Is “Defunding the Police” the Opposite of What We Need to Do?

What a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu black belt and police trainer has to say about the state of law enforcement.

Source: Getty Images

On Sunday, April 11, 2021, yet another fatal police shooting took place, this time in Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Daunte Wright, the victim, was pulled over by police for an expired license plate. When the police discovered that Wright had an outstanding arrest warrant, they attempted to take him into custody. However, Wright resisted arrest and tried to flee the scene in his vehicle. One of the officers, Kim Potter, threatened to taser Wright, but pulled out her gun instead and shot Wright in the chest.

In the bodycam footage, Potter is heard saying, “I’ll Tase you! I’ll Tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” before firing one shot. She then says, “Holy shit! I shot him.”

The following day, Potter’s actions were described as “an accidental discharge” by Tim Gannon, Brooklyn Center Police Chief. But, speaking on ABC’s Good Morning America, Wright’s father, Aubrey Wright, rejected that explanation.

“I can’t accept that,” he said. “A mistake? That doesn’t even sound right. This officer has been on the force for 26 years. I can’t accept that.”

Daunte Wright’s father is correct — Kim Potter was a 26-year police veteran. As you’re no doubt wondering yourself, with so much on-the-job experience, how could she possibly confuse her gun for her taser?

But to Rener Gracie, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu who is pushing for national police training reforms, it’s no surprise at all that police make so many heart-wrenching and shocking mistakes.

Recently, Gracie spoke with Sam Harris on this topic and they had, to say the least, a fascinating conversation.

The sad state of police training

Despite what you might think, Gracie says, officers in the United States receive a woefully small amount of training.

He’s right. In 37 states, officers are given full authority to detain, arrest, incarcerate, and even kill without receiving any formal training. Incredibly, 20 of those states allow officers to work for up to 12 months without receiving training.

Once officers do receive training, however, they receive, on average, about 600 hours of training — that’s five to six times less training than what’s needed to become a cosmetologist (3000 hours) or plumber (3500 hours).

Unfortunately, the training deficiency doesn’t end there. In many departments across the United States, Gracie says, officers receive around 4 hours per year of hands-on defensive tactics training. In those 4 hours, they cover a lot of material, which can leave only an hour or two per year to practice techniques for handling physical altercations.

This negligible amount of training, Gracie says, is going to impact how officers perform their duties and, ultimately, lead to preventable fatalities.

What happens when officers are undertrained?

If there’s one thing that Gracie understands, it’s the psychology of self-defense. He started training in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu at two years of age and has been teaching the craft for over 20 years. Today, he is the co-owner of Gracie University, which has over 180 brick-and-mortar locations worldwide and more than 300,000 students learning through their online portal.

According to Gracie, when officers are put into threatening situations without the proper training, two outcomes are inevitable: they’re going to make poor decisions due to amygdala hijack and they’re going to use excessive force.

Amygdala hijack occurs when we find ourselves in what we perceive to be a threatening situation. The amygdala, a part of the brain associated with processing emotions like fear or anger, overpowers the rational parts of the brain and initiates the stress response, also known as the “fight-or-flight” response. The purpose of the fight-or-flight response is to enable us to act quickly and thoughtlessly when under threat. Unfortunately, when it comes to policing, thoughtless action can result in dire consequences.

The level of threat that causes amygdala hijack is different for each person, Gracie says, and, critically, proper training can decrease the likelihood of the hijack in the first place.

Why is that? Because the fight-or-flight response activates due to perceived threat. Some people might experience the flight-or-flight response when about to give a presentation at work and others might experience it when trying to arrest someone physically larger and stronger than themselves.

With the right training, Gracie says, officers can feel less threatened by suspects, which would decrease the chances of them experiencing the fight-or-flight response and making bad decisions.

However, the kind of training officers receive is critical. If they’re only taught how to use batons, tasers, and guns, then those are the tools they’re going to use. But, these tools come with an inherent risk of serious injury or death every time they’re used.

The alternative, Gracie says, is to teach officers how to handle violent and resistant suspects in a controlled manner, without the need to use the blunt and violent instruments at their disposal. And, according to Gracie, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is just the tool officers need to safely and effectively handle these altercations.

A solution to police violence?

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is a fighting style that focuses on controlling and submitting one’s opponent rather than striking them with punches, kicks, or elbows. It’s designed so that a smaller, weaker person can defend himself or herself by using leverage and weight distribution, taking the fight to the ground, and using various holds and submissions.

It’s exactly the kind of low-level violence that we, the public, would find acceptable if someone begins to resist arrest.

The question is, would this additional training actually help?

In 2019, the Marietta Police Department (MPD) in Marietta, Georgia tried something that had never been done before in the United States— it required newly hired recruits to attend a minimum of one Brazilian Jiu-jitsu class per week until they were done their academy and field training.

The MPD found this program to be so successful that they opened the training sessions to all their existing officers in 2020. The officers could attend up to three training sessions per week, fully paid for by the department. The officers were also paid for their time in training.

This program has now been running for over one year and the MPD has been collecting data on the results. In total, 95 of the 145 MPD officers chose to take at least one class of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu training per week.

Here are some of the outcomes of the officers who took the training (“the training group”) compared to the officers who did not take the training (“the non-training group”):

You can read MPD Chief Dan Flynn’s assessment of this program here, which he distributed to other agency leaders.

And, in 2021, the MPD was invited to share its findings with elected officials at the state capitol. Those elected officials expressed an interest in making this training available state-wide.

Are you convinced?

Police violence is becoming ever more apparent, as more and more videos of officers doing terrible things are posted online. The question is, has policing gotten worse or are we just finally seeing how police have always acted under stressful circumstances? Gracie would argue for the latter.

But, while more training might be a solution for some officers, there is no doubt that other officers should never have been given the responsibility in the first place. The obvious example is Derek Chauvin, who was recently found guilty of the murder of George Floyd. We’ve all seen those images and videos and it’s impossible to fathom what was going on inside his mind at the time.

But, those officers aside, we are still making monsters out of the “good” officers by not giving them the tools they need to deal with violent situations effectively. By not providing officers with adequate training we are setting them up for failure for two main reasons. First, their lack of training makes them feel more vulnerable and threatened under a wider range of circumstances. This leads to amygdala hijack and the inability to make sound decisions. Second, by only giving officers blunt and violent tools, we are asking them to use them. So, they do, and to terrible effect.

If we truly want policing to improve, we need to invest in it, not defund it. If we don’t train officers to become what we expect them to be, we are asking the impossible of them.

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu training seems like a good place to start.

Thanks for reading!

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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