Defensive tactics come of age

Defensive tactics training is the most sophisticated it has ever been. But at the same time, defensive tactics training hasn’t kept up with the times. How could these two contradictory statements be accurate? Well, the state of defensive tactics...

Rather than work from imagined scenarios, today's most advanced defensive tactics trainers are looking at real combat and figuring out what the officer has to do to survive and triumph. It certainly makes sense to approach defensive tactics this way—instead of forcing law enforcement to adapt to ritualized martial arts techniques, hoping that the techniques work when they have to, trainers are looking at real situations and designing moves and strategies that allow the officers to triumph. To be successful, any defensive tactics training system has to take into account the realities of law enforcement work, and arm officers with the means to survive. If a department is too worried about liability in these situations, officers are hamstrung and almost sure to fail when facing an opponent who will do anything to win.

“There are really three fights,” Blauer adds. “The first fight is between you and you (courage and fear management), the second fight is between you and the bad guy and the third fight is between you and the legal system. Most departments build their defensive tactics around fight three, which puts officers at risk. I think every move is court defensible if it’s reasonable given the situation. It might be reasonable to pick up a rock and bash the bad guy over the head if he has your gun and is getting ready to shoot you with it.”

The system of defensive tactics used has to be adapted to real law enforcement use and the lack of training time. “The reality is that the average law enforcement person doesn't have time to train,” admits ISR Matrix’s Fuller. “The ISR Matrix was developed as a system that is interesting and challenging and relevant to the mission. You don't want to over-invest in one particular system. Grappling is popular now, but some departments over embrace it. Sometimes they lose context; even though someone knows an arm bar, that doesn't mean that it will transfer over in a real life situation. In South Florida, we have a large immigrant population in mobile homes,” he continues. “We chase people into a back bedroom and we get tied up with them, and takedowns don't take into account the small size of the area. These don't work when your head is under a commode in a mobile home bathroom—you have to adjust your training to the situations your officers will likely face.”


The increased popularity of Mixed Martial Arts has had an impact on the nature of resistance. Whether someone is trained in MMA or someone is a fan, grappling and takedowns have become more common, and law enforcement has to be better prepared for this kind of resistance and attack.

“Mixed Martial Arts is impacting things,” agrees Nance. “You might get a guy who likes to go to the gym who picks up a few techniques from watching the fights, and he might get drunk and try some of these on you. Worst case is someone who is training in this stuff and decides to assault an officer. It’s unrealistic to train an officer to be able to deal with someone highly skilled, but it’s important to stay in the fight and hold on until help gets there.”

A possible change in training approach could be to teach defensive tactics like a sport, by adding incremental, progressive resistance as the officers get more accomplished. “What we have learned from MMA is that everything has to be tested,” says ISR Matrix’s Fuller. “We make a science of the teaching method; when we teach a skill, the student should be able to apply it to a moving subject. We teach it first with a static subject, then we go to progressive resistance. Eventually it becomes a realistic situation where you have to make the technique work. As soon as the people have an idea of where they are going and are doing the technique correctly, we have them apply it in a realistic situation.”

Realistic training

One polarizing topic in defensive tactics is how to introduce realism into training. The risk is officers can become injured in realistic training that involves full contact. One side preaches that officers have to be placed under pressure to gauge how they will respond, to harden them for battle, so to speak, while the other side questions the logic in training that results in officers having to leave their jobs to recover from injuries incurred during training.

“Our scenarios aren't full blown combat, but they are as realistic as possible,” says Fuller. “If you just think the answer is sparring or pressure testing, you are going to injure people in training. This can become really expensive. That's the trick, balancing the need for realistic training with safety. You can go the wrong direction with things, that's why we use progressive resistance—sometimes people won't get to the highest level of intensity because of personal limitations. It all depends on the people you are training. The training has to be scalable.”