Though relatively new in law enforcement training circles, ground fighting has quickly gained popularity for its practicality and necessity. An agency that does not recognize its importance by now is decidedly behind the times, bordering on negligent in its failure to train its officers. Because it is a “new” concept in law enforcement training, it is still growing and changing to fit into police applications.
The two most common base systems for police ground fighting stem from wrestling and jiu-jitsu (specifically the Brazilian system as opposed to the Japanese jiu-jitsu or its sporting branch, judo). Both of these base systems are impressive and very capable of getting an officer through the fight.
Wrestling, because of its sporting heritage, is distinctly void of actual submission holds or “choke” holds. Nothing in the sport, so popular in high schools and colleges around the country, contains moves designed to damage the opponent’s body. The sporting system does, however, bring an impressive array of takedowns and control techniques to the table. Wrestlers tend to have exceptional balance and what is termed “mat awareness.”
Mat awareness is a wrestler’s ability to feel where his opponent is in relation to his own body, no matter what position he may be in, without having to see anything. This is one reason why a blind wrestler is only at a disadvantage when contact is broken, but he gives up nothing to a sighted wrestler the rest of the match. The benefits of this kind of skill in police work are obvious.
An officer attacked in a basement with no lighting does not have to see his attacker to fight back. An officer who is hit with an overzealous blast of O.C. spray from his partner can stay in the fight. If you have ever been witness to a wrestler hitting the ground with someone who knows nothing about ground fighting, you will understand the level of dominance displayed in such an event.
Jiu-jitsu does contain submission holds and “choke” holds. The term “choke” hold is a generic popular term but not an accurate one. Most of the techniques in jiu-jitsu do not cut off the opponent’s air but rather restrict blood flow to the brain for their effect. The move is relatively painless and does not actually choke the opponent.
Like a traditional wrestler, a jiu-jitsu trained fighter will also have exceptional mat awareness but will not be bound by the sporting rules of wrestling and will be comfortable fighting from his back or any other position.
Jiu-jitsu stylists are very familiar with the “tap-out,” a term referring to tapping your opponent or the mat when a submission hold is tight enough that further pressure will cause damage or when a choke left on any longer will cause the practitioner to lose consciousness. Because of this “safety valve” used during sparring, jiu-jitsu stylists and wrestlers are able to fight at nearly 100% during training, without holding back. This makes their training sessions translate into street effectiveness at a much higher rate than many of the striking arts.
The problem with using a traditional tap-out method when teaching ground fighting to police officers is that it does not reinforce an important step in that training. Training an officer to escalate force is an important part of ground fighting training. An officer in a fight on the ground is at an elevated force level to begin with. An opponent who does not disengage has chosen to elevate the situation.
At the point that an officer would tap out in training, he is doing so because of a fear of damage to a joint or a fear of going unconscious. On the street, such a fear necessitates an immediate escalation of force to prevent either of these outcomes from happening. Immediate is the operative word here. An officer stuck in a choke hold has precious little time to take action before passing out, rendering the officer completely vulnerable. An armlock, properly applied, could result in a career-ending injury if action is not taken immediately.
Escalating force does not mean fighting harder. Implying to officers in a training class that they must fight harder when they get stuck in a “submission” hold is grounds for disaster. Officers are already taught to fight hard, on the ground or otherwise, and if they are caught in a position such as a choke or armlock and they continue to fight harder, they will be injured. On the street, the consequences can be much worse.
Escalating force must be taught as a change from what the officer is currently doing, which is not working. At the point that a ground fight takes a turn for the worse, options must be taken to end the fight. A properly applied choke hold will render an officer unconscious in seconds. Those seconds, and preferably the seconds prior, must be used to end the fight.
Drawing a firearm and contact shooting the attacker, if possible, may be a valid option. A pocket knife may be available and useful in this situation. Has the officer been exposed to the use of a baton at ultra-close range? What about a finger in the attacker’s eye?
There is a difference in training law enforcement officers and civilians. When an officer takes training classes off duty and on his own time, he will likely be trained as a civilian is trained. This is both good and bad. Going to training classes once or twice a week over long periods of time is an unbelievable way to learn to fight. The experience simply cannot be duplicated in an eight-hour law enforcement training class.
However, the traditional tap-out will be used, and the officer will train using the traditional attire, without a gear belt. This is not to discount this kind of training. It is invaluable. The officer who chooses this option must always consider the differences between his training in the gym and his very different realities of being armed during a street conflict.
Because officers who take the time to train on their own are most likely able to see this conflict and resolve it on their own, their training time within their department can be easily maximized by having them wear their gear belt. Much of their training time will be spent determining the limitations of their own skills while wearing their equipment. It will be easy for them to transition from the tap-out to the escalation in force.
Officers who do not train on their own must be explained the difference between the two, emphasis placed on the escalation over the tap-out. By only teaching a traditional tap-out, officers learn to give up, and everything ends. Teaching them to fight harder will only get them injured or worse. They must be taught to escalate—and when to escalate—if their training is to be maximized.
It would be difficult to delve into the myriad of action options that can or should be taken. Training officers need to tailor these options to their own agencies’ needs and standards. The traditional tap-out is a small training tool, and care must be taken in its use when training a law enforcement officer. It must be explained, and stressed, that a tap-out is an action that immediately ceases the opponent’s actions.
Sometimes the tap-out may be the muzzle of an officer’s gun or the blade of a pocket knife. Whatever tools are available may be used to accomplish this. If this is stressed and taught properly, then the traditional tap-out can be used for training purposes. Again, there are lots of options. Teach the ones that fit your agency and situation.
Randy Petersen is a 12-year veteran of the Bloomingdale, IL Police. He is a member of the tactical response team and control tactics instructor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.