Our nation asks a lot of its police officers — as it should. We ask them to be quick, responsive and fair. We ask them to run toward dangerous situations while the rest of us run away. And we ask them to judge how much force a situation requires and when to apply it, sometimes choosing from very limited options.
But police officers in Marietta, Ga., might have a few more.
There, the police department in 2019 made weekly Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes mandatory for the five months new recruits spent in the police academy. The classes were hosted at a local gym that negotiated a rate affordable for the department.
Recruits learned martial arts tactics to safely restrain suspects. Brazilian jiu-jitsu teaches its practitioners to exploit body positioning and leverage to subdue another person and minimizes harm to the practitioner and the subject. Crucially, it does not require that the practitioner be heavier or stronger than the person they're trying to control.
That initial training was successful enough that the department offered the program to all in-service officers in 2020. According to a summary of the data, 95 out of 145 sworn officers in Marietta opted in.
The results so far are compelling. The department saw a 48% decrease in officer injuries in the 18 months after mandatory training was instituted for new hires compared with the 18 months prior, and none of the officers who were injured had been trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Suspects being arrested by force were 53% less likely to be seriously injured if they were interacting with an officer with Brazilian jiu-jitsu experience. And officers with the martial arts training deployed their Tasers 23% less often than officers without it.
"You want your officers to be confident in themselves, not in the badge and the gun," Marietta PD Major Jake King said in a 2021 video produced by Gracie University, which is affiliated with the family credited with creating Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
The decrease in Taser use grabs the attention due to recent cases in Minnesota, though we can't know how those situations would have proceeded under different circumstances. But it's also noteworthy because the point of Brazilian jiu-jitsu programs for law enforcement is not to turn cops into martial arts masters who relinquish their more dangerous weapons. Tragic, dangerous situations sometimes require them. Rather, the point of this training is to give officers as many options on the use-of-force continuum as possible so the force they use truly matches the situation they're in.
If some officers in Marietta are now using their Tasers less often, that implies a previous mismatch. In other words, they might have been resorting to more force when, for want of some training, less would have sufficed.
Police departments in Minnesota have wide latitude on how to train their officers and should think seriously about implementing programs like these if they don't already have them. We have statewide standards for joining and remaining on the force, but officers and departments can and do exceed these requirements if they wish. Officers may get sophisticated restraint training already, but it takes regular practice to become proficient in a skill, not just occasional classes. And the Marietta case shows that a department can require training in a skill such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu in a cost-effective and successful way.
All sides of our supercharged policing debate should be interested in creative solutions like these. The more options on the use-of-force continuum officers are given, the more options they'll have before reaching for a Taser or a gun. But they can't use tactics they don't know.