Police Officers and Martial Arts

Damon GIlbert

Safely Using Chokes and Other Techniques Requires Proper Training!

Recent events have ignited a worldwide controversy regarding police use of what the public is generically calling "chokeholds." Like most things in life, the big picture is complicated. Many watched the video that recorded the tragic death of George Floyd, in which an officer's shin was positioned against his neck for more than eight minutes, then started demanding that police be prohibited from using all chokeholds.

Martial artists, however, know that this category of techniques is a broad one — some say it contains at least 13 types of strangleholds. To better understand them, we break down the category into air chokes and blood chokes.

Air chokes compress the upper airway, attacking the trachea and larynx, and therefore interfere with breathing. This can lead to asphyxia and even death.

Blood chokes are different. Frequently seen in judo matches and MMA bouts, they compress one or both carotid arteries. Within seconds, this action will lead to unconsciousness. If the arteries remain constricted for more than 30 seconds, such techniques can cause serious injury or death.

​Subject-Matter Expert

Damon Gilbert has spent more than 23 years serving the city of Oakland, California, as a police officer. His beat is considered one of the most violent in the country. Gilbert, however, has an ace up his sleeve: an eighth-degree black belt in kajukenbo, bolstered by more than 40 years in the dojo. On more than one occasion in the line of duty, he's had to use his skills — which makes him the perfect person to consult about police use of chokeholds.

I asked, "Are chokeholds safe?"

"Absolutely not," Gilbert replied. "But correctly applied vascular neck restraints are."

Typically, in most police departments, chokeholds are prohibited, barring a life-or-death situation. The term 'chokehold' is something that does not work for law enforcement. A chokehold attacks the trachea.

"What we use is a bilateral wrap, or neck compression of the carotid arteries and jugular veins at the sides of the neck. No direct compression is applied to the structures at the front of the neck, and the subject retains the ability to breathe. If used properly, this type of vascular neck restraint is absolutely safe — but like any technique, if abused or not done correctly, serious injuries can occur.

I asked Gilbert to elaborate on the mechanics of applying the bilateral wrap safely. "You encircle the subject's neck, making sure that [the crook of] your arm is perfectly aligned with the subject's chin," he said. "Then you slowly apply pressure. It should take approximately seven to 10 seconds to render a healthy individual unconscious. It may be sooner when under the influence of depressants or longer when under the influence of stimulants. But if you are still squeezing for 30 or 40 seconds after they've passed out, you are looking at some serious, irreparable damage.

"That comment raised a key consideration, one the public might not be considering. "The biggest issue for law enforcement is not only the application of a vascular neck restraint but also understanding how long you've had the subject in that restraint," he said. "That's not easy to do if you are in a hostile environment with people screaming and throwing objects at you. I teach my guys to have a 20-second rule in their head: If you haven't got control by then, let it go and try a different type of restraint."

As with most martial arts techniques, it's the details that matter. "That's why I am very strict when it comes to encircling the neck and having that chin-to-elbow alignment," Gilbert said. "When we do it that way, we don't get that respiratory type of choke where the subject can't breathe. We don't touch the trachea; we're doing a bilateral compression on the cardiac artery and the vagus nerve. This slows the flow of oxygen to the brain, resulting in a sleeper hold like you see in MMA and wrestling. It's a very safe technique — when done properly."

Currently, for police officers in the state of California, there is an actual test on the proper and safe way to use a vascular restraint. This test must be passed in order to become a police officer. As a training officer, I teach guys how to do a vascular neck restraint on both the strong and weak sides because in a fight, you never know which side is going to be available. However, due to the recent events in Minnesota, there is a very strong possibility that the use of the bilateral vascular restraint will be prohibited in the state of California."

The Bilateral Wrap

In the grappling arts, the rear-naked choke is a frequently seen technique. In police defensive tactics, it's called the bilateral wrap. Damon Gilbert (left) describes it as a "neck compression of the carotid arteries and jugular veins at the sides of the neck. If used properly, this type of vascular neck restraint is absolutely safe — but like any technique, if abused or not done correctly, serious injuries can occur."

​Lethal Mistake

"There are a variety of chokeholds, especially in mixed martial arts," Gilbert said. "A few of the most common are the rear-naked chokehold, the arm-triangle chokehold and the guillotine. The guillotine is when you attack the respiratory [system] with direct mechanical compression over the anterior structures of the neck. That kind of chokehold can cause asphyxiation by compressing the trachea and restricting the person's ability to breathe. That's the kind of thing law-enforcement prohibits unless lethal force is justified."

The George Floyd video sparked protests and riots around the world because an officer appears to be effecting a choke that obstructs his breathing by positioning his shin across his neck. The contact, which was reportedly maintained for more than eight minutes, resulted in Floyd's death.

"The officer in that video is going to have to answer to that situation in a court of law," Gilbert said. "As a police officer, you must stay focused on the task at hand, even when you are in a position where there may be civil unrest or hostility. But in this case, it appears the officer had some kind of tunnel vision. I watched the video and observed bystanders clearly yelling at the officer, requesting him to move — plus the subject was saying, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe!' Yet none of that registered. There was some kind of extreme neglect or disconnect from proper training that resulted in a tragic loss of life.

"I can honestly say that having been in law enforcement for 23 years now and teaching arrest-and-control techniques, I've never seen anyone use their knee or shin on someone's neck as we saw in that video. The actions of the officer were unacceptable, and I surely understand the outrage worldwide with law enforcement and use of force."

However, there are legitimate police methods that use the knee, Gilbert explained. "I have seen different handcuffing manipulations such as the T-3. That's where you have your top knee near the upper shoulder-blade area, but that's just long enough to get the handcuffs on one wrist and [then you] transfer it to the suspect's back."

Gilbert, however, plays it safe when instructing new officers. "I don't teach any shin connection to the back of the neck whatsoever," he said. "The only time you'll see a shin used would be across the lower back or on the belly, and that's used as a means to stay connected to a subject who is not handcuffed and resisting. By staying connected, you feel resistance and can make the proper transition or disengagement."

The key to safely applying the bilateral wrap is making sure the crook of the arm is perfectly aligned with the opponent's chin, Damon Gilbert says. "No direct compression is applied to the structures at the front of the neck, and the subject retains the ability to breathe."

​Compliance Recommended

Anyone who's watched a police reality show has seen situations escalate because a person who was stopped refused to comply with the officer's instructions. When a person refuses to obey a basic order, a traffic stop can turn into a foot chase and a wrestling match — or worse.

"It's unfortunate when those situations happen," Gilbert said. "Many times, things will escalate simply because the individual we're talking to refuses to comply when we're trying to get basic information. When we ask someone to put their hands behind their back and they say, 'No,' and resist, we now have a lawful arrest situation. And when that individual fights us, we have to use some type of physical prowess to gain control. So if verbal persuasion doesn't work, we have to move into a more physical phase of a restraint technique, which can absolutely work — or it can go totally south in a heartbeat."

Noncompliance quickly can cause things to escalate, Gilbert said. "That increases the chance of an injury to the officer and the individual — more so for the individual, especially if you are dealing with an officer who isn't well-trained or can't handle stress."

The overall physical environment is another element police need to contend with during a stop or an arrest. In addition to dealing with a combative individual who may or may not be armed, the officers must be aware of potential threats in the form of bystanders who might jump in or angry onlookers who might throw objects. A hostile location creates a scenario in which police must immediately detect rising tensions and, when possible, defuse them."

Officers have a lot to process in a matter of seconds," Gilbert said. "Being a police officer is a tough business to be in, but you know what you are getting into when you sign up for the job. Everything always goes back to training."

Open Mat Training

Defensive tactics are perishable skills, says Damon Gilbert (top). That's why he created a program called Open Mat Training, which is composed of six two-hour refresher classes per month with the training designed to meet the needs of law enforcement.

​Perishable Skills

Gilbert has devoted his life to police work and kajukenbo. When he's not serving as the lead defensive-tactics instructor for the Oakland Police Department, he teaches his art. And he coaches and competes — his 14 sparring world titles are a testament to his fighting skill. It's not surprising that he regards the martial arts as an essential component of all police officers' training.

"I believe that the martial arts industry is a huge potential savior for law enforcement," Gilbert said. "I see a major issue [in most departments' current training] when it comes to diminishing perishable skills. By that, I mean most departments only mandate that you train once a year. Our self-defense class, known as Arrest and Control or Defensive Tactics, is held once a year for a six-hour block. Now, if I train once a year in one class, how good am I going to be in a real confrontation or even competitively if we're talking about perishable skills?"

To solve that problem, three years ago, Gilbert created a program for the Oakland Police that he's dubbed Open Mat Training. "On top of the one mandated class a year, we now teach approximately six classes each month that are two hours in length," he said. "These classes are not mandatory, but due to word of mouth, a large portion of our officers attend on a regular basis. I have personally witnessed our officers' level of confidence skyrocket — and the use-of-force complaints [decrease].

"I was inspired to start Open Mat after attending several Gracie Survival Tactics courses with Rener and Ryron Gracie. I also teach defensive tactics at my school, Best in the West in San Leandro, California. I teach this strictly to security, personal-protection and law-enforcement personnel."

Gilbert is a staunch believer in officers receiving ongoing training with credible martial arts academies. "I believe officers should engage in martial arts schools where they are able to work on those types of perishable skills: takedowns, control holds, wrist locks and even self-control," he said. "I firmly believe that the martial arts community can help reduce the number of excessive-force complaints."

​Damon Gilbert

Damon Gilbert holds an eighth-degree black belt in kajukenbo. A martial artist for 40 years and a police officer for 23, he says the arts have enabled him to save many lives — including his own — while on duty.

​Martial Arts on the Job

"Oakland is my hometown," Gilbert said. "I was born and raised here, and this is where I started my martial arts career. Oakland is near and dear to me, but the fact about this wonderful city is that it has historically been in the top 10 most violent cities in North America. So we have a unique challenge when it comes to protecting people and being a peacekeeper.

"Out of my 23 years on the force, I've spent 20 of those years on the street doing everything from patrol to undercover work for our Crime Prevention Unit (Drug Task Force). Things are much better now than they once were, but with that said, we have a high number of robberies, assaults and murders. Unfortunately, there are people who seek out the weak and try to impose their will on them. And that's why I'm here — and at the end of the day, I really feel like I'm making a difference. I've had multiple instances when I've saved a life, and when they thank me, there isn't a better feeling in the world. That's why I put my life on the line."

Not surprisingly, Gilbert's kajukenbo and defensive-tactics skills have helped him many times when his life was on the line. "I can recall one instance where my martial arts training came into play and helped me save the life of an elderly man who was being beaten to death by a car thief who was later determined to be on probation for armed robbery," he said.

"I was a training officer at the time and had a young man fresh out of the academy with me. We were assisting another officer who was chasing a stolen-car suspect who had fled the scene. We were on foot pursuit in a residential neighborhood. I was very relaxed, and my breathing was slow and controlled, allowing me to focus on my surroundings. A lot of that came from my martial arts training and my days as a fighter: I learned to focus on my opponent, with all my senses on full alert, allowing me to anticipate his next move."

Heightening his awareness, Gilbert searched for clues. "I spotted a small, one-room studio, and the door was closed," he said. "But I heard a sound. It was like someone was taking a faint breath. There were seven other officers with me, but I was the only one to hear it."

He sprang into action. "I decided to trust my gut and made the entry," he said. "In front of me was an elderly man being beaten by the suspect. The suspect was on top of him with a bloody pillow over his head, striking him in the head with his own wooden cane. We subdued the suspect, and the elderly man went to the hospital with severe injuries — but he survived.

"It was my martial arts focus and discipline that helped me save that man's life."

Terry L. Wilson is a freelance writer based in San Diego. For more information about Damon Gilbert's Best in the West martial arts school, visit bitwmma.com.

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