Control Holds

March 20, 2008
Placing a resistive suspect in a control hold is easier said than done.

The ultimate goal of any use of force by police is to establish control. At its lowest level control might be achieved merely through officer presence or verbal persuasion. Most citizens, upon seeing a police officer, cease engaging in criminal activity, at least while the officer remains on scene.

On the other end of the control spectrum would be the use of deadly force, or force likely to result in death or serious bodily injury.

As police officers, we commonly find ourselves on a middle ground of sorts. In other words, it might take more than arriving on scene and giving verbal commands to take the belligerent drunk into custody but we're probably not going to have to shoot him.

To take a suspect into custody or overcome resistance, many police officers are taught joint manipulation techniques or control holds. Unfortunately, many of these techniques are not nearly as effective on the street as they seem to be in training. This can be mainly attributed to unrealistic expectations and insufficient training.

Unrealistic expectations

During the 1970s there began a transformation in police defensive tactics in this country. Techniques based on traditional Asian martial arts such as Aikido and Jiu-jitsu became prevalent. Not surprisingly, the notion of an officer using a suspect's own force against them as opposed to conking them over the head with a "billy club" was appealing to police administrators. This "gentler" approach to suspect control would help to reduce the number of allegations of excessive force and subsequently minimize the department's exposure to civil liability.

Instructors of many of these martial arts-based systems claimed that since the control holds they advocated were based on leverage rather than strength, they would enable even meek and mild "Officer Friendly" to take down super-sized villains with relative ease. Best of all, this would be accomplished without injury to the officer or the suspect.

Well, police administrators and officers alike soon realized that many of the control holds that worked so well on the mat didn't fair nearly as well on the street. This often resulted in an officer reverting to what they were most familiar with. If the officer were a high school wrestler, he would likely attempt to wrestle the suspect to the ground. A former football player might resort to tackling a suspect, while a golden glove boxer would probably punch the suspect in the face with a clenched fist.

In situations where control holds were ineffective, many officers resorted to using a relatively high level of force such as striking the suspect in the head with an improvised weapon (such as a flashlight) or a clenched fist in order to get the upper hand. Ironically, this phenomenon can actually result in departments increasing their exposure to civil liability. What's the solution? Use the right amount and type of force at the onset.

Why do some of the control holds that appear so effective in training fair so poorly on the street? Here are a few factors to consider:

  • The training was probably conducted in a well-lit, climate controlled, matted area. (I've yet to find such an area on patrol).
  • While the officer playing the role of the suspect attacked at half speed, the instructor demonstrated at full speed.
  • The officer pretending to be the suspect was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Studies have shown that the majority of suspects who attack officers are under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. This could result in the suspect being less susceptible to a pain stimulus, which would be problematic if the officer was relying on a control hold based on the pain/compliance methodology.
  • The body's physiological response during a real use of force incident will likely manifest itself in the form of an elevated pulse, decreased vision, distorted hearing, and less coordinated movement. Perhaps the most significant physiological factor is the loss of fine motor skills, often required in the application of a control hold.
  • The officer playing the suspect complied to avoid pain and/or embarrassment in front of their peers. A committed suspect will fight through the pain and continue to attack the officer.
There are several other reasons why some techniques look better than they work but I think you get the idea.

Insufficient Training

Most police officers only receive departmental defensive tactics training a couple times per year. Compare that to a black belt martial artist who might train several times per week for years. A technique or combination of techniques that might be second nature to an experienced martial artist might be overwhelming to a police officer due the officer's relative lack of familiarity with the technique.

Insufficient training time coupled with overly complex tactics can be a recipe for disaster. Tactics for law enforcement officers should adhere to the K.I.S.S. principle.

Simplicity of technique is the cornerstone of any good defensive tactics program. The more steps there are to a particular technique or tactic, the greater the probability that something will go wrong. If while attempting to execute a complex technique, the officer cannot complete step three of seven, the officer may hesitate leaving him or herself vulnerable to attack.


So, do control holds really work? Yes... sometimes.

The best time to apply a control hold is before the suspect is trying to hit you or when his ability to hit you is diminished, as in the case of a prone suspect. If the suspect is attacking you, control holds should be the furthest thing from your mind!

To stack the odds in your favor, use simple control holds comprised of as few individual steps as possible. Practice regularly. Be prepared to transition to personal body strikes if you are unable to achieve control. Consider disengaging and accessing the appropriate tool from your duty belt to assess the situation.

Always have a "plan B" and never give up!

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Officer, create an account today!