart as they move, they will be susceptible to leg sweeps, and if their feet become too close together, their balance will be compromised.

There are a number of footwork techniques that can help officers navigate a dangerous assault, including forward and rearward movement, lateral movement, diagonal movement and pivoting. As an officer’s first line of defense, footwork techniques should be practiced religiously until the officer is able to move fluidly and effortlessly around an opposing individual.


Officers must bear in mind that real suspects do not execute single strikes and then leave their striking limb extended for the officer to grab. Instead, suspects usually attack in wild flurries, executing numerous strikes in rapid succession. In order to effectively defend themselves against this type of violent attack, officers must observe economy of motion when blocking. This involves using a minimal amount of movement to execute the block.

This is accomplished by: 1) using the left hand/arm to shield the left side of the head/body, 2) using the right hand/arm to shield the right side of the head/body, and 3) using the legs to block low strikes. Officers should not move their hands and arms away from their body to “meet” the strike because these types of blocks take too long to develop, and it will leave them exposed to counterstrikes. When officers are shielding their body with one arm, they should keep their opposite arm in proper position to launch effective counterstrikes.


Counterstriking is an important aspect of officer survival because blocking alone will not compel suspects to stop their attack. The longer a fight lasts, the more dangerous it is for the officer. Thus, it is vital that officers end the confrontation as quickly as possible. To this end, officers should utilize the most effective strikes available to them, and they should execute these strikes with the utmost power and speed. Their goal should be to end the suspect’s aggressive action as swiftly and decisively as possible—providing, of course, that they are justified to utilize such force, and that the force is reasonable under the circumstances.

Some of the most effective power punches include the right cross, left hook and right uppercut (left cross, right hook and left uppercut for left-handed officers). Other effective strikes include hammer-fist strikes, elbow strikes, push kicks, roundhouse kicks and knee strikes. Officers should learn how to execute each of these strikes with technical perfection while incorporating their body weight into the strike.

Once officers become familiar with the perfect execution of each technique, they should gradually increase the speed until they can perform the strikes with explosive power. Additionally, officers should immediately return their striking arm or leg to its original position after executing the strike, so the suspect cannot grab it or land counterstrikes of his own.

Fighting Condition

In order to successfully survive a violent attack, it is not enough for officers to merely be in good physical condition. Instead, they must be in supreme fighting condition, because each time they are assaulted in the line of duty, they are indeed in a fight—a full-contact fight for their lives. Thus, officers must train like full-contact fighters to properly prepare themselves for the brutal attacks they may encounter on the job.

Full-contact fighters perform fight-specific exercises and drills to develop and improve their fighting skills. Officers should adopt this same mentality and should incorporate exercises that closely resemble the motions they would actually perform during a real physical encounter. This specificity of training is paramount to their survival on the streets.

Specificity of Training

Weight-lifting and jogging—two favorites among many officers—can provide certain levels of general fitness, but they do not develop the explosive conditioning and stamina that are necessary to survive a full-contact fight. Furthermore, they do not replicate actual physical movements that officers will perform during assaults or when effecting arrests.

Officers can better prepare themselves for unarmed combat by actually mimicking the specific motions that would be performed during a real fight, and they can do this through shadowboxing and heavy-bag work.

Shadowboxing involves officers utilizing proper footwork to move around the training area while slipping and blocking “strikes” from an imaginary suspect, and then executing counterstrikes of their own. These shadowboxing drills should be performed explosively and at full speed, because this more closely simulates a real fight and provides a better workout.

For heavy-bag work, officers would do the same as in the shadowboxing workout, but they would perform their strikes against a heavy punching bag. This is an excellent workout for developing power, timing and distancing. It is important that officers execute their strikes explosively and with full power. If they “pull” their strikes during training, they will inadvertently do this in a real fight.

Other exercises, such as sprints, clapping push-ups and squat-jumps, are also beneficial and should be worked into an officer’s training regimen. Sprints help prepare officers for foot pursuits, while clapping push-ups and squat-jumps help develop explosive punching and kicking power.

Officers can combine any number of exercises to create task-specific drills that will challenge them even further and add more realism to their training. They are limited only by their imagination. For example, begin seat-belted in the squad car. On command, quickly exit the vehicle, sprint 100 yards, execute a series of blocks/strikes to a punching bag for one minute, and then immediately apply handcuffs to a training partner.

Reactionary Drills

Most attacks on officers are swift and without warning, providing officers with very little time to recognize the danger they are in and immediately react to it. In order to adequately prepare themselves for these violent attacks, officers must develop lightning-fast reflexes. Otherwise, they will find themselves trying to play catch-up against a suspect who knows exactly what he is going to do and when he is going to do it.

There are a number of partner drills that officers can incorporate into their training to help develop and hone their reactive skills. One such drill involves the first officer executing unscripted attacks against the second officer, while the second officer performs the appropriate blocks or footwork techniques to avoid the strike. After drilling for a certain period of time, such as three minutes, they would then switch roles.

This is a contact drill, and officers should expect to get hit from time to time. However, by utilizing a common sense approach and protective equipment (mouthpiece, headgear, groin protector, shin guard and fighting gloves), officers can safely perform this drill on a regular basis. If officers have difficulty finding other officers with whom to train, their children or spouses can play the part of the attacking officer to help them hone their blocking and footwork skills.

Another facet of realistic training that is crucial to officer survival is full-contact sparring. Donning protective equipment, officers would utilize proper footwork, blocks, strikes and takedowns to attack each other at will for a prescribed period of time, such as three minutes.

In order to accurately simulate a real fight and better prepare themselves for unarmed combat, officers should perform all techniques with explosive speed and power. This type of training helps officers determine what techniques are actually effective in real-world situations. It also helps condition officers for the explosive pace of real fights and tests their inner fortitude.

Building a Shell

If officers do not condition their bodies to withstand a suspect’s brutal attack and they get “caught” by one or more of the suspect’s strikes, they may find themselves incapacitated or unconscious, both of which are extremely dangerous. Some of the vulnerable areas of the body that require conditioning include the head, solar plexus, thighs and ribs.

Strengthening the neck can help prevent whiplash-type injuries caused by strikes to the head. One exercise that strengthens the neck is the supine neck nod. Officers begin by lying on their back with their knees bent, feet flat on the ground, and head slightly off the ground. They then slowly try to touch their chin to their chest in a nodding motion. They slowly return their head to the starting position and repeat the exercise for a set number of repetitions.

Sit-ups are great for conditioning the abdominal muscles, but they will not properly prepare officers for the brutal strikes that some suspects are capable of delivering. Officers should incorporate toughening drills into their abdominal workouts, such as having a partner pound their torso with a medicine ball or strikes, beginning lightly at first and then gradually increasing the power.

Officers can toughen their thighs by having a partner execute kicks to each leg, beginning lightly at first and progressively kicking harder as their thighs become tougher. As with the reactionary drills, officers can summon the assistance of family members to help condition their bodies. However, if they are unable to find any training partners, officers can also perform these toughening drills themselves by lifting and dropping the medicine ball onto their stomach, and by delivering hammer-fist strikes to their thighs.

The “Next Fight” Concept

Typically, when professional fighters begin training for their next fight, the date has already been set and their opponent has already been selected. Motivated by an intense desire to win, these fighters endure grueling workouts for five or six days per week, two to four hours per day. They sacrifice this time and energy just to prepare for that next fight—for a chance at victory.

By contrast, officers do not have the luxury of knowing when their next fight will be, nor do they know who they will have to fight. The stakes are also much higher when law enforcement officers are attacked because they are not merely fighting to win—they are fighting to stay alive. Thus, law enforcement officers everywhere should adopt this “next fight” concept and train on a regular basis, such as three to five days per week for 30 to 90 minutes per day, to ensure they are always prepared for that next fight…whenever it might be.

BJ Bourg has been training as a full-contact fighter nearly all his life and has worked in law enforcement for more than 20 years. He is a defensive tactics instructor, an instructor-trainer, a student of Nekodo Karate and a former professional boxer.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2011

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