URBANA, Ill.—Cortez Gardner, patrol sergeant at Urbana Police Department, almost quit when public resentment against police soared after the police custody death of George Floyd.
He became an officer in 2012 to help people go about their lives without fear of violence, which he observed daily growing up on the South Side of Chicago.
After repeatedly reminding himself of why he had become an officer, Gardner stayed and resolved to do his part to make things better.
One way he does that is by learning jiu-jitsu, a martial art focused on hand-to-hand techniques to subdue a combative opponent on the ground.
CU Jiu Jitsu, the local gym that Gardner frequents, saw a number of police officer members join in the past year and a half, according to owner Mike Stoller.
“I think a lot of police feel misjudged by the community—they feel there is a lot of mistrust in them—and they want to do better,” Stoller said.
“They want to show the community, ‘Hey, we want to do our best to deescalate, and we don’t want to have to reach for my gun belt.’”
Stoller’s gym mirrors a growing national trend.
Marietta Police Department in Georgia was one of the first in the nation to mandate jiu-jitsu for new recruits in 2019; Lynnwood Police Department in Washington mandated it for all officers last year; Rahway Police Department in New Jersey started to set up an in-house jiu-jitsu program in early 2022.
At other departments, officers take it upon themselves to learn jiu-jitsu, like Gardner, who pays for his weekly training out of his own pocket.
Jiu-jitsu helps him to do better at ground fighting, which is a common occurrence between police officers and combative suspects.
“If I can take someone down to the ground and I can keep him down until my backup gets there, that keeps me safe and that keeps him safe,” Gardner said.
“But if I take someone down to the ground and they are able to get up, that escalates things quickly.”
That happened during the high-profile shooting of Rayshard Brooks. On June 12, 2020, Atlanta police officers Devin Brosnan and Garrett Rolfe moved to arrest Brooks for driving under the influence. Brooks fought back, and the three of them fell to the ground.
Then Brooks got up, grabbed Brosnan’s taser, and took off running. Rolfe ran after Brooks, who turned and fired the taser toward Rolfe. In return, Rolfe shot Brooks, who later died at the hospital.
Matthew McKinney, night shift sergeant at Urbana Police Department, said another benefit of jiu-jitsu is that with proper training, a smaller person can subdue a larger opponent empty-handedly.
“I am a big guy, I am athletic, I exercise regularly, and I always had the belief that if I got to a physical altercation with somebody, I was going to be OK,” McKinney said.
His first jiu-jitsu session with Stoller, who is about a foot shorter than him, humbled him quickly.
“We rolled against each other on the ground, and he dominated me the whole time. It was an eye-opening thing, where I was like, ‘If I ever have to arrest someone who is trained or stronger than me, I am going to be in a sticky situation,’” McKinney said.
McKinney received a sponsorship from the Adopt-A-Cop organization to cover his training fees until he reached blue belt, the second adult rank for jiu-jitsu.
Adopt-A-Cop was founded in 2020 by Mitch Aguiar when the defund-the-police movement gained momentum following a slew of high-profile police shootings. Aguiar thinks it’s wrong to defund the police. Instead, he wants to support officers to get better training, according to the organization’s website.
When officers get jiu-jitsu training on a regular basis, it also helps them stay calm under pressure and not prematurely use lethal force, according to Kenny Meyer, a patrol officer at Champaign Police Department, who also trains at Stoller’s gym.
“If you’re not trained for a combat scenario, when in those situations your heart is racing, you’re out of breath, you don’t see what’s around you, and in 30 seconds of fight, you’re much more likely to go to the next level of force to gain compliance,” Meyer said.
At Stoller’s gym, instructors use sparring, a key component of jiu-jitsu, to simulate the real struggle on the street in a safe, controlled environment.
“We teach students to think under high intensity: ‘Can I slow the situation down? Can I control my thought process? What is my plan? How can I enact my plan?” Stoller said.
“Everything is about control. They’re learning how to control their own mind and body, and how to control others.”
A 2020 internal study at the Marietta Police Department found that officers in a jiu-jitsu program—compared to officers who weren’t—had a 48 percent reduction in officer injuries when the use of force was involved, a 53 percent reduction in arrestee injuries when force was required, and a 23 percent reduction in taser usage.
More Training Needed
Both Gardner and McKinney think jiu-jitsu makes up for the lack of control tactics training at their police department. They offer free training sessions to local officers every week on their own time.
Control tactics, also known as defensive tactics, occupy the middle space on the use-of-force continuum, with officer presence and verbal command on the lower end, and nonlethal and lethal weapons on the higher end.
Common law enforcement control tactics include open and closed hand techniques, pressure point control, takedown techniques, speed cuffing, and weapon retention.
In the past 10 years, law enforcement agencies increased training hours on both nonlethal and lethal weapons for new recruits, but not on control tactics, according to surveys of training academies at law enforcement agencies nationwide by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
From 2013 to 2018, the average firearm skills training hours for new recruits went from 67 to 73 hours, and the average training on nonlethal weapons such as tasers, batons, and pepper spray went from 16 to 20 hours. For control tactics, the average training hours stayed flat at 61 hours.
BJS considers officer presence and verbal command part of control tactics.
For Illinois police officers out of training academy, the state’s annual minimum requirement for firearms training is 40 hours, but for control tactics, it’s only a few hours, according to Paul Petty, a manager of in-service training at Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.
Petty said the board only sets the minimum training standards for law enforcement and correctional officers. Many police departments or police officers set the bar higher than the state minimum, but their ability to do so is often limited by money and time, he said.
McKinney’s personal use-of-force principle is to stay as low as possible on the use-of-force continuum and get the job done. Jiu-jitsu gives him another tool to do that.
“The less force we use, the easier it is on us, the easier it is on the person we arrest. I’ve never met a cop that shows up to work excited to have something crazy happen, because it just means more paperwork, more stress, more injuries, and more potential lawsuits,” McKinney said.