Cutting Edge Training

America’s Combatives and Liability Trainer Training With Real-World Impact

Training is All About Context

by George on November 24, 2010 14:27

The industry of teaching combatives is a curious thing.  It seems everyone has an opinion about how to teach defensive tactics or shooting or knife employment or impact weapons, or any of the myriad martial arts-based programs and weapons systems.  Most of this training is perfectly well-meaning in its intent.  The instructors are earnest and convicted in their beliefs in their “system.”  However, few instructors seem to understand that what they teach must be congruent with the student’s practical survival needs and their ability to apply the lessons in the real world—especially those students whose career is the profession of arms. 

This lack of congruency is, at best, the cause of wasting literally millions of dollars and tens of thousands of life-hours.  At worst, the failure to recognize the context of the combatives courses contributes to the injury or death of the very students they intend to support.  There is something amiss when a hard-working police officer who has obviously put in hundreds of hours of diligent training beyond that provided by agency’s instructors becomes frustrated at being completely ineffective when introduced to simple but contextually correct training situations.  When training yet again fails to be relevant, warrior spirit is damaged and a “what the hell can I do?” attitude erodes the willingness to continue to train.

Like every other warrior, this officer believed the instructors who seem so confident, and who portray themselves as those who “know” what this officer needs to survive.  This warrior put these lessons into practice on his time, his effort, his pain, and sometimes his blood.  He demonstrates a well-trained quality to his skills.  But when taken out of arena of the wrestling mat and put in the context of blood, liability, and consequence, his hours upon hours of training don’t make sense and fail due to their artificiality.  He takes training seriously.  And when he angrily--and with a level of frustration and hopelessness--states, “I’ve been depending upon this to work!  What am I supposed to do?” what can be said to assuage his real survival concerns? 

Many of us who have stumbled along the warrior’s path instantly recognize this anger and disillusionment—a sense of being fundamentally let down by those teachers we trusted to show us "The Way."  We, too, have found false gurus, following them blindly until our eyes were opened by the weaknesses of their lessons—often we were injured--or almost killed--as a result.  It was easy to recognize this warrior’s disillusionment and frustration.  It is a mirror of our own path.  And we recognize as well that false starts and dead ends are always part of this journey, and that this journey will never end because no life is long enough to get all of the answers.  And still we seek those solutions as both students, instructors, and finally as trainers because we understand that people live and die because of what we do, believe, and teach.

Regardless of the program of combatives, it is incumbent upon those of us who are trainers of warriors to fully understand what we teach in terms of the context of its application and employment.  The warriors who depend upon us to lead them into life-saving skills risk their lives and well-being on the concepts, tactics, and skill-building we provide.  The following are just a few of the criteria of contextually correct training.

Contextually correct training reflects the end-user’s environment.  Training must be developed to meet the contextual needs of the officer at both the pre-response as well as the “zenith moment” of the assault and response.  The second Universal Rule of Combatives© for police is: “Always work to the police solution.”©  Police training must reflect the reality in which officers operate.  Their duties bring them into contact with unknown, possibly armed individuals whose motivations, skills, training, and intent are also unknown.  While a resisting suspect is able to stop fighting and give up at any moment in a fight with a real certainty that he/she will suffer no further injury, an officer can never give up without a certainty of serious physical harm or death.  Defensive tactics training is almost universally presented as encompassing wholly defensive tactics solutions to problems.  Firearms training also tends to compartmentalize in a similar manner, as do all other force options (Taser, OC spray, baton, etc.).  However, life doesn’t cooperate with this specialization (as I read somewhere, “Specialization is for insects.”).

Instead, training must represent the entire spectrum of response.  “All defensive tactics problems cannot be solved by defensive tactics.”©  Officers carry weapons, giving them options of non-lethal through deadly force in resolving suspect resistance or assault.  All training must incorporate a comprehensive approach to the police force response.  Ground-defense training is not simply playing jujitsu or wrestling.  This is a police response that may involve a suspect who is capable of overwhelming an officer with size, strength, and/or skill.  This response should avoid a “win the game at any cost” theory of physical re-engagement when the officer is being overwhelmed and temporarily is able to evade or escape injury—that is what a Taser or firearm is for.  Any apparently trained attempt to “submit” an officer is arguably a deadly force event.  Officers must be trained in a comprehensive approach to tactics and weapon employment as well as sufficient training in agency policy and force law permitting them instant response to threat.

Uncomplicated enough to work.  People tend to love complication.  A complicated solution to any tactical problem seems to draw us in with the promise that if it is “complicated,” it must contain the answer.  Complicated mechanisms fascinate us with their myriad moving parts and mesmerizing flashing lights.  “Simple” is seen as deficient, because it isn’t “special.”  When a student repeatedly attempts and fails to solve a problem and yet resists a different solution, saying, “It’s too simple,” we can be assured that student is enamored of the myth or the glamour surrounding either the person who taught it, or the method itself.  We see this with jujitsu-techniques and MMA skills being taught to police.  The myth of the Gracie family, well-earned as it is in tournament play, does not translate into jujitsu training being applicable to the life-and-death of police work or the military.  The UFC and the Mixed-Martial Arts methods of winning in the Octagon are not about armed cops or soldiers fighting and surviving against possibly armed, desperate suspects—instead it is a sport based upon some of the finest athletes in the world applying skills learned over years of intensive and dedicated training applied in an extremely controlled environment where life-threatening injuries are extremely rare and never intentional.  And there is no instance of a UFC competitor pulling a knife or a gun on his opponent who is dominating the fight, while the same cannot be said about the history of police work in the US.

There should be a baseline to any training to which the officer defaults under threat.  This baseline training should be principle-based, and include uncomplicated skills that are adrenaline “bomb-proof.”  When the baseline methods fail, problem-solving continues takes place as the situation demands

It is OODA-compliant.  All tactics and skills must be OODA-compliant.  This simply means that the human limitations of being forced to cycle through an Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, or minimally, an Observe-Orient-Act cycle takes time.  Time must be built into all solutions offered to officers in order to process and respond to a threat.  For example, one search and handcuffing technique that has been long compromised and is exceedingly dangerous—and is still being taught—is the method of requiring a suspect to bend forward at the waist, and hold both arms to the rear, thumbs up.  The officer takes hold of one hand, handcuffs it, then grabs the other and finishes cuffing.  This works until the suspect uses the officer’s focus and inattentional blindness against him.  As the officer is focused on the fairly complicated task of handcuffing the first wrist, he cannot focus on the other hand obtaining a weapon.  In a six-week period a few years ago, three officers were murdered in as many incidents after getting the first handcuff on the suspect.

This is an example of a tactic that does not take into account the very real limitations of the human being inside the uniform.  Any tactic that assumes an instant officer response to a suspect’s resistance is, simply, worthless.  If the time it takes to recognize an attack and respond is not figured into the tactic, then it will fail.  Staying with the handcuffing method example, every method of searching and handcuffing a subject must involve “incidental” defenses that are not decision-based.  This slows the suspect’s ability to assault the officer without impediment, giving the officer time to recognize an attack (orient), and respond (decide and act).

OODA compliance also means that the training system or method must train officers to orient more quickly to threatening actions.  Building in threat-cues (threatening actions that require deliberation based on law, policy, and level of threat leading to either an Observe-Orient-Decide-Orient loop or an Observe-Orient-Decide-Act-Observe loop before action can be taken) is vital to the officer’s ability to proactively prepare for the threat of violence.  Increasing the automatic response capabilities to officers by including trip-wire training (trip-wires are threatening actions and behavior that require no interpretation of law, policy, or level of threat prior to response, resulting in an Observe-Orient-Action loop) is a basic need of any force training program.

Suspects are not meat-puppets.  Suspects don’t begin to resist or assault a police officer, then just stand there passively while the officer performs a five-step technique.  The suspect has his own agenda, whether it is flight or assault.  As the officer is attempting step two of the technique, the suspect, not understanding that he is supposed to simply wait until the officer is finished, moves, and, by that simple act, defeats the technique.  This requires no skill at all—just non-cooperation.

Every solution must assume and incorporate the reality of a motivated suspect acting for his own benefit.  Suspects fight, flee from, and assault officers based on their own needs, skills, tactics, and value systems.  They generally will not follow the script that agency instructors lay out in class.

Body Alarm Reaction Compliant.  Everything an officer does, from DT to firearms employment must be developed with the understanding that “adrenaline is not your friend” when it comes to executing force.  Complication and split-second timing, while fun and spectacular in training, is the kiss of death in the real world of motivated, skilled suspects.  Training that is foundationally dependent upon the capability of complex reasoning—including recalling memorized lists of actions or movements (techniques)—while in the midst of life-threatening assault is worthless. 

Does not assume athletic, strength, skill, and size superiority.  In the 1950s, every person applying to the San Diego Police Department as a police officer had to meet the following minimum requirements:  Male.  6’0” or taller.  No fillings in the teeth.  20-20 eyesight without correction.  Able to climb a 30-foot rope hand-over-hand without the use of the legs.  The ability to lift and carry a two-hundred pound bag.

Those days are over.  Officers are big, small, fat, skinny, male, female, tall, short, strong, weak, gifted, and/or below average in athleticism and coordination.  Any system that is designed to be employed by a superior athlete of superior strength, skill, and size will fail when the officer is forced to defend or attempt to control a suspect who is larger, stronger, or more athletically gifted.  Too many systems are designed to “meet and defeat” a suspect on his own terms.  Whether it is DT where the officer is taught UFC/MMA groundfighting or standing and trading shots with a suspect in a gunfight, this type of training assumes superior skills, size, and strength.  It is a very dangerous assumption to train a 150-pound male officer to stand toe-to-toe with a 195-pound suspect and expect to win every time—there is a reason that boxing and UFC events have weight classes, and that men and women are not paired in combative competitions.  Training should recognize this reality and address the expected mismatches that are the norm rather than the exception in police work.

Size matters in a fight.  So does superior strength.  The value of superior and one-sided athleticism cannot be over-estimated in the probability of survival.  Regardless of the officer’s size, ability, strength, and athleticism, there is someone in this world who is better, bigger, faster, and stronger.  Systems that depend on overwhelming skill or defeating force with an officer’s brute force is a dangerous fantasy.

Instead, officers should be trained to fight from a position assuming they are weaker, less-athletically gifted, and smaller than the suspects they will be forced to confront and overcome.  Fighting smarter rather than harder should be the goal.  In this manner, the system itself operates within Applied OODA Theory© to gain an advantage, while recognizing the reality of the police officer’s advantages of weapons, tactics, and, at least eventually, numbers.

Meets some type of reality test.  Once the training program is developed and before it is implemented agency-wide, the results of the training must be tested in some method that simulates the reality of what officers will face in the real world of non-compliant, assaultive suspects.  Beta-testing through training a small sample of officers representing the variety of the skills and physiques of the agency is a good way to see if your program is on track.  Using Airsoft technology for firearms as well as High-Gear suits for DT can give a training evaluator a good idea if the program will survive a reality test.

The challenge will be to gain fairness throughout the testing process.  Those who are bought into a particular program may not be able to see the limitations to the training they have selected.  Some tests might include:

  • Active Shooter Response.  Does that 4-5 officer cell actually work when it unexpectedly comes under fire, or is it a misapplication of a tactic originally designed to cross open-ground more safely?  Having average officers trained in the cell, and then a few months later being put into an unannounced scenario with safety equipment, FX cartridges or Airsoft, and time pressure will give you an answer. 
  • Standing and shooting it out with a suspect.  Your firearms program promotes stationary shooting methods because anything else isn’t “safe” for training.  As a result, your officer officers stand in one place and shoot it out with a suspect who self-initiates, beating your officers to the draw.  Again, Airsoft weapons will reveal if movement and hitting is valuable or not to the officr’s survival when the suspect self-initiates a draw and gunfight.
  • Your groundfighting program.  Putting a smaller, weaker officer on the ground in full duty gear (outfitted with complete training weapones) and attacked by a larger, skilled “offender” will give you a good idea if the program you are using will be useful on the street. 

When each of these common tactical responses or solutions to tactical problems fail, how do you, the instructor, react?  Many who have a personal stake in the system will generally blame the officer(s), and make every excuse possible to explain the failure of their training.  It takes character to realize that something you thought would work failed because it is not realistic.  It takes courage to quit teaching a program that you have publicly supported and change to something that might work better.

Meets legal standards rather than product-liability standards.  Less-lethal weapon training systems provided by the manufacturer and vendor of the product often reflect a distinct bias toward their own product-liability rather than officer safety and effectiveness.  Red-green-yellow charts of striking targets for batons originated because Chiefs of Police were reluctant to purchase strangely shaped new impact weapons due to a perception of increased civil liability for their agency.  So vendors came up with mysterious new concepts such as “fluid shock” and hitting into the “green” belly of large muscles so that real injury could not occur to the suspect being struck.  Only after multiple strikes to “green” targets failed were officers to escalate to “yellow” targets—bony areas where batons might injure a person.  This results in many more baton strikes (creating huge civil, administrative liability for both the officer and the agency, as well as possible criminal liability for the officer) while dramatically reducing the product-liability to the vendor.

This concept of an escalating targeting system is not recognized as a proper legal standard—nowhere in Scott v. Harris, Graham v. Connor, or Tennessee v. Garner, or any of the other controlling cases around the country is there a requirement to escalate or de-escalate force.  Officers are required to respond with objectively reasonable force based on the totality of the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time.  This force response is required to balance the likelihood of injury to the subject with the officer’s reasonable perception of threat of the suspect to the officer or others. 

The plain facts of Impact weapons:  they are, by design, objects intended to injure a person in order to gain compliance through kinetic strikes.  They generally come in the form of metal rods or heavy hardwood dowels.  Impact weapons may be employed when an officer reasonably believes the subject is combative and represents a threat of injury and violence to the officer or others.  Given this reasonable belief, the impact weapon is employed to injure a subject sufficiently so as to incapacitate the individual and stop the violent behavior.  Striking at bony surfaces of the body not expected to cause death (head, spine) is permitted given the threat of the suspect.  Broken bones must be expected if the officer employs a baton.  After all, the officer, fundamentally, is hitting another person with metal or a piece of wood.  The only available option left to the officer if the baton fails is that of deadly force.  Officers should be trained to target those areas of the body that will result in stopping the suspect’s violent, combative behavior in as few strikes as possible.  This is a law-based, officer safety conscious, real world understanding of an impact weapon and its use by police.  Again…context.


Training programs are not easy to develop.  Expensive training in law enforcement is subject to many political and social forces.  Agency instructors vary dramatically in the quality of their abilities and subject matter expertise.  For most, training is a collateral duty that must fit in with their primary assignments as well as any special projects they have been assigned.  All are attempting to perform a vital service to their officers.

When selecting a training program, whether adopting the recommendations of a specific vendor or creating a blending of several programs, it is foundational to the effectiveness and usefulness of the program to ensure it is contextually correct for your officers’ needs. 

This is a life-and-death subject.  Professionals depend upon their training to get them home at night.  They require contextually valid training to give them a chance against a larger, stronger, perhaps better-trained, and motivated suspect.  How relevant is your training?  That is something that only your officers can demonstrate by their success or failure during conflict where failing is paid for in blood.