March 29, 2022

A Georgia police department made the martial art a training requirement, and says the approach is paying off.

By Katja Ridderbusch

When Police Sgt. Josh Liedke puts on his gi, the two-piece uniform worn in martial arts, for an hour of Brazilian jiujitsu sparring, he practices a form of mindfulness, or being present in the moment.

“When you come here, you focus on nothing but the mat and your technique,” the 21-year law enforcement veteran says, catching his breath after several rounds of intense rolling, arm bars, back takes and leg locks.

During that hour, Liedke doesn’t think about his high-stress job in a unit that combats drug and gang crime. He doesn’t think about the sounds, smells and sights of violence and suffering.

“You just pay attention to the moves,” he says. “And you also get a great workout in.”

Liedke, 42, with a trimmed beard and relaxed smile, serves in the Marietta Police Department, in a city about 20 miles northwest of Atlanta. The department, with approximately 140 sworn officers, has garnered attention with an approach that builds Brazilian jiujitsu, or BJJ, into its training curriculum. It’s a requirement for all new hires and strongly encouraged for veteran officers.

A main argument: BJJ helps improve officers’ physical and mental health, as well as resilience. As a result, officers use lesser force during an arrest. Three years into the effort, “our overall use of force is down,” says Maj. Jake King, who initiated the program. For the Georgia agency, Brazilian jiujitsu has become a de-escalation tool.

The concept is catching on. The Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, the state’s law enforcement certification agency, just voted to move forward with approving the Marietta model as a police training program for the entire state. Also, the Georgia Legislature soon may consider legislation to fund jiujitsu for all law enforcement. Legislators elsewhere, including in Michigan, are pushing for similar measures.

 BJJ originated in Japan and took hold as a self-defense sport in Brazil some 100 years ago. It mostly uses grappling techniques based on leverage and body positioning. Some law enforcement agencies, like the police department in St. Paul, Minnesota, have used elements of martial arts before, but the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other highly publicized cases of officers using excessive force have increased demand for police reform, including less violent approaches to controlling suspects.

Add to that the potential benefits to cops’ own physical and mental health: One study from researchers at Harvard University and elsewhere found restraints and altercations were associated with a roughly 30 to 70 times increased risk of sudden cardiac death among law enforcement officers compared with their risk during more routine duties. Though findings vary, some research also suggests law enforcement officers may be more likely to die at a younger age than the general population.

Meanwhile, police officers can be plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout, and are at greater risk of suicide compared with other employed individuals. Last year alone, 133 law enforcement first responders reportedly took their lives – more than twice the number of officers killed by gunfire.

“It’s a perfect storm,” says King, who’s been on the force for 24 years and has personally practiced jiujitsu for five. “We really needed to figure out the best way for our officers to learn jiujitsu” in a matter that’s safe, effective and sustainable.

For years, the Marietta Police Department had sent its defensive tactics instructors to get certified through Gracie University – a prominent jiujitsu training organization that developed a program specifically designed for law enforcement. 

But instead of solely relying on the train-the-trainer model, King wanted to professionalize the concept. He partnered with a local gym, Borges Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, where recruits and in-service officers now train under the supervision of an experienced coach. In 2019, the police department officially kicked off the program.

One of the biggest potential benefits of BJJ to officers’ health and wellness is relief from acute and chronic stress, says Dr. Megan Jimenez, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert at Emory University in Atlanta. Cops are “constantly going at 500 miles per hour,” continues Jimenez, who has practiced jiujitsu for eight years and advocates for the holistic qualities of the sport, but is not involved with the Marietta program. “Officers often lose a sense of calmness when they’re out on the streets,” she says. “Practicing jiujitsu teaches them to breathe, it teaches them to relax and to focus.”

Psychologists have long found that proper breathing techniques can help break tunnel vision, a common response to a threat, which can lead to sounder decision-making.

Building confidence is another benefit. “A nervous officer is a dangerous officer,” says Sgt. Reinaldo Figueroa, who oversees Marietta PD’s training department.

Insufficient training is often a factor. After initial academy training, Figueroa says, the average cop in the U.S. receives “very limited” hands-on defensive tactics training each year.

Figueroa also says that younger officers who grew up in the digital world and a climate of zero tolerance for bullying “have probably never been in a street fight as kids.” When they deal with a real-life conflict for the first time, he continues, they sometimes panic and “go to their Taser or firearm when they don’t necessarily need to.” Learning the skill set that BJJ provides teaches these officers “to understand conflict and be comfortable with it.”

After the program began, according to the Marietta Police Department, jiujitsu-trained officers used Tasers in 54% of incidents involving the use of force, compared with a 77% usage rate among their untrained coworkers. Pete Blair, executive director of Texas State University’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, has analyzed the data from Marietta, and says it suggests that jiujitsu training provides officers with the physical and mental skills to take control of a suspect by using a few grappling moves, but without escalating to weapons.

“The concept makes a lot of sense,” he says, though he points out that the department’s data is not comprehensive enough to provide clear evidence. The Marshall Project also has noted that at least some of a downward trend in the department’s use of force occurred while the COVID-19 pandemic curbed traditional police contact with the public.

Elsewhere, data from the St. Paul Police Department in Minnesota – which kicked off a new training program rooted in jiujitsu in 2015 – reportedly has shown a similar trend, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, with a 37% reduction in use of force.

Since it introduced the BJJ program, the Marietta Police Department has almost doubled its number of female cops, from 12 to 21. Officer Valerie Douthitt says she chose Marietta specifically for the jiujitsu training. “Just knowing that I’m able to control someone twice my size, if necessary, makes me calmer, more assertive,” says the petite, 24-year-old rookie from Oregon.

There are other fitness-related benefits to jiujitsu. With the right technique and regular training, orthopedic surgeon Jimenez says, BJJ can help cops reduce injuries to themselves and the person they are trying to control.

Marietta police say their data shows arrest-related injuries among officers that required a visit to the ER or with a doctor – like sprains, broken ribs or wounds that needed stitches – declined by 48% after the mandatory training program was in effect. And in 2020, per the department, suspects were more than twice as likely to suffer an injury resulting in medical clearance if they were involved in a use-of-force incident with an officer who was not jiujitsu-trained.

Jiujitsu also helps with conditioning and flexibility, Jimenez says. Many veteran cops struggle with lower back and hip problems after years of carrying 20 or 30 pounds of weapons and tools on their duty belts. Plus, officers generally have “unhealthy lifestyles,” she adds: They sit in patrol cars for shifts of sometimes 12 hours. Many have long commutes home, and between work and family life find it difficult to make the time to work out.

Mandatory BJJ training could motivate cops to be more active, Jimenez says: “It’s great cardio, and it can really help them get in shape.”

In Marietta, new police hires are required to attend a minimum of one BJJ training session per week until they finish the academy and field training, which is about eight to nine months in total. In July of 2020, the department moved to allow all of its cops to participate. Officers can attend up to three classes per week for free and be paid for their time, with BJJ hours credited as defensive tactics training. About two-thirds of officers opted for the program, according to Marietta PD.

King says he has received queries about the initiative from police departments around the world. He has crisscrossed the U.S. coaching departments on how to integrate BJJ training.

“Marietta is certainly on the leading edge as far as adopting and rolling out a solid BJJ program,” says Blair of Texas State.

Other police departments are following suit. The Atlanta Police Department – with an authorized strength of over 2,000 sworn officers, more than 10 times the size of Marietta’s force – is in the process of creating a BJJ program based on the Marietta model, according to Lt. Karla Baldini at the Atlanta Police Department Training Academy. The 30-officer police department in Dallas, a small city northwest of Atlanta, already has done so.

“I’m a big advocate for Brazilian jiujitsu, mainly because it has huge benefits for physical and mental health,” says Dallas Police Lt. Jesse Medlock, who put the department’s program together last year. “It helps with fitness and stress relief, builds confidence and teaches respect.”

In Dallas, recruits and new officers in field training are required to log four hours per month at a local jiujitsu gym. Following their training, participation in BJJ is voluntary. But after plenty of positive feedback, Medlock says the department is considering “making it mandatory for every officer to train at least twice a month.”

The biggest challenge has been funding, Medlock says. But the department found a way to pay for its program, mainly by using money from drug seizures. Dallas also has applied for a federal de-escalation grant to help fund BJJ training.

Either way, Medlock says, “we are committed to keep pushing the program out and making it work.”

But many small and rural police departments – which account for the majority of the approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. – struggle with tight budgets and staff shortages, and lack access to BJJ gyms. They may have to find other solutions, like partnering and sending one of their defensive tactics instructors to a BJJ academy for certification.

Back at the Brazilian jiujitsu gym in Marietta, Sgt. Liedke has finished his workout and is getting ready to hit the road. He says he hopes he doesn’t have to get into a grappling match with a suspect today or any other day, but is glad he has the skill set to cause minimal harm.

He’ll be back on the mat the next day, and if he doesn’t show up, other cops will ping him.

“For many of us, Brazilian jiujitsu has become a lifestyle,” he says. “It’s great for the body. It’s great for the mind. It’s great for the soul.”

© U.S. News & World Report / Katja Ridderbusch