An increasing number of police departments are teaching Brazilian jiujitsu, saying the hand-to-hand combat training leads to fewer injuries for civilians and officers, reduces the number of big-ticket lawsuits faced by police departments and helps remedy eroded trust.
Research shows it may be working. Some departments that have incorporated jiujitsu training say they’ve cut use-of-force incidents by almost half. But that’s just one of the benefits, researchers and officers say.
“It’s changing department culture and how we handle things,” said Sgt. Sean Zauhar, a trainer at the St. Paul Police Department, which has offered jiujitsu training for about seven years.
The emergence of jiujitsu comes in the middle of a debate over how to best reform and support police. President Joe Biden in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night called for, among other things, funding better training for officers.
The St. Paul Police Department is one of the success stories. Jiujitsu training began there in 2015 and through 2020, police use of force dropped 37%, injuries to suspects dropped 44% and officer injuries dropped 25%, according to department statistics.
Results like these have departments in at least a dozen states around the country trying out the training. Some officers seek out the training on their own. One nonprofit raises money to pay specifically for police jiujitsu training. There are jiujitsu clubs dedicated to police officers, trade groups promote a curriculum, and there’s even a hashtag: #BJJMAKEITMANDATORY.
“Traditionally, the role of the police was, ‘You’re the police officer, so you better handle it,'” Zauhar said. “Now we’re thinking, ‘How do we do things smarter? … How can we enhance the safety for everyone?’”
When it comes to physical conflict, officers have usually been taught to use punches or striking in self-defense. Jiujitsu advocates say when those tactics fail, officers fall back to what’s on their belts: stun guns, pepper spray or a handgun.
That’s where Brazilian jiujitsu is different. As a grappling martial art, officers learn how to use physical leverage to gain control during a takedown. Proponents say it helps officers learn to stay calm and think clearly while building muscle memory and giving them the tools to arrest suspects without needing to reach for a weapon as often.
Multiple studies have shown that in high-anxiety situations, humans act from the least logical, most intuitive parts of their brain. That means relying on stereotypes — and police officers are not immune.
A pair of studies that focused on police violence and martial arts suggested it was hard for even the most motivated officers to avoid relying on stereotypes. But regularly practicing how much force to use, which occurs in jiujitsu training, can reduce those mistakes.
Mastering jiujitsu gives officers a confidence in confrontations they didn’t have before, said Pete Blair, the executive director of the ALERRT Center, a police training and research center at Texas State University that monitors data from Marietta, Georgia, where police adopted jiujitsu in 2019.
“Because they don’t feel frightened, they make their uses of force more appropriate,” Blair said.
It also may have financial benefits for both taxpayers and police departments. The St. Paul department credits the training program with a steep drop in the amount spent on police misconduct settlements — reportedly the lowest it’s been in a decade.
Marietta Sgt. Reinaldo Figueroa champions Brazilian jiujitsu as part of officers’ training because he knows the extreme stress, fear and disembodiment an officer experiences when a person is resisting arrest.
“They start to freak out,” Figueroa said. “Their mind slows down, their mind gets foggy. They can’t think straight. That’s because they have that fear.”
Figueroa had only been in law enforcement for three years when he said he was faced with shooting a suspect.
“I don’t remember half of it,” he said. “And one thing that really caught me off guard was when I was asked how many bullets that I fired, I said two. I actually fired five. … That’s just the way the mind works.”
Marietta started the program after an infamous video showing five of its officers wrestling Renardo Lewis to the ground sparked outrage in Georgia. Cellphone footage showed one of the officers punching the unarmed Black man.
“Use-of-force incidents” are defined in Marietta when an officer hits someone or uses a baton, stun gun, chemical spray or gun during an arrest. It’s also considered an incident if someone files a complaint that they were injured by an officer. Since implementing the training, use-of-force incidents have dropped by 45%, according to ALERRT.
Not all the research around jiujitsu and policing is clear-cut, though. While there’s evidence that officers who undergo the training are less likely to be injured during an arrest, when it comes to the public, the results are hazier.
Blair said the drop in overall use-of-force incidents indicates that it’s likely fewer people were injured overall. However, there was no significant difference in the number of times a civilian was injured during an arrest, according to ALERRT research.
Also, the data doesn’t take into account the pandemic and the 2020 police brutality; both events could have led to the drop in violent incidents, Blair said.
Some organizations that investigate misconduct complaints point out that jiujitsu training will not solve all violent encounters, nor may it even be the best approach to address police violence.
“A lot of the officers that are doing these (violent) arrests, they do have training,” said Gerald Rose, the founder and CEO of New Order National Human Rights Organization, based in Georgia. “At the heat of the moment, they were not thinking about training. They just tried to make sure that they prove a point. … We have a long way to go.”