How They Roll

Police seek to increase safety, confidence with jiu jitsu

Monday, Oct. 16, 2023
Officer Juan Duran instructs officers Madison Soltys and Vidal Morales as they practice a jiu jitsu maneuver to safely handcuff a person.

Assistant Police Chief Jason Winn believes one of the best answers to a modern-day problem is using jiu jitsu, a martial arts technique that dates nearly 100 years.

In use-of-force situations, where police officers are trying to apprehend a suspect or where someone is fighting an officer, it’s common for the outcome to be negative, with the suspect, officer or both sustaining injuries. In those moments, tensions and emotions can run high. These emotions ― including fear, frustration and anger ― can cloud an officer’s decision-making for safely gaining control of a situation and can lead to use of unnecessary force.

It’s a big reason why Winn devotes hours of his time on a padded mat, rolling with coworkers and teaching them Brazilian jiu jitsu, which was introduced to the United States in 1925. Winn believes the more officers are trained in jiu jitsu, the more likely they’ll become confident in their ability to safely bring calm to intense and dangerous situations.

“This is supposed to reverse the trend of unnecessary force and make it so we’re doing everything we can to safely take people into custody and safely control situations until backup arrives,” he said. “We don’t want to get hurt, and we don’t want somebody else to get hurt.”

Jiu jitsu is a grappling technique that emphasizes taking an opponent to the ground, gaining a dominant position and using techniques to force an opponent into submission. Unlike freestyle wrestling, where participants are taught to avoid ending up on their backs, jiu jitsu techniques allow dominance from any position. And, when done skillfully, it negates size and strength advantages.

Officer Juan Duran, who is a proponent of using jiu jitsu in law enforcement, was a successful wrestler throughout his high school career at Orange High School and can attest to stature being less of an issue when employing jiu jitsu techniques.

“Jiu jitsu makes you feel safe to fight from your back,” Duran said. “I'm usually smaller than everyone else so if they knock me down, I can safely fight off my back. I feel very, very safe there. That's the biggest difference. Jiu jitsu is more of a true survival martial art. Wrestling is a sport.”

Winn learned of a program created by descendants of Brazilian jiu jitsu founders Helio and Carlos Gracie that offers weeklong sessions for first responders throughout the country. Gracie Survival Tactics uses the most effective jiu jitsu techniques to address the most common threat situations facing law enforcement professionals. When Winn saw the program would be offered in North Carolina, he and Duran jumped at the chance to attend.

“You go there, and they teach you all 21 techniques so you will be certified to go back to your agency and share with your officers,” Winn said. “These techniques range from how to safely handcuff somebody to how to safely stop somebody from punching you and hurting you and control them, how to extract their arms if they're lying on their belly and maybe have a firearm or a weapon underneath them. And it is being done in a way that’s not going to hurt somebody. It's actually getting away from that.”

Duran, who has been with the Hillsborough Police Department for three years, has used jiu jitsu techniques he learned to gain leverage while handcuffing suspects.

“It takes the fight out and makes it much safer,” he said.

Duran adds that while he and Winn enjoy the competitive nature of Brazilian jiu jitsu and even compete in tournaments, there is a difference between the competitive martial art and what is taught through Gracie Survival Tactics, which focuses on de-escalation and controlling the outcome in a safe manner.

Right now, Winn said, the Hillsborough Police Department has about six officers interested in going through the entire Gracie Survival Tactics curriculum. Because officers tend to work schedules that widely vary, it can be difficult to coordinate training time on the mat and sparring or rolling, as it’s called in jiu jitsu.

Lessons and practice take place at the department’s training facility where staff are encouraged to use on-site equipment to keep in shape and improve fitness. While being in tip-top shape isn’t necessary to succeed in jiu jitsu, it also doesn’t hurt, Winn and Duran said.

“When you first start learning jiu jitsu, you’re going to be using muscles in ways you haven’t and your cardio is going to be up,” Winn said. “You’re going to be tense and uncomfortable. But the more you do it, the more you’ll learn to relax. This training teaches you to relax in difficult situations. It gets your adrenaline levels down.”

And, as Winn and Duran reiterated, the more officers practice, the more confident they will be in their ability to safely control a use-of-force situation.

“It’s very beneficial to put yourself in situations where you’re uncomfortable,” Winn continued. “Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Over time, you just react better in those situations because you have confidence.”