Marksman Trainer: Police Ground Defense–The Need for Useful and Practical Training




Law officers face serious consequences when defending against combative subjects. In fact, studies indicate that 86-92% of the times a suspect resists, the fight goes to the ground. Ramifications for losing a ground battle can range from embarrassment to fatality. Recognizing the need for proper training against resistive subjects, defensive tactics instructors have traditionally turned toward sport systems. Officers have been exposed to jujitsu as well as various western wrestling moves. Many instructors are satisfied because this method involves complicated techniques they can play with. However, a majority of officers exposed to this sort of training are less than pleased with the results. Even though many are unable to successfully apply even the easiest techniques on resistive suspects, they are expected to perform complicated techniques in order to prevail in dire circumstances. Typically, reactions of officers learning these complicated jujitsu/wrestling moves has been similar to this: “They’re really cool, but I can’t remember them” or “I will never make them work on the street—this is a waste of time.”

Defensive tactics instructors must provide useful and practical training for the guys on the street. This is our first priority—all else is secondary. Too often, what would be a simple scuffle while standing up, becomes a life-and-death struggle on the ground. When determining what we teach, we must realistically understand who is doing the learning—and train them within their ability to employ the tactics on the street.

Who are we teaching?
The average officer is a regular guy (male or female), who possesses average strength and average athletic aptitude—not much different than the average civilian. Let’s face it, most officers demonstrate little desire to spend time learning complicated moves on-duty—and no interest for off-duty training. They are not athletes and never will be, regardless of how many lectures they receive. Let’s call these officers the 85%ers. They represent 85% of all law enforcement officers in terms of skill, athleticism and conditioning.

On the other hand, the 15%ers are officers who are top athletes, with great attitudes and a huge drive for excellence. They normally don’t need departmentally-supplied training. In fact, if all DT training were discontinued, they would train on their own, at their own expense to maintain their hard-won skills and competency The 85%ers won’t…and don’t. Therefore, we must aim the vast majority of training toward the 85%’ers. The training must be simple enough for them to remember while under threat, and practical enough to be used against an offender, months after training.

There are generally two groups of offenders that officers face. The first and most common is the opportunist. This subject is someone who will fight out of emotion (usually fear or anger), and will continue to fight as long as escape remains a possibility. Given the chance to get away, opportunists normally flee. Once they are sufficiently injured or fatigued, or escape is no longer probable, their resistance disappears.
The second group of subjects law enforcement confronts are the prepared offenders. These people have sufficient training, determination and mindset to engage the officer through physical combatives designed and intended to overwhelm. The prepared offender is much more dangerous because the officer’s death or serious injury is a part of his plan from the beginning. Prepared offenders understand that their freedom (however temporary) can only result from the officer being unable to identify them and communicate with backup. Even if the chance to escape presents itself, the prepared offender will continue to fight until the officer is disabled or dead. Additional consideration must be given to the fact that almost every time an officer is physically engaged with a subject, he has no idea whether the person is armed or not. The longer an officer remains engaged with an aggressive subject, the higher the risk of a weapon being produced or the officer being disarmed.

What is the law for these situations? In the case of the opportunist who flees at his earliest chance, the officer must make a Garner decision:

  1. Is there probable cause to believe the subject committed a crime of extreme violence or threatened violence?
  2. Is the subject armed or a serious threat to present or future officers, or to the public should his arrest be delayed?
  3. Is it feasible to give a warning prior to shooting?

Beyond this, the officer must know if his agency’s policy permits this shooting under the present circumstances. The officer must decide if the attack was vicious enough to qualify. A punch or two to the officer’s face may or may not qualify, whereas a serious effort to disarm the officer likely would. Garner does not require that the suspect be armed before being shot in the back. Therefore, it is necessary to articulate the danger to pursuing officers who attempt to arrest the suspect. And finally, warning the suspect to stop prior to shooting must be attempted if the situation permits.

In the case of the prepared offender—or the committed opportunist—who continues to assault the officer despite the opportunity to flee, what can the officer reasonably believe about this person’s intentions? The only reason to stay and fight with a police officer when the officer is down and the chance to run is open, is because you intend to seriously harm the officer or kill him. If the officer objectively and reasonably believes the subject is an imminent threat (of death or serious physical injury), based upon the totality of the facts and circumstances known to him at the time, that officer may legally respond with deadly force to stop the subject’s continuing attack.

Officers must be taught to work to the police solution. It is vital when developing law enforcement training that rules governing sports not be applied. Fighting a suspect is not a tournament–there are no referees. All defensive tactics problems cannot be solved through defensive tactics. If an officer is being overwhelmed by a larger, stronger and more skilled offender who has the opportunity to escape, yet continues to assault, there are no defensive tactics that are going to prevent the officer from being seriously injured or worse. The officer is already giving it his best, and he is losing. In an instance like this, there is no choice but to employ deadly force to stop the attack. Training programs must incorporate these kinds of situations in order to guarantee realism. Any training involving ground defense must remove the “sport-oriented, remain engaged at any cost component” from its lesson plan. Additionally, the concept of successfully defending against a ground assault and then reengaging with a skilled offender is naïve and dangerous. If the subject was beating you and you somehow managed to escape, why should we teach you to go back into the fight?

Instead, the goal is to survive the incident with as little injury as possible, and to take the subject into custody. This may mean disengaging from the offender and allowing him to flee. Now, to quiet the howls of protest about “I didn’t become a cop to let bad guys go,” let’s look at the reality of this situation: If you are winning, remain engaged—this only makes sense. If you realistically believe you can win, stay engaged and reengage if you must. But if you are losing, disengage.

If you are winning, you take the subject into custody through the same problem-solving approach you always do. He may be fighting, but you, at least for now, are in little danger of losing the fight (even if you don’t have control of him). The subject is probably face down and is not in a position to harm you.

If you are losing (getting a serious beating and possibly losing your weapon because you are hurt, tired or outclassed by the bad guy, or he is arming himself ), why remain engaged? Instead, work to the police solution. Apply the law and your weapons as you were trained (according to the circumstances known to you at the time), and then articulate all of those circumstances.

Current Training Solutions
Current training teaches ground fighting which incorporates tournament and mat solutions. These systems normally provide complicated techniques that must be applied by 85%’ers with less than 8-hours of training per year in a dynamic fighting situation. Most training programs fail to address the “who are we teaching” question. A jujitsu program requires years of dedicated training before you can apply even simple techniques in a combative situation. Wrestling takes two or three years of daily intensive practice before you can reliably apply escapes and holds to compete against similarly-trained individuals. Who has that kind of training time? The idea that anyone can teach an officer to competently fight utilizing complex, highly technical skills regardless of the officers’ abilities and motivation is incredibly naïve. It just doesn’t happen in the real world.
Another problem with martial arts-based training is its reliance upon rules. Jujitsu, wrestling, even UFC-style mixed fighting systems rely upon safety rules. For example, “the guard” is a great tournament technique when opponents are not allowed to bite, eye gouge, tear off testicles, use weapons, or take your weapon. However, the real-world of criminal resistors abides by none of these rules. The officer utilizing this technique is not protected from having his eyes gouged, being bitten, testicles repeatedly struck, or having his weapon taken away. It’s difficult enough to overcome a vicious assault while operating under constitutional and policy restraints, without adding artificial restraints of tournament rules.

Defensive tactics should not be what we—trained, skilled, strong, motivated instructors—want it to be. It should not be designed for us. While every class should push officers to reach higher than they might on their own, we must look realistically at who we are training and the time allotted for that training. Ask yourself, “Who am I training, and how much time do I have to do it?” Your answer will probably be, “A few hours per year to train my 85%ers to survive.” These are average people, who are not motivated to stay in shape, hone their skills or practice. Training must be meaningful and relevant to their needs. This translates to survivability against motivated, sometimes highly-skilled offenders. Sport solutions do not translate into the real-world needs of officers. Officers are better served with training that allows offenders to escape when things are not going well for the officer. Nothing will prevent the officer from safely following the suspect while marshalling the resources needed to capture him. It means the officer chose to disengage until the odds were better for a safer arrest.

If the suspect refuses to disengage, training must provide defense options that permit effectively ending the assault. Knowledge of policy and law are vital in making deadly force response decisions. We must train our people to fight as law enforcement officers reasonably utilizing weapons. They should not be taught to emulate unarmed, highly skilled UFC fighters or jujitsu players. Our job as trainers is to provide realistic training within the allotted timeframe. Our 85%ers deserve our best efforts for their survival.

About the Author
George Williams is the Director of Training for Cutting Edge Training. For more information, go to:

Back to Top