This is an opinion piece. Normally, I like to stuff my work with factual references and strong objective data to back up my assertions. In this case, I lean heavily on my personal experiences to inform my thesis. I encourage you to take everything I say here with as many grains of salt you might like. I will attempt to be as fair as possible to all mentioned parties.
And We’re Off!
I’m going to start this off with some videos. Take a look at these and ask yourself what they all have in common. I’ll wait.
The answer is not: “Cops are bad.” Despite all the image issues law enforcement has at the moment, the vast majority of police officers out there are not bad in any objective sense… unless you mean, “bad at physically subduing suspects.”
These videos all depict law enforcement personnel attempting to manage or restrain people and failing egregiously in the process. There are many thousands of such videos floating around.
I’ll pause here to point out that this is not a universal phenomenon. Law enforcement personnel exist on the same spectrum of physical competence as the rest of the population. When it comes to the ability to safely restrain a resisting human, your mileage may certainly vary. Some will have no skill at all, others will be pro-level fighters. All the rest will be somewhere in between.
And therein, dear readers, lies the problem. Our LEOs have been tasked with inserting themselves into those situations where physically managing and even subduing resisting people may be necessary. Physical conflict is literally in the job description. Where on the curve do you think the typical LEO should be?
That’s a loaded question, obviously. If your job enjoys the inevitability of physical altercations, you should want to be as far to the right as your natural abilities can get you. Yet over and over again, we see the realities of an LEO community that has simply decided this is not the case. Why is this? How do our law enforcement agencies permit this obvious¹ deficiency to persist? Well, like so many of the questions that seem simple on the surface, this one is much more complicated than it appears.
From the Bureau of Justice Statistics: 1.6% of all police interactions involve the threat of or use of physical force. Statistically, it is nearly impossible for an American police officer to go their whole career without facing the threat or reality of physically fighting with a citizen.
What is PMT?
“Physical Management Techniques” is a term that refers to the techniques and strategies one might employ to safely subdue and restrain another human being. Police are often trained to arrange the types of intervention into a spectrum called the “force ladder.” Each “rung” in the ladder is a higher level of intensity and/or violence. The goal is to stay as low on the ladder as possible while maintaining control of the situation. In most forms it looks like this:
- Level 1 – Officer Presence.
- Level 2 – Verbalization (Verbal Commands)
- Level 3 – Empty Hand Control.
- Level 4 – Less-Lethal Methods.
- Level 5 – Lethal Force.
Level 3 is where “PMT” lives, and it is the last step on the ladder before things start to get a little scary.
My personal introduction to PMT came from my overlords at a state department of mental health where I was once an employee. I was subjected to classes outlining the specific techniques we were permitted to employ when dealing with a violent individual under the auspices of said mental health department. You will note that these were “permitted” techniques. Which is to say, that techniques not taught as part of this training were “not permitted.” Using techniques that were not permitted pretty much guaranteed disciplinary action and firing.
The training took two 8-hour days, and the best thing I can say about it is: nothing. It was the worst garbage I had ever seen. How any lucid human could ever believe that the permitted techniques would ever be safe or effective I cannot say. I simply shook my head and thanked all the gods I could name that I was a 230-lb 21-year-old judo brown-belt ex-boxer with previous work experience in security.
How bad was it, really? The training advocated things like blocking a low kick by reaching down and grabbing it. We were meant to manage punches with that mid-80’s karate movie staple, the X-block. The only permissible hold was a sort of bear-hug from behind called a “basket hold.” Here it is in all its glory. To take a person down, we were expected to execute the basket hold and then sit down. That is not a lie. That is what they told me to do.
None of the techniques were drilled more than a few times. All of the training was done at very low speed, with fully compliant and cooperating partners. Much of the class time was spent explaining all the ways you could get in trouble for not sticking to the seven or eight approved techniques. Police PMT training varies with academies and departments, but tends to be a little better than what I received. Even so, the average US police officer trains in PMT less than four hours a year with very little practical application either on the mat or off.
How Competence Affected Performance in the Field
Our clientele did not have much control over how they behaved, and in many cases, violence was the only language they had for expressing their frustration or anxiety. Some of these people could be extremely violent from time to time, often with little or no warning.
Managing that kind of violence was in the job description from day one, and I was expected to always comport myself as a calm professional. I was young and idealistic, so I resolved myself to do the best I could despite the woeful inadequacy of my training. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I learned a lot about myself and the nature of fear doing that job. I also got punched a lot.
It is very important to know this before I continue: The industry (at the time) was populated almost entirely by middle-aged women². My employer, who understood what my previous training and physicality represented, made it very clear what my role was³. My assignments universally included the most violent and unpredictable clients of this organization, and this was an organization that specialized in “behaviorally challenged” individuals.
And holy shit, was that a good thing.
I observed a great many things while doing that job. Things that are hard to think about and still hard to write about. Relevant to this piece, I saw how a 50-year-old woman with sciatica reacted when a behavioral incident kicked off. I saw how dealing with that fear every day dictated how she managed those risks. In short, the woman in this example should have been fired for the things she did out of fear⁴.
I struggled very hard with this. I did not feel her fear, so her behavior disgusted me. Then again, I fell on the right-hand side of that bell curve. My level of anxiety when dealing with aggressive individuals was a fraction of what that 50-year-old woman with sciatica experienced. My reactions to violent outbursts were far more judicious and calculated because the threat level to me was minimal. What was very real physical danger for her, amounted to little more than a nuisance to me. In the end, I had to acknowledge that while her behavior was wrong, the fear driving it was very real.
The point of this anecdote is not that I am a big strong man. The point is that competence in the physical management of violent individuals reduced my fear of them, and thus engendered a more judicious response. I could afford to hold back my full strength because I had plenty of it. I could afford to limit my techniques to the utter garbage my employer required because years of judo meant I could make them work. I did not have to swallow my fear of getting hit or hurt because my lifestyle and training had made me comfortable(ish) with both.
I was not a cop, of course. Thanks to my training and physicality, the threats I faced rarely extended to the realm of real physical risk. So, to lend my stories and conclusions some credibility, here is a short (but not complete) list of things that happened to me over the four years I worked in the mental health industry.
- Attacked with an iron garden rake my first week on the job. Got bit hard in the crotch during the restraint process. Sat there holding on for dear life while a grown man tried to gnaw through my jeans and four other people ran around like chickens with their heads cut off waiting for the ambulance to come and sedate the guy.
- Punched in the face. Like every week. Apparently, I have a punchable face. (Agreed -ed.)
- Boiling water thrown on me. Went full Neo to dodge most of it. Most.
- Attacked with steak knife. Guy’s heart wasn’t really in it though. He put it down when I told him I did not need this job bad enough to stick the rules of engagement on this one⁵.
- Victim of weaponized vomit a bunch of times. Getting spit on was common, as well.
- Stuck with insulin needle in my hand. Pretty sure it was unused.
- Bitten and/or scratched to the point of bleeding numerous times.
- Hit with vacuum cleaner handle. I actually laughed at that one. The attacker was a 70-year old woman who weighed about 90 lbs. Felt like bumping my head on a door frame at really low speed.
I am proud of the fact that in none of these situations did I scream, yell, or beat the crap out of the clients. I wanted to, but I knew that I had a responsibility of care. I had to be judicious and professional because that is what I was paid to do.
Which Brings us To Cops
On a far grander scale, our law enforcement professionals also have a duty of care. Physical altercations are also part of the job description for cops. Rounding out the similarities, the training most police receive in the complex skill of physical management is simply inadequate for the task. I work out and train with about a dozen law enforcement officers from various departments and one thing is universal: virtually every department fails in teaching the most effective ways to subdue and restrain a resisting person. To their credit, I have never encountered a law enforcement official who felt that their department did not try to do a good job. The deficiencies are not born out of apathy, but rather the challenges faced.
Failure to meet those challenges hurts policing in some insidious ways, too. The most damaging result being the public perception of law enforcement and the general erosion of the public trust necessary to keep the peace. There are simply way too many videos of poorly trained police officers beating, slamming, spraying, and Tasing the citizenry over minor infractions. Here is a video of an officer who skipped many rungs on the force ladder and employed a staggering level of violence to make an arrest on a terrified and uncooperative citizen. Fair warning, it’s not easy to watch for many reasons.
Let me tell you what came to my mind when I watched it. By the end of the video, you will have seen two Aurora, Colorado police officers beat and choke a single unarmed man for more than six minutes before managing to get him cuffed. The man was uncooperative, necessitating PMT, but otherwise completely non-aggressive. In truth, the man spent much of the video in the throes of what appeared to be a panic attack. At the time of this writing, I have accrued eight years of consistent BJJ training, nine years of judo, and a brief and unexciting amateur MMA career. I am not, nor have I ever been, a cop. What I can promise after watching the video many times is this:
I could have cuffed that man in under 60 seconds without harming him⁶.
I certainly would not have needed to beat him about the face with a loaded firearm, shove his face into the dirt with my knee, or choke him to do it.
How the hell does this become the reality of law enforcement?
You Get What You Pay For
Policing is expensive. You have to recruit, train, and equip the best people you can find and then you have to maintain all that training and equipment for the duration of that employment. You have to insure it, monitor it, and encourage it not to quit or move on to a better paying department. You need facilities for jailing, processing, and transportation. It’s a huge, expensive, and extremely necessary investment in a community.
Like all municipal departments, every law enforcement agency is given a budget that they have to spend and defend every time the town wants to raise property taxes or buy them a new cruiser to replace the 1996 Crown Vic with 1,052,651 miles on it still in use. The point, folks, is that corners are going to get cut. In many cases, the realities of managing municipal budgets trickles down into salaries and training. One does not need an advanced degree in economics to comprehend the following thesis:
Towns that can afford to pay their police more salary attract more candidates and can be more selective in hiring.
A town with very little money will have to take what they can get. An interesting corollary to this is the quandary facing dense metropolitan areas. Even with enormous revenues and budgets, many of America’s largest cities have strained law enforcement budgets because huge populations necessitate an enormous police force. Effective policing is a numbers game. The more people who live in your city, the more police it takes just to manage the basic tasks. According to Payscale.com, the average compensation for an NYPD officer is $76,000/yr, with a starting salary of $42,500. Most NY cops cannot even afford to live in the city they protect. This is not a situation conducive to providing training in a complex and difficult-to-master skill like physical management.
Fear and Bullets
First and foremost, police are trained to protect themselves. I don’t object to this. No one wants to die on the job, and being a cop is one of those jobs where death is a real possibility. However, much of this training inadvertently breeds a strong prejudice toward overreaction in the field. Officers are exposed to plenty of dash and bodycam footage from actual incidents to show all the ways their brothers and sisters got beaten, stabbed, and killed on the job. The videos are broken down and analyzed ad nauseum so these mistakes can be avoided.
There is a logic to this, I must confess. There is no teacher quite like the real world, and the real world is dangerous for a cop. Threats can be anywhere, at any time. Nobody knows if that DUI stop is going to turn into a shootout. Nobody knows if that domestic violence call is full of drugged-up psychos. Anyone can have a gun. Anyone can have a knife. Anyone can kill you at any time if you are not constantly looking for the threat. Police training makes sure that cops are always looking. That’s part of the problem, though. Let me explain.
As rational thinking beings, our choices in any given scenario are based upon our expectations. If I go to a restaurant, I have an expectation for how that scenario will play out. My choices about how to conduct myself are based upon those expectations. Is it a fancy restaurant? Wear a jacket. Applebee’s? T-shirt and jeans (or maybe just stay home, right?). My brain has already built all the behavioral frameworks necessary to have a successful restaurant experience long before I go. Brains are good like that.
When you teach a cop that everybody is a threat, what does that cop see when it is time to do a traffic stop? How does this expectation inform the choices a cop makes? I think about that woman from my old job. She saw the danger and threat in every single situation, and she behaved as if every interaction might be the one that got her hurt. It made her aggressive, reactive, and much meaner than necessary. Ever see a cop act like that? If you are a cop, does this sound familiar?
The other main deficiency is the fact that police PMT training is cursory by any accepted martial arts standard. If you have a black belt from the sketchiest McDojo in the world, you still probably have more mat time than the average police officer⁷. A high school wrestler in their senior year is significantly better at PMT than the average American police officer. There are many reasons for this, of course. Let’s outline two of them.
- PMT skills are grappling skills. Learning these in a useful manner requires a profound investment in time and effort.
- Training a serious, full-contact grappling style like Brazilian jiu jitsu, judo, Sambo, or wrestling is a long-term commitment to pain and sweat and frustration.
- Many people simply do not have the will to do this⁸.
- Training costs money.
- Because these skills require time to acquire, training must be longitudinal and therefore is more costly than bringing in the latest RBSD weirdo for an 8-hour group class.
- Departments will have to allocate both time and money resources to effect this training in scale. Two things often in very short supply.
These reasons are not presented as indictments, by the way. These are all legitimate challenges faced by our agencies. Challenges that have birthed some very creative solutions, I might add. Over the course of researching this piece, I was forced to concede that getting a police force to what I thought was a minimum level of PMT competence was a much larger and more complicated undertaking than I first thought. Fortunately, we live in the future of 2022, and modern police departments have circumnavigated the need for proper PMT training the way mankind has always handled difficult tasks: We built tools to make them easier.
First there was the baton. If that big mean criminal won’t come quietly, give him a rap on the skull with your trusty nightstick. Except that was kind of maiming and killing people, so now they are trained to… uh… hit you in the back of the leg? What? Oof. Anyway, Rodney King called to say the baton might be getting over-employed.
But that’s okay! We have OC or “pepper” spray. Now we can blind the bad guy and make him less of a threat. That doesn’t really stop him from resisting, though. It makes him marginally less good at it, sure. But you’re still going to have to put hands on your perp to finish the job.
Well, what about the Taser? The Taser is actually a great tool. When successfully deployed a Taser turns Bad Bad Leroy Brown into a quivering mass of limp muscles ready for cuffing pretty much every time. Unfortunately, it’s only about 65% successful because moving targets and heavy clothing are a thing.
And of course, we cannot forget the venerable firearm. God may have made all men, but it was Sam Colt who made them equal. No matter how woeful your skill or fitness levels, a pistol in your hand makes you anyone’s match in a fight. The gun is the ultimate equalizer. It’s just very hard to employ it in a measured or judicious manner.
All of these tools do a good job of rendering physically challenging opponents much less challenging. However, each and every one of them represents an increase in the level of risk to the person being engaged. Hitting someone with a stick is bad for them and dangerous. Pepper spray hurts and disorients, but guarantees nothing in the form of decreased physical strength or aggression. The Taser will absolutely drop your ass like a stone, but it is easily the least reliable tool in the box. It also kills people sometimes.
Ultimately, using the tools increases the level of violence and risk in an encounter. Each tool is another rung upward on the force ladder. It should surprise no one to hear that most police encounters do not benefit from an increase in violence.
Reaction, Overreaction, and the Competence Bell Curve
There is an inherent conflict in goals and outcomes every time a police officer needs to engage a citizen. One of the goals, officer safety, is best achieved by indulging high levels of prejudice. A cop that assumes every interaction is potentially a fatal encounter will be hypervigilant and quick to escalate the level of violence, simply because that approach ensures the best chance of achieving the goal of survival.
The other goal is to execute whatever law enforcement action is required with minimal impact to the health, safety, and rights of the citizenry. This requires a calm and professional demeanor with a heavy bias toward de-escalation.
Obviously, the two approaches are mutually exclusive. It takes a tremendous amount of mental and emotional maturity, as well as professional experience, to balance the “officer safety” goal and the “de-escalation” goal in real time when in the field. To their credit, a great many police officers manage to do this perfectly well for their entire careers. Cell phone cameras, body cameras, and the internet tell us that many others are still not getting it right.
This should come as no surprise. Once a situation shifts from “what seems to be the trouble?” to “holy shit this guy is out of control and needs to be restrained,” the cop has a lot of things to manage at once. It is tense and scary and fraught with danger. If the officer has little confidence in their ability to subdue the subject without injury, then that officer is going to start climbing the force ladder as fast as they can. Out comes the baton, the spray, the Taser, or even the firearm. In many cases, it simply manifests as far too much physical force. Scared cops and angry cops are both inclined to hit too hard, too many times, and much too early in the encounter.
What Can Be Done?
In the interests of keeping the focus of this piece narrow enough to be useful, let’s attack the central issue head-on.
Establishing a higher level of PMT competence will reduce the need for higher-risk tactics and behavior in law-enforcement interactions.
When our police officers feel confident they can physically manage a subject without the baton, pepper spray, Taser, or firearm, we can expect these things to be employed less. When a police officer does not need to fear every tiny change in body language, they can afford to spend emotional energy on de-escalation. There will be fewer angry commands shouted, fewer closed fists employed, and fewer citizens beaten, stunned, blinded, or shot.
A common refrain heard in martial arts circles is that police officers should possess PMT skill at the level of a Brazilian jiujitsu blue belt. If that means nothing to you, it’s probably the equivalent skill level of a solid high school wrestler, Judo green belt, or anyone who puts moderate effort into a competitive grappling program for about two years⁹.
And make no mistake, PMT is a grappling skill. It is very hard to control the level of violence and keep things calm when raining punches down on the person being restrained. Closing your fist and striking somebody was an instant termination and likely criminal charges when I worked for that agency those decades ago. Even when confronted with a knife-wielding man, I knew that punching him was an instant and non-negotiable termination. Keeping my job meant limiting my response even in the face of a potentially lethal threat¹⁰.
The metric is not pulled from thin air, either. A very popular program exists called “Adopt-a-Cop BJJ.” This organization provides free and reduced-cost Brazilian jiujitsu instruction to police officers at local affiliate gyms and dojos. In Marietta, Georgia, BJJ adoption en masse through this program resulted in a 23% reduction in Taser deployment, 48% reduction in officer injuries, 53% reduction in civilian injuries, and a 59% decrease in use-of-force overall¹¹.
Look at that last figure for a moment. How did effective PMT training result in a 59% reduction in use of force? Let’s head back to the bell curve, shall we? Competence begets confidence. Confidence negates fear and uncertainty. Officers who are not afraid do not ascend the force ladder as quickly as those who are. They do not have to.
Imagine the American perception of law enforcement if use of force shrunk by 59% nationally. This is not to say that improving PMT skills will fix Police image issues by itself¹². But nuking nearly 2/3 of the violence cops and citizens engage in feels like a great start. Of all the problems facing law enforcement and law enforcement personnel, the great yawning gap in PMT skill might be the easiest one to address.
Good cops need good training in many skills and disciplines. In many of these areas, the training just does not exist yet or is still being developed. Humans have been wrestling for a hundred thousand years, though. PMT skill we can teach right now, and we can teach it efficiently. There really is no excuse at this point, so maybe we start there?
- Hyperbole for effect, folks. Honestly, it’s not really that obvious.
- There is no sexism component to this statement beyond illuminating the gross physical differences between myself as a big 21-year-old male and the average 50-year-old woman. Those differences are not a matter currently debated by any scientific community.
- You know that guy in the DnD party whose job it is to tank all the damage so everyone else can survive? Yeah. That’s me.
- Due to my low seniority, I was in no position to do anything about her tactics beyond ensuring that she did not have to manage any behavioral incidents when I was on shift.
- Am I super proud of that? Not really. But I will admit I was kind of scared. He had dealt with me enough times to know that I was pretty chill and not going to hurt him, and I think he was trying to exploit my better nature. I felt that he needed to understand that coming after me with a knife meant that my normal level of response was no longer on the table and he should reconsider. He did.
- Am I bragging here? Not really. One non-compliant dude 50 lbs lighter than me with no training should not even get my heart rate up.
- Average being the operative word. Plenty of cops are highly competent in PMT, just not enough.
- Why are they cops, then?
- Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s all subjective as hell. Sue me.
- This is not an exaggeration. A member of the same agency was fired for kicking a client/patient in the groin. Why did he kick the person in the groin? Because the employee was locked in a two-handed front choke from the much-larger clinically psychotic man and began to black out. He panicked and kicked hard enough to gravely injure the client. They fired him for failing to employ approved PMT.
- Study over two consecutive years.
- I mean, there’s racism, corruption, addiction, physical fitness, and anger management issues to work on, too!