Why Don’t Officers Train Martial Arts?

            Today a law enforcement officer was assaulted by a suspect. An officer died today. Terrible headlines are found across our country almost every day. There is no question being a law enforcement officer is a dangerous occupation, one filled with conflict and risk. On a daily basis officers across the country deal with and arrest people who either by choice, circumstances, or illness live outside of societies norms. With felony arrest warrants and drug use growing exponentially across the country, many of these individuals have nothing to lose by resisting arrest or fighting with the police. Escape means freedom, even if for a day, while arrest could mean a lengthy prison term.

As a 25-year veteran of a busy medium sized agency I see this every day. I have seen all manner of violence, have fought with countless suspects, defended myself against, clubs, knives, swords and have even been shot at. On many occasions I have only survived because of my consistent training. As a Defensive Tactics Instructor and Martial Artist, I ask on a regular basis, “Why Don’t Officers Train Martial Arts?” I ask it not for myself, but to gain insight in how to motivate other officers, and to discover how can I help change what has become the norm across Law Enforcement and get officers to train consistently in a martial art.

Before I offer what I have found to be the underlying reasons officers don’t train, I would like to dispel a few reasons officers have given for not training. There may be some truth to these reasons and they can be valid reasons on an individual basis and at a specific time in their career.  However, when these reasons are scrutinized, they seldom are found to be valid reasons not to train.

 “Training cost too much!” Most officers are at best middle class and paying for training is a luxury which is hard to justify. Yet, typically the same officers who complain about the cost of training (anywhere from $60 to $100 dollars a month) will not hesitate to spend $150 dollars on a new tactical knife or $1500 (or more) on a new firearm. While having the cool knife or firearm is fun, it is highly unlikely either of these are going to save their life. On the other hand, training on a regular basis might not only save their life in a conflict, it will improve their fitness and overall health. Discussing this very issue on a law enforcement forum, many defensive tactics instructors commented they offered free training to their officers. Yet no one shows up to train. In my own department I offer free training once a week to officers. The only people who have attended are instructors, and even some of them only train sporadically. Perhaps cost is part of the reason officers don’t train, but it is hard to accept this as a reason when they don’t participate in free training and spend their discretionary money in other ways.

“Departments should pay for and give us time to train.” It would be amazing if departments were able to provide consistent training for officers. The reality is very few departments have the financial resources or the manpower to facilitate consistent training. At best departments provide annual or bi-annual training. Just enough to provide officers with some basic techniques, but not enough training to properly execute the technique in a high stress situation.  There is truth about Law Enforcement which may seem cold, and will not be popular, but it is a truth we need to face. Every officer is replaceable. When an officer is killed their department and community will morn, have a funeral, express their shock, and offer sympathy. As a member of a department honor guard I have attended far too many law enforcement funerals and seen too many brothers and sisters to their graves. Yet the world moves on and an officer’s name is shortly remembered only by a plaque on a wall or a memorial in a park. The department hires someone to replace the lost officer and moves on. It is the officer’s family and loves ones who suffer the most and will always carry the pain of their loss. While it is reasonable to expect departments to provide consistent training (and even cover the cost), they are not the ones who will suffer the most when an officer fails and is lost. We need to be honest and not train for our department’s benefit, but for our own benefit and for our loved ones. They are the ones who should matter to us and why we should consistently train.

“I just don’t have the time!” or “It takes too long to become proficient.” Law Enforcement is a time intensive career. Changing shifts and long hours takes a toll on everyone. There are officers working the streets, serving their community, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  It is not unusual for the typical 10 hours shift to turn into 11, 12, or even 15 hours. Court, overtime shifts, meetings, and mandatory trainings frequently leave officers drained and unmotivated. Add in social or family commitments and training in martial arts becomes unrealistic. Most martial art schools offer a limited schedule with training only in the evenings. Officers working afternoon shift are only able to attend on their days off. Officers working night shift are chronically sleep deprived and can’t risk starting their shift exhausted from an intense training session.  However, these same officers who can’t find time to train will sit down and play hours of video games, binge watch the latest epic television show, or play in a softball or dodge ball league. A recent study showed approximately 50% of police officers regularly exercise. Approximately only 5% train consistently at a martial art. Officers find time to work out in the gym lifting weights, rowing, or running, yet can’t find time to train a martial art? If time is an issue, training a martial art not only improves their physical fitness, it builds their combat skills. The only conclusion I can draw is they have the time, but choose to invest the time in other pursuits. If they understood training even once a week would improve their chance of survival, perhaps they would find the time to train. Sure, training once a week isn’t going to make them a martial arts master. It will however, sharpen the skills needed to survive, which is what we are really training for. In truth they have the time, they simply choose to invest it elsewhere.  

So why don’t officers train in a martial art? Why don’t they choose to invest their money and time in what appears to be a critical skill for their career and possibly their life? I believe there are two underlining reasons. First, they don’t recognize the need to train. New officers are taught, “You have to be ready to defend yourself!” They come to believe there is a situation waiting for them, a situation which will challenge their ability to survive, and if they fail they will be killed. They emerge from the academy, from their training, tactically sharp. They are ready for any test waiting for them. However, the test doesn’t come. They arrest people on a daily basis and it becomes routine. Even when a suspect resists or fights with them, they are able to use the skills they already have to control the person and gain compliance. They are given all these tools (pepper spray, tasers, batons) which help make up for any deficiencies in their defensive tactics skills and give them an edge. They don’t train because the test never comes and they have come to believe they are able to handle themselves in every situation. They have passed every quiz and never have to face the big test. Officer typically starts their career at 22 to 25 years old. They are for the most part fit and able to deal with the 20 to 25 year olds they commonly fight with. The skills and training they had in the academy are fresh and sharp. But what happens in 10 or 15 years? Defensive Tactic Skills are perishable and without frequent reinforcement, deteriorate. Physically few officers are able to maintain their conditioning throughout their careers. 15 years of sitting in a patrol car, drinking energy drinks, coffee and eating donuts (yes, I went there) takes a toll.  They are now 35 or 40 years old, yet are still dealing with, arresting, and fighting 20 to 25 year old’s. Except now they can no longer physically keep up but are still expected to. They are not willing to accept they need to change because they have always been able to handle the situation, they have already passed every quiz and will surly handle any test. They don’t see the need to train.

Which brings us to the second, and perhaps most important reason Law Enforcement Officers don’t train, Ego. Every officer, no matter their age or physical condition, has to be confident in their ability to handle themselves. When you become an officer there is no backing away from a call, people’s lives are often at stake and you have to respond. Humans by nature will protect their self-image at all costs, officers even more so. If an officer doesn’t believe they can handle a physical conflict, then they also have to accept they can’t do the job. Something no officer is willing to accept. Even when they fail, when the suspect gets away, back up arrives and assists, or they are forced to escalate their use of force because they can’t control a person, they seldom accept their lack of training is responsible. After all, they have always been able to do the job. Training in martial arts forces them to face the reality that they lack the skills necessary to survive. Sparring in a Taekwondo Class they quickly find themselves out matched and outpaced. After a few minutes they can no longer block the simplest of kicks and at the end of an hour training session feel like little more than a punching bag. In a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Rolling Session they feel like a mouse being played with by a cat. Smaller opponents control and submit them at will and with ease. When they attempt to respond with strength because they lack technique, they are rapidly fatigued and later found in the bathroom or parking lot vomiting, having lost all control. An officer’s greatest fear is that they lack to ability to survive. When an officer’s ego is destroyed by the harsh reality of a martial arts class, who would voluntarily return? It is a rare individual who faces their weakness and rather than make excuses, steps up to the challenge and walks back into class.

With the dangers of being a Law Enforcement Officer escalating what can we as do to motivate officers to train martial arts? How do we address officers’ failure to recognize the need for training? Some recommend mandatory training, but that will not motivate officers to train on their own. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. While this is true, it is also true there is no point in making a horse thirsty if there isn’t any water. There are two categories of officers who train martial arts, those who recognize the need to train and those enjoy it. As instructors we need to focus on both of these motivations. We need to educate officers on the need to train. With the advent of body camera and video footage it is relatively simple to show footage of officers involved in struggles. To conduct roll call training, critiquing officer’s tactics, drawing attention to both the positive and negative. We need to show both when officers succeed and when they fail. Discussing the mistakes from a realistic perspective and showing how training makes a difference. We also need to provide relevant current training. The cookie cutter defensive tactics systems departments have relied upon for years have their place; however, officers quickly lose motivation when officers practice the same techniques year after year.  Challenge the officers, place them in different tactical situations and force them to use their skills to gain control or survive. Make it fun. Bring your martial arts to them and show them where it can be useful. Have your instructor come in as a guest to show them what is possible. Invite them to class, preparing them before hand on what to expect and ask them to set their ego’s aside, “Everyone struggles when they start!” Make training available. Find a place at your department where officers can come after shift for a quick workout and to practice techniques. Include them in pressure testing different new techniques. Keep it simple so they learn quickly and can see their own improvement. Keep it positive and help them succeed. Nothing detracts someone from training more than being humiliated and defeated.

Not everyone is going to train. There will always be those who don’t believe they need to train and can get by as they always have. However, no one is going to train if we as instructors don’t show the need for training, make the training available, and keep the training fun as well as relevant.  Don’t give up!  If you can motivate one officer to start training, you will have made a difference and might save an officer’s life.

By Richard Holt