“Wrist Lock” calls for a reimagining of police culture

Wrist Lock: The Martial Arts’ Influence on Police Use of Force, the new documentary from award-winning indie filmmaker Jason Harney, should be seen by everyone involved in making decisions about policing, police training and police budgets, and so do I I look forward to releasing it on streaming platforms.

The poster looks like a promo for an action movie. And the soundtrack is driving and dramatic, like something out of an action movie. However, Harney presents the film as a story. In it, martial artists, trainers, counselors, and even a cardiologist—most of whom have also served as law enforcement officers—explain how martial arts techniques have been incorporated into police training for decades.

However, it is a story designed to provoke questions:

  • If police training is based on martial arts, why are there so many viral videos of failures in the use of force?
  • What happens between academy theory and the reality of the street?
  • What can you do about it?

Contradictions of a “system”

The film moves from discussions of martial arts training to issues of physical fitness and mental well-being, points out the contradictions of a “system” that doesn’t exist, and raises difficult questions about police culture.

Martial artist and instructor John Gentile notes, “I’m less likely to use violence because I know I’m doing it can Using Violence Effectively” as he demonstrated the style he teaches. Another trainer (and retired Las Vegas Metro police sergeant), Mike Bland, states matter-of-factly that officers need to practice techniques a thousand times to become proficient, but more importantly, they need to understand the principles behind them. He recommends practicing defense techniques two to three times a week year-round. Retired MMA fighter and UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin makes much the same statement a little later, and that’s how the theme develops.

The interviews are informative. The footage of combat and defense techniques is fascinating to watch (Bob Hindi’s demonstration of his Duty Belt SAFETY System made me think irreverently of Batman’s famous Utility Belt). And as the film progresses, the comparisons between the toughness required for the skills, the public’s unrealistic expectations, and the inadequacy of actual training for modern police officers become frustrating.

Mixed news

What mixed messages are officers (and the public) receiving when many departments offer little or no ongoing defense tactics training after the police academy? As desirable as it may be, how practical is it for today’s police officer to train and practice defense techniques two to three times a week? The expectation seems to be that officers should train independently to fill in the gaps departmental training leaves, but is that realistic? How many civil servants have access to the kind of training they should be getting, even if we assume they can pay for it themselves?

Ray Beshirs, a defensive tactics instructor, observed, “Agencies treat training like a vaccine: one shot and you’re done.” I was watching the soft throws and disarming techniques on screen, and just as I said to myself, “I want to really that a small, skinny guy or girl does that,” said judo expert Marcus Martin, “we don’t train for our lightest person, for the least successful.” When the narrator asked, “Why is the training one-size-fits-all? I knew that’s what Wrist Lock was about.

What about small agencies?

Having never been a cop, I invited one person to show Wrist Lock with me: my husband Dan, a retired California LEO. He brought his skeptical officer’s eyes to the tour, along with his experience in small departments from patrol to investigation to department head.

His observations reinforced the film’s underlying themes: If officers at big agencies aren’t properly trained, what happens to those officers who work two part-time jobs just to pay their bills? Dan noted that bringing his small department into compliance with California POST standards while juggling costs, staffing, and access to POST-certified trainers has been a struggle. But California, one of the stricter states, only requires four hours of training in arrest, control and use of force techniques every two years. How much harder will it be for officers who aren’t actually required to do anything once they graduate from the academy? And how far does that contradict what the public expects when they watch bodycam footage of police use of force on the news?

While most of the instructors highlighted in the film worked for larger departments, more than half of the departments in the country are quite small, as are their resources. No department of any size provides or requires training two to three times a week, but all officers everywhere are subject to public scrutiny and legal liability.

rethinking culture

“Wrist Lock” calls for a reinterpretation of police culture, claiming that officers who are fit, confident, and competent are less likely to use excessive force. If that’s the case, what might change if we actually did whatever it took to get the expertly trained officers we say we want? Full-time fighters and professional athletes don’t compete all day, every day. Instead, they spend hours every day preparing for success with physiologists and nutritionists and with equipment provided, even though nobody’s life is at stake on a sports field.

Harney’s new documentary provides the icebreaker for a discussion of priorities. consequences Jason Harney’s Twitter or LinkedIn for information regarding its publication. When it breaks, gather your decision makers, watch it, and start asking tough questions.

NEXT: 4 Steps to Incorporating Jiu-Jitsu into Your Department’s Strength Training

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