Do those black boots come with a black belt?

Karate, Judo, Jiu-Jitsu … these ancient arts have been accessible to police officers around the world for generations. That’s because the skills an officer learns practicing martial arts can help him or her cope with the ongoing danger of the profession in so many ways.

Mental conditioning is just as important as physical and cardiovascular strength. To have confidence and calm in a time of modern-day battle is an undeniable advantage. SWAT teams, in particular, face times of concentrated stress on a regular basis, and could benefit from the mental and physical conditioning that these techniques provide. The question is, how can instructors best package what could be hours and days of training into a one-hour take-away learning experience for the crazy-busy SWAT officer?

Here two men who have successfully practiced, competed in and now teach martial arts to special tactical operations teams explain why it’s important to keep martial arts training fresh, and teach it in a way that is relevant to the profession and modern life. After all, law enforcers practice martial arts for the same reason Chinese fighters did thousands of years ago—to win on the battlefield.

Martial arts as a lifestyle ... and liability

A certain amount of defensive and survival tactics training is course de rigueur from day one in the police academy. As SWAT programs continue to organize and re-tool their methods, they too look for better ways to teach physical tactics, and the syllabus is always evolving.

George Sheridan, president of the Indiana SWAT Officers Association (ISOA), has long been invested in the martial arts. He has practiced everything from Karate to Jiu-Jitsu to Shinto-Yoshin for nearly 40 years, and has been involved with SWAT for 28. In the military Sheridan was a close combat instructor and ran a martial arts school. Now he teaches what he learns to military and law enforcement teams looking to sharpen their skills.

Sheridan takes what he learns in his travels (which incidentally ranges from Arizona to Okinawa and everywhere in between) and uses it to develop nontraditional martial arts classes for SWAT teams. At one point in his career Sheridan trained with U.S. karate pioneer Robert Trias, founder of the first mainland U.S. karate school. Trias helped develop police physical tactics in the late 1940s, “back when they started putting pen to paper and documenting this type of stuff,” adds Sheridan.

Inside the agency, trainers must develop ideas that have been tried and tested from the battlefields of the feudal era up until now, and then modify them to fit inside the parameters of today’s world. Indiana SWAT officers practice the attacking arts Shinto Yoshin Kai and Kiu-Jitsu in addition to striking arts Shuri-Ryu and Karate. Sheridan and other instructors must present the training in such a way that it is tactically acceptable, legally acceptable and easy to recall.

“Everything we do we have to answer to,” says Sheridan. “We have to have the appropriate methods of control to manage resistive behavior with the appropriate amount of force.” Some martial arts techniques, like the neck restraint, would amount to high liability were it applied in a law enforcement setting. If an officer is not properly trained, he can easily come into legal issues, not to mention injuries.

“It’s crucial to focus on four postures:” says Sheridan, “standing, kneeling, sitting and lying.” And keep it simple! “Cops don’t like to sweat, train or bleed ... You have to keep it very simple so that in high stress situations they won’t have to be going through a repertoire of multiple techniques.”

They don’t allow firearms in cage fights

Karate moves are all well and good, but that doesn’t change the fact that a real SWAT officer will have more tools at his or her disposal than just hands and feet. For this reason firearms handling and weapons training can and should be integrated into martial arts practice, too. In 2010, Donnell Etienne, a well-seasoned martial arts instructor, transferred over from the Merrillville (Ind.) Police Department to the Northwest Indiana Law Enforcement Academy (NILEA), and now spends a lot of time practicing martial arts in his personal life and teaching it in his profession. Etienne says there is an endless list of new techniques and counters for the curious officer to learn. Though they are all “pretty good,” says Etienne, “What I focus on and what brought me into it was the ground portion. A fight or an encounter always starts up on its feet, but what happens if you get knocked down, trip, or you step on ice or snow and it changes the game?”

When an officer is on the ground, gun retention becomes immensely important, as does a survival mindset. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in particular emphasizes feeling comfortable fighting “off your back.” Derived from Japanese Kodokan Judo in the early 20th century, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a combat sport and self defense system that focuses on grappling and particularly ground fighting. This can have a number of advantages for SWAT officers in heavy gear.

“I think [Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu] is a bit more popular now with the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and … the younger generation,” says Etienne. “A lot of people are practicing it; they can log onto YouTube and find moves. It comes down to basic positioning, and a lot of it is out there for the public to see.”

Sheridan cautions that although cage fighting and UFC are mainstream and easily accessible, his moves are not exactly what you’d see on TV: “A lot of times we can’t do … that stuff. Or, it’s not practical for us in law enforcement [regarding cage matches]. For a police officer to be in a prolonged conflict like that, the police officer on his or her back and being on the receiving end … elevates his ability to use force. He can go to his gun. Usually with SWAT teams we have more than one friend. And we’ve all got guns. And so when we come to a party we come armed to the teeth.

“It’s deadly serious when a SWAT team is involved. All bets are off.”

Tailoring it to fit

Etienne makes sure his lessons are easy to digest. He keeps each of his training sessions basic and makes sure to include lots of repetition. Tactical teams in particular can become easily stressed in a high-stakes situation and go into panic mode. That’s when injuries happen. “We always encourage our new recruits and even veteran officers to go out and seek additional training,” says Etienne. “The more repetition you get, the more likely you’re going to remember ... and it will come second nature if you have an encounter down the road.”

He recently taught a SWAT class for the Northwest Regional SWAT Team at Team Corral Martial Arts in Schererville, Ind. Etienne took officers from area teams through the paces of a variety of SWAT tactics and self-defense moves during his 8-hour teaching block.

“We still get officers from the area that want to receive that type of training, such as survival ground fighting and physical tactics, because some of them haven’t received it since they graduated from the academy,” says Etienne. Like anything in life it pays to remember those building blocks you learned in school; but it’s maybe more important to add-on to that experience and keep learning.

In the future Etienne wants to include more edged-weapon training. The main thing when training tactical teams in martial arts techniques, he says, is to try to break it up and combine a little bit of everything—ground fighting, standing, weapons training—to time-strapped and short-staffed teams in the hopes that students will retain something from each session.

Remember, too, that certain techniques will resonate more with SWAT than regular patrol officers. For example, tactical operations officers will have more equipment and therefore more restrictions. Gun retention drills are crucial, especially when carrying multiple weapons. Close quarter combat is also a good choice to incorporate into SWAT training. This includes not only standing and being defensive, but also being able to read body language and decipher whether that other person across from you is trained or not.

Good cardiovascular conditioning undoubtedly helps control anxiety throughout stressful altercations. Embracing martial arts can help an officer streamline the decision-making process, and build his or her confidence to react appropriately no matter the situation. It’s an all-around good fit when preparing for today’s modern battlefield.