The goal of any law enforcement academy’s Defensive Tactics (DT) curriculum is to provide the necessary knowledge and skills to make officers safer on the streets. Almost all come up short in this endeavor. The emphasis of most DT programs is an overabundance of techniques. The types of techniques taught are usually based upon the particular expertise of the lead instructor. If the lead instructor is a Karate practitioner, students learn kicks and strikes. If the instructor is a wrestler, students learn take downs and pins. And if the instructor really has no expertise in DTs but is in great physical condition, the students do a lot of running and calisthenics. All of these approaches have merit if we had unlimited time to train in DTs, but we don’t. If we don’t recognize the limited time devoted to DT training and adjust accordingly, DT programs are destined to fail.
The problem is most DT programs are administered as if they are martial arts studios, wrestling teams, or boxing gyms. DT instructors — most of whom have extensive experience and training in their method of self defense — train officers in the same manner as they were trained. It’s natural to do so. This approach will work if the training environment and hours are similar — but they are not. Most DT programs are run as if they are attempting to prepare a fighter for sports competition rather than training officers to survive a street battle. There is no doubt an individual can become a proficient fighter given proper training and time. But how much time is actually devoted to law enforcement DT training? In the FBI Academy, New Agent Trainees receive 90 hours of DT training. Once they graduate, they receive approximately four hours a year. In conversations with instructors from departments throughout the country, I learned the majority of departments devote two to six hours a year to DT refresher training. And some have no DT training at all once an officer graduates from the academy. This is a recipe for disaster. How good would a football or baseball team be if they practiced four hours a year? How many games do you think they would win? Probably none. Yet law enforcement officers must win every encounter. One loss can mean death.
Elite athletes will tell you that spending only a few hours a year on a physical skill doesn’t come close to being sufficient training time to maintain that skill. In many ways, the training becomes counter-productive. Officers are taught a variety of techniques that are somewhat complex and complicated. In the hands of an expert who trains regularly, the techniques are effective. However, these same techniques are useless to the officer who has failed to commit them to muscle memory.
I’m fortunate in that I’ve had the privilege of training with some of the best and most highly-acclaimed martial artists in the world. While I was the lead DT Instructor for the Los Angeles Field Office of the FBI, I would invite internationally respected martial arts Grand Masters to provide training seminars for agents. The presentations were always awe-inspiring as the physical accomplishments of some of these individuals were truly remarkable. A typical seminar by a Grand Master included demonstrating and practicing a small number of complex and impressive-looking techniques for a two-hour period. The agents enjoyed the seminars and were excited about being exposed to new techniques, but how effective were the seminars in achieving their objective (i.e., increasing agents’ safety)? Most of the agents couldn’t adequately perform the majority of the techniques even while the class was in session. Even the DT Instructors in attendance were unable to remember or perform the techniques a few days later. Unfortunately, almost none of the participants retained any of the knowledge they had gained. Other than the motivational factor, the training was a complete waste of time.
Focusing on the collection of techniques is a trap many skilled DT Instructors fall into. The typical DT Instructor has spent many years perfecting his or her skills and is passionate about sharing these skills with fellow officers. The instructor knows hundreds of techniques and wants to teach them all. And then the instructor tries to impart 10, 20, or even 30+ years of knowledge in a two hour block of time.
As a DT Instructor, I was frustrated by the inability of the majority of officers to successfully defend themselves against an attack. I was determined to find a solution and devise a more effective and realistic DT program. I knew there was a better way to reach the officers who lacked sufficient DT skills in the limited training time provided. Part of developing a viable solution was to first determine what didn’t work. What didn’t work was teaching an unlimited number of complex techniques in response to an infinite number of possible attacks. It’s not that complex techniques are necessarily bad. It just takes a major commitment to be able to perform complex maneuvers in a life-or-death struggle. It’s the job of the DT instructor to prepare officers as best as possible using the limited time and limited resources granted by our respective agencies.
The answer to our problem is a DT program must be based on broad, wide-ranging concepts which have proven effective in the street. The focus must be on understanding a few, key principles. Next, the techniques which are selected to complement those principles must be instinctive, practical, easily committed to muscle memory, and reliable under stress. This means they must emphasize large muscle groups and not complex or fine motor skills. When faced with a violent and unexpected confrontation, an officer is better off attempting a basic, but effective, technique. Attempting to complete a fancy move taught in DT class without adequate training time will only get the officer hurt or killed.
A successful program will use a Risk Management approach — first identifying the most common and dangerous attacks on officers. Actual assaults on officers must be studied to determine the best possible responses to real attacks. A DT program must integrate proven effective philosophy, principles, and techniques to successfully combat an aggressor. Tactical elements should focus on general awareness and a common sense approach to maintaining officer safety. A proper mental attitude focuses on the warrior mindset and the psychology of survival. Finally, instinctual, street-proven techniques based on scientific principles, research, and concepts must be taught.
Finally, a law enforcement DT program must be effective for all officers, regardless of size, strength, or athleticism.