I Used to Teach Cops Chokeholds, and I’m Sorry

Fightland Blog

By Michael Hresko

Photo by Joshua Albert

I didn’t want to write about this at first—I thought that arguing about whether or not what was used to kill Eric Garner could be considered a chokehold minimized the larger issue of racism and police brutality. But after conservative pundit Sean Hannity said he was a “martial arts student” on his show, I changed my mind. As Jon Stewart so brilliantly pointed out, Hannity joined the rest of the police apologists in some of the most offensive coverage of what is now just the most recent incident in an endless stream of unarmed black folks being killed by police officers across the country. Like the other apologists, he attempts to point Eric Garner’s death to the fact he was out of shape, a huge scary giant, or that this chokehold was an appropriate use of force.

I feel as guilty as I do disgusted watching this all play out. I have a confession to make. I used to teach cops how to fight. Or rather, how to incorporate mixed martial arts into their arrest techniques. It was during college, when I was teaching private jiu jitsu lessons for party money. I had met some police officers at the gyms where I was training, and was invited to teach seminars to “defensive tactics” instructors as well as one-on-one lessons.

The indoctrination that cops were even-handed started when I was young. My father was a Secret Service Agent, and he introduced me to Brazilian jiu jitsu—which he approved of because he saw it as an extension of what he did. The party line is that cops are inherently ethical people, and that the incorporation of martial arts is a positive thing—that it enables law enforcement to detain people in more effective, humane ways. But that’s just not the case. Police overcompensate for their lack of confidence and apply too much pressure to wrist locks, and chokeholds are being held too long and with inconsistent pressure. They are like that terrible white belt in class going ape-shit on every move, and hurting their partner.

Photo via Flickr user freeslide510

My dad told me that when Relson Gracie moved to Hawaii he showed up in the courtyard of the Honolulu Federal Building and challenged everyone. If you thought you could beat him up, he said, then come on down and try. The result was that these agencies immediately hired Relson to teach them the ways. Most people’s introduction to the sport was by way of UFC 1. Mine was the day my dad brought home the first Gracie In Action VHS from work. My father had done years and years of Krav Maga, and was always very proud he had spent time as an arrest technique instructor at a Secret Service training facility in Maryland. He popped in the tape and said, “This changes everything.” I had no idea how right he was.

The government spends tons of money on martial arts. Federal agencies, military, and individual police departments all contract out week long seminars from various martial arts instructors. One of the most prolific being the late Bob Koga, a former Los Angeles drug enforcement officer who developed an arrest curriculum (which includes baton technique) based on Aikido.

Shortly after 9-11, I found myself rolling at a brand-new Air Marshalls mat room, explaining why the Back Sweep could work in the narrow space between seats in airplanes. The point is that there should be value in teaching those in power how to non-lethally subdue a threat. But what we have learned is that this is not money well spent because law enforcement are not using it correctly. Why would they?

Photo via Flickr user Elvert Barnes

The Gracies used to be very, very selective with who received their jiu jitsu training. Before the days of Gracie Garage, and online lessons. Hélio Gracie must be rolling in his grave. It takes time, energy, thought, and practice to properly wield the power of martial arts.

Charlie Gilmour wrote a piece for Fightland about how lame Krav Maga is, basically because it has enabled crooked cops everywhere to oppress people. I thought he was being a little dramatic, but I’m with it now.

Cops should focus on non-violent methods of arrest because they will never have the time or interest to properly incorporate martial arts. The notion that chokes can make cops better at their jobs is problematic because chokes should only be used in self-defense. Eric Garner was not resisting, he was being attacked.

There is a false idea that weekend seminars by themselves turn cops into non-lethal arrest and detain wizards—they don’t though. They have no real incentive to learn these techniques and develop their expertise. The result of half-assed training is Eric Garner. After all, cops are shooting people and not going to get indicted. So why even learn it? These folks sleep well at night because they sleep with the mythology that crime is a black problem and they have it coming.

It takes years of practice to learn a chokehold well enough to be proficient enough to use it in practice. And the obvious, unspoken ethic of the martial artist is if your opponent taps out you stop choking him. Fight like a gentleman. It’s not about power. It’s about the real life struggle. In the way you tap someone out and someone taps you out. It’s not about oppression and dominance and going too far. 

Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who murdered Eric Garner, did not understand that if he just holds it and holds it and holds the choke someone can die. People are now calling it a seatbelt hold. Some people are still classifying it as a chokehold. I don’t give a fuck what it is. It contributed to the death of an unarmed non-threatening man’s life. The medical examiner determined that the cause of death was "compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police."

Is it possible that a cop I taught a private lesson to could have killed someone with something I taught them? Absolutely. This kind of treatment is everywhere. It’s not just big cities, it’s in small towns. The same cops I taught hooked me up with some college credits. All I had to do were ride-a-longs at night with the team that policed the college bar area of town. One night they showed me a video they had taken of themselves holding down a “drunk Indian” who had bit an officer during a mishandled arrest attempt. They beat him with batons and shouted at him while he pleaded for reprieve. That was the day I decided I would stop teaching them forever, and that I would most certainly not follow in my fathers footsteps.

The same thing happened in Staten Island, New York. That day Eric Garner asked the cops to stop fucking with him. A bunch of cops swarmed the dude, put him in a chokehold (a rather sloppy chokehold from a rather sloppy cop), and suffocated him.

Police are out there street fighting with our beloved Gentle Art. Dear Martial Artists everywhere, let’s hold off on teaching law enforcement until they get their shit together.

I’ve taught the wrong people chokeholds. Free jiu jitsu lessons to all poor black people for the rest of my life. I can’t breathe.


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