It's called 'defensive tactics' for a reason

All too often I hear both officers and their instructors call defensive tactics training 'self-defense'; here's why they're wrong to call it that


By Sheldon Best, C1 Contributor

I’m troubled whenever I hear officers refer to their department’s defensive tactics system as ‘self-defense training;’ even more so when I hear instructors doing the same. It’s not a simple matter of words or terminology; making such a statement demonstrates quite clearly that there is a lack of understanding regarding the purpose of our defensive tactics training.  To understand the issue, we must first understand that ‘defensive tactics’ and ‘self-defense’ are two entirely different concepts, trained differently, with different goals in mind.

It’s not a game
Many people think of martial arts as self-defense training. That may or may not be the case. Consider, for example jiu-jitsu. Jiu-jitsu dojos or ‘clubs’ can be found in every mid-sized city, thanks to the popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA). Particularly common is the Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), made famous by MMA fighters. Those schooled in the history of martial arts recognize that these clubs are teaching a sport, intended for a specific purpose: competition.

The joint locks and chokes are held with enough pressure to cause the opponent to withdraw from the match by submitting or losing consciousness. The Japanese version of jiu-jitsu upon which BJJ was based was a style of self-defense. Arm bars and other joint locks were taught to destroy the joints and break the bones. Chokes were taught to restrict the flow of air, or more effectively, the flow of blood to the brain, causing unconsciousness followed quickly by death. In these fights, there was no winner or loser, only a survivor. The concept of ‘submission’ didn’t really evolve until jiu-jitsu migrated from the world of combat to the sporting world.

When you’re keeping yourself safe
Self-defense training is not conducted for sporting purposes. It’s as the name implies, training to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Effective self-defense training focuses on situational awareness, recognizing a threat and avoiding it at all costs. When conflict is unavoidable, the techniques taught in self-defense training are selected for their ability to stop the attack, disable the attacker, and allow for safely escaping the encounter.

The preferred techniques do as much damage as quickly as possible. To that end, soft tissues and joints are favored target areas. Rakes to the eyes, strikes to the groin or throat, blows and trauma to the joints are often taught. Improvised weaponry is also a favorite topic. Key rings can be used as makeshift brass knuckles; individual keys can be used to puncture eyes, throat or other soft tissue. Purses, canes, cell phones can all be used as improvised weapons. Once the attacker has been incapacitated, the focus becomes escape- getting yourself and your loved ones out of the area. ‘Text book’ self-defense scenarios leave the attacker lying on the ground, unconscious, crippled and bleeding.

And then there’s defensive tactics
The purpose of defensive tactics training, on the other hand is ‘control;’ control of our clientele, our institution, and ourselves. True, we train situational awareness, the ability to monitor others, read body language and prepare for an attack. Also true is that we train to avoid fighting whenever possible, and always to consider escape from the encounter we cannot handle on our own. We, however, have objectives aside from our own personal safety to consider. We are charged with the safety of others. The safety of the public, our co-workers and the inmates in our charge must always be considered.

We have a duty to protect that mandates sometimes we have to run into a fight. Sometimes we have to engage, even when every instinct is to run and we have a clear route to safety available. For those times, we select techniques that will enable us to manage our subjects humanely.

In our training, we balance safety and efficiency – we train to end the encounter quickly, without causing needless or excessive injury. We select target areas based on their propensity for control, not the propensity for injury. Soft tissue areas and joints are intentionally avoided as training areas as the potential for permanent injury is high.

Protecting the attacker
Defensive tactics training also focuses acutely on an aspect which is intentionally avoided in self-defense training: helping the attacker. Due to the nature of our employment, we are obligated to provide medical care to all the inmates in our charge - including the ones who attack us. Follow through in self-defense scenarios is limited to ensuring you safe escape without further injury. We are not so lucky. To maintain that all-important ‘control,’ we have to stabilize our subjects.

That means not only limiting their ability to cause harm, but their very movement. There are six trained levels of stabilization - none of which include leaving an attacker on the ground unconscious, crippled and bleeding. Once stabilized, we are obligated to conduct a medical assessment and address any issues. Emergency medical care must be provided as soon as possible. That means we can find ourselves in the unique position of fighting for our lives one minute, and fighting to save the life of our attacker the next. This is obviously, a difficult position to be in. As we have all been told “We are held to a higher standard;" a higher moral standard, a higher ethical standard and a higher legal standard.

Understanding the difference
There are obviously times when self-defense is tactics are justifiable while on-duty. There are also situations where defensive tactics training can be used for off-duty self-defense.

To consider them one and the same however, is doing injustice to both disciplines. I can imagine few on-duty scenarios where I would encourage officers to leave inmates unconscious, crippled and bleeding - at least not without getting support and returning to regain control and stabilize the subjects and the scene.

I can also imagine few scenarios where I would want one of my loved ones attempting to stabilize an unknown assailant and address their medical needs.  The untrained may recognize defensive tactics training as a form of self-defense, but the skilled officer needs to understand that a complete system is something entirely different. 

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