Teaching Police Self-defense;

What Martial Arts Instructors should know?



Over the years I have been involved in discussions with fellow martial arts instructors regarding the difference in teaching police and correctional personnel, versus civilians. During the 2015 American Karate System Sumer Camp I was ask to instruct attendees in these differences.

My back ground as a police officer covers 45 years, which also includes a stint as our county’s chief jail administrator. In addition to this I have 56 years of martial arts training. I started teaching self-defense some 48 years ago as a young airman stationed at Sheppard AFB, in Texas. Over the past four plus decades I’ve been instructing police and correctional officer’s different come-a-long tactics, coupled with self-defense (close quarter combat) and weapons retention (for cops). As most readers will likely know, the focus on police use of force around the country has become more intense of late. The main stream media, and various groups in our society, are quick to judge an officer’s use of force before the facts have been determined, let alone the dust settling. This rush to judgment has cost some good police officers their careers. Sadly, we’ve also seen some bad cops who deserved to have the public light shined on their improper conduct. In many cases this failure to conduct themselves properly is the result of the officer becoming too emotionally overwhelmed by the circumstances. When you couple the emotional nature of the job with a poor attitude and training on the part of the officer, you have a recipe for trouble. These situations do nothing but harm the good reputations and hard work put forth by all the really good officers in our criminal justice system who serve their respective communities with honor and distinction.

Basic concepts of teaching civilians versus cops

The belief in our society regarding a person’s right to self-defense goes back to the pioneer days and later cowboy era. The fact that today all 50 states have some level of concealed carry license civilians may qualify for, further speaks to this inherent right. The Castle Doctrine in many states gives people the right to stand their ground. When a person does defend himself against an attack, they are only required to justify the force they used; regardless of whether it was with or without a weapon. On the other hand, a police officer must write a report and describe in detail what the subject did that justified his or her actions and the level of force used.

When we teach civilians to defend themselves we instruct them they are allowed to use that amount of force necessary to neutralize the threat. I have also taught them to differentiate between low level threats posed by friends or family, versus threats one might face from a stranger. You wouldn’t break someone’s arm for just being pushed. On the other hand breaking the arm would be appropriate if they attempted to assault you with a knife, club or gun.

Where a civilian would be reacting in a defensive situation, something they didn’t initiate, a cop or a correctional officer is actually the aggressor, which makes using the term “self-defense” a misnomer. Let’s say I’m arresting a guy for public intoxication. He’s standing there quietly not trying to retreat or come at me. I advise him he’s under arrest for being drunk in public and approach him in order to escort him to my police car. If he comes along peacefully there’s no problem. But, if he tries to pull away I must initiate further aggressive actions in order to subdue him and place him in handcuffs. Likewise the Correctional officer may be required to escort an inmate to an administrative hearing, or extract a noncompliant prisoner from his cell.

The officers main goal is to place the subject or inmate in restraints prior to transport and booking (in the case of a police officer), or escorting the inmate within the confinement facility. In the police and correctional career fields one learns very quickly you cannot trust that the individual will remain docile throughout the arrest and transport process to the jail, and subsequent booking. There are a myriad of reasons why a person resists, or tries to evade arrest. It’s the officer’s responsibility to ensure he or she uses only that force necessary to affect the arrest, detention and transport of the individual. The level of resistance determines the amount of force applied by the arresting officer (s). Correctional officers are dealing with people who are already serving time for a crime or crimes they’ve committed. These people many times don’t respect the system of the personnel who work within it. They inmates ability to resist may also be predicated on the need to establish a reputation among the other prisoners.

One thing I’d like to point out. When it comes to “use of force” the level of knowledge a cop or correctional officer has will dictate his or her response to a given situation in the street or the confinement facility where they are employed. This also holds true for civilians who train as well. By this I mean the amount of training in defensive tactics they’ve received. The more training an officer undergoes, the higher his level of self-confidence will be. This enhances the officer’s competence to do his or her job over time. Sadly, far too many officers have the attitude that it’s the department’s responsibility to pay for and schedule such training. The realization, on the part of the officer, that this training will aid them in possibly surviving an attack doesn’t enter into the equation. Additionally, chiefs of police are seldom able to secure enough funding through the budget process to facilitate scheduling and paying for defensive tactics training with the frequency needed for conditioned reflexes to develop, which enhances the officers self-confidence. The same holds true with in correctional community.

Another aspect I’ve found is the difference in a person’s interest and desire to learn when they have a vested interest in doing so. What I mean by this is simple. A person who has been assaulted doesn’t want to experience that again. They are motivated by the need to be prepared in the event such a situation might occur again at some point in the future. The person who has never been attacked or assaulted in some manner doesn’t see being prepared for something that has yet to happen as important. Many would consider this an example of the person sticking his head in the sand. Among my fellow cops we have a different way of describing it. I’ll let you use your imagination.

Teaching Officers

Because of the very nature of police and correctional work, an officer does not have the luxury of avoiding conflict. Whether it’s responding to a fight in progress, an argument between two citizens or inmates, an armed robbery in progress, or a domestic disturbance, the officer is wading into a situation that has some known parameters, while others remain a mystery. Such situations have the possibility of changing rapidly, requiring officers to be quick on their feet in order to be able to react appropriately.

The officer’s ability to defend himself must include basic defensive tactics that provide defense and counter movements to a simple push or grab, or an attempt to kick or punch him. Officers must also possess the ability to defend against attacks by a variety of weapons from broken bottles to firearms. What they learn at the academy does not suffice. Over the process of six or so months there might be one or two whole days where such training is provided. As any martial arts instructor knows, this is not nearly enough. Because of this I’ve taken the approach of focusing on three simple wrist/arm lock techniques taught over an eight hour period with a great deal of repeating the moves on both left and right sides, and with different partners.

The instructor must also keep in mind that officers will write a report describing the situation that resulted in his use of force. That description will be detailed in both what he did and why he did it. The following is a simple example one might find after a police officer has responded to a neighborhood disturbance:

At approximately 2130 hours this officer was dispatched to 3113 Ransom drive where neighbors were complaining of loud noise. I arrived at the above address at approximately 2140 hours. As I pulled in front of the residence I heard yelling and observed two male individuals standing in front of the house pointing fingers at each other. I was approached by a neighbor who advised me this disturbance had been going on for over an hour. The neighbor, identified as Robert Lonesome, DOB 1/15/1973, of 3115 Ransom drive, explained to this officer that the two doing the yelling were brothers who had a history of fighting with each other when they’d been drinking. I approached the two individuals, later identified as Joseph Jones, DOB 6/10/1980, and James Jones, DOB 9/20/1985, facing each other and yelling with their arms waving in the air. The residence belonged to Joseph. His brother James was visiting from the other side of town. I noticed several empty twelve pack beer containers lying around the yard. Each of the brothers was holding a can of beer that appeared to have been only partially full. I was approached from behind by officer Juan Rosales who had responded as my back up. We proceeded to separate the brothers and question them regarding the noise complaint and argument they were engaged in. It was discovered they were arguing over a debt one owed the other. After more questioning it became apparent leaving the two individuals together would not solve the problem. The older brother (Joseph) was willing to go inside and allow the argument to subside. The younger brother (James) wanted to continue the argument and was not willing to disengage. Both individuals were intoxicated. Joseph was able to walk under his own control. James had trouble standing and maintaining his balance. Since James refused to cooperate he was advised he was being placed under arrest for public intoxication. Joseph was instructed to go inside his residence and remain there. He was advised any further disturbance on his part would result in his arrest. I approached James and reached for his right arm just above the elbow with my left hand to escort him to my police car. As I took hold of his arm he attempted to pull away. I placed my right hand on the back of his right hand pivoting his arm into an arm lock behind his back with his right elbow under my right armpit in between the right side of my chest and right arm. While in the process of subduing James, he attempted to kick me with his right leg. It was at this same moment officer Rosales took hold of Mr. Lonesome’s left arm placing it into an arm bar. The combination of holds allowed us to walk Mr. Lonesome to my police cruiser where he was bent over the trunk, placed in handcuffs and searched. Throughout the process Mr. Lonesome continued to struggle against our grip while also continuing a non-stop verbal assault with very crude and abusive language. Mr. Lonesome was transported to the police department booking area and processed for public intoxication and resisting arrest.

This is just an example of how an officer might write his report regarding the arrest and how he justifies his use of force. You can see the detail that is required.

I also include with the instruction I give the officers on defensive tactics an explanation of how they must talk to the subject using “Verbal Judo.” This is a concept developed by George Thompson, PhD, that employs verbal reactions to verbal abuse. It requires officers to remain calm, professional and in control, regardless of what is being said to or about him, which in most cases brings the officer’s family members and ancestors into the abuse.

The training provided officers must emphasize the importance of control, both of the subject (s) and of the officer’s emotions. If the officer allows the subject to get him mad and respond to the verbal abuse, the subject will have won since he was able to take away the officer’s professional demeanor. This is what we see in cases where officers exceed the responsible level of force they should have used, which with more frequently is being captured on someone’s cell phone.

Tactical Training; Locks, bars, etc

Martial arts instructors must remember police and correctional officers are limited in their training time, as well as the frequency of that training. Where we would like to work with them weekly over several months to build up their conditioned reflexes and self-confidence, the lack of support and training funds from their respective departments make that difficult at best.

As previously mentioned, I focus on three basic wrist locks, a couple of arm bars that work in conjunction with those locks, along with a few key pressure points. These are techniques I have used over the years and found to be most effective. Remember, the goal is to get the subject under control and secured by restraints. By keeping the training simple (K.I.S.S. principle) the officers are able to learn them during the process of an eight hour training day because of the redundant application and practice method of each technique. Once the officers have developed a functional knowledge of each technique (wrist lock, etc), I show them variations of those moves against different attacks and situations. After working with one technique for approximately 50 minutes, we take a short break. Once we’ve returned the officers are partnered with a different person and they review what they had been taught prior to the break, before starting on the next technique or application.

Throughout the day I demonstrate for them other situations that may arise in the field where an officer is required to defend themselves. Since some scenarios may be more involved than the offender attempting to pull away, the officers must be on their toes and ready to respond to being grabbed, kicked, punched, or a variety of other attacks. It’s important to help them develop an understanding of situational awareness throughout this process. Is the subject alone? Are there family members present (as in the officers responding to a domestic disturbance at a residence or in a park)? Is the officer responding to a disturbance in a bar of other establishment that serves alcohol? If it’s a correctional officer is he responding to a single cell or a pod where a dozen or more inmates may be housed? As you can see instructors must know the variety of situations and locations officers may be in when the need for defensive tactics and skills occurs.


There are distinct differences between teaching self-defense to civilians, as opposed to teaching police and correctional officers. As mentioned earlier the civilian is reacting to an aggressor. In the case of the officer he is the aggressor. He or she must take the person into custody once the decision to arrest (in the case of a cop) has been made.

The tactics and amount of force an officer uses is predicated on the cooperative nature of the subject, or lack thereof. If the subject is cooperative no force is required. If the subject is combative then force is used. The officer’s conduct and use of force must be able to pass the scrutiny of non-police personnel who may be present during the struggle to restrain and subdue the subject prior to transport. It must also be able to pass the legal examination that will likely follow as well. Remember, when all is said and done that officer will be writing up a detailed arrest or detention report that will include what created the situation that ultimately necessitated the use of force. The officer will literally create a verbal picture for the reader of what he initiated, how the subject reacted, and the actions the officer took to counter the subject’s actions (if he resisted) in order to place him in restraints.

The amount of time allocated to officers for training by their respective departments will be limited. It’s important to encourage officers to seek training in other locations on their own. Because of the attitude many have regarding this training – they expect the department to schedule and pay for both the training and their time – they will not likely listen to or follow such recommendations. Instructors must strive to inject throughout the training process that it is the officer’s own safety and well being that must be taken into consideration. Regardless of the support (if any) their department provides, they along are responsible for developing the skills and knowledge that will help them return home to their loved ones after their shift is over.

Instructors must also keep in mind police and correctional administrators as a whole do not understand, let alone appreciate the benefits of a well structured defensive training program for their personnel. Because of this, policies these chiefs of police, jail administrators, etc, publish are oft times flawed. An example of this would be the policy LAPD had regarding the use of their PR-24s (a Tonfa to those of us in the martial arts community). This was brought to light in the Rodney King case where four or five officers stood over a prostrate King and beat him with the PR-24s. The department’s policy said the officers were allowed to use these impact weapons “as long as the subject was non-complaint.” King may not have been complying with the officer’s instructions, but he was also not threatening them. A person being a threat or resisting are key ingredients that must be present for the officer to employ defensive tactics and force. In the King example the officers could have easily laid hands on the subject in order to place him in restraints in preparation for transport. If you, as a martial arts professional, have the opportunity to influence a department’s policy regarding a defensive tactics program, I encourage you to seek guidance from those of us who are both cops and martial arts instructors. We have a unique understanding of the importance of ensuring policy and training work toward their mutual benefit (a symbiotic relationship).

Remember, when civilians are taught to defend themselves they are instructed to use only the force necessary to stop the attack. They are taught once the attacker is no longer aggressive towards them (no longer a threat); they must back off as well. The likely hood of scrutiny by others in a civilian defensive scenario, as compared to that of a police or correctional officer, is much less. Public safety officers are also taught that their use of force must be limited to the subduing and restraining of the subject. The possibility of media coverage occurring when the situation involves only civilians is much less that when police are. There are examples where the media has gotten involved in covering a civilian’s use of force. The case of Zimmerman and Martin come quickly to mind. There are many more examples involving members of the law enforcement community.

Once the police and legal system have validated the self-defense justification, the civilian is finished with what happened and free to go. They may face civil (tort) litigation, but the criminal concerns will have ended. Not necessarily so for officers. Cops and correctional officers will be involved in the legal process for weeks if not months. They will have to testify in court in many cases justifying and re-justifying the actions they took. They are also in some cases not protected from civil litigation. If they have a strong case and their actions and conduct were according to their respective states criminal code of procedures, as well as departmental policy, they will usually come out clear in the end. Sadly though, the emotional price they’ll pay may end up in the officer choosing a different career path.

If you teach police/correctional defensive tactics be sure to teach them a clear understanding of what is appropriate in one case versus another. Krav Magra training is appropriate in a case where the subject is attempting to take the officer’s gun or assault him with a weapon of some sort. This enters the “deadly force” category. It is not appropriate for taking control of a drunk who is resisting or someone who is merely trying to keep from being arrested by getting away from the officer.

Lastly, make every effort to develop a clear understanding of what is appropriate use of force for your respective state. Educate yourself on the department’s policy concerning the officer (s) you may begin to teach. In the end, the more knowledge and understanding you have regarding what the limitations police and correctional officers in your area have when using force, the better prepared you will be to teach them.

Michael A. Sullenger, Chief of Police, Valley International Airport

Chief Instructor American Karate System; (See bio for more info.)

Major, USAF Retired