Lynnwood police learning jiu jitsu to improve de-escalation tactics

Lynnwood Police Chief Jim Nelson spars with another officer during one of the department’s mandatory jiu jitsu training lessons.

With calls for police reform and less use of deadly force, Lynnwood police have been taking martial arts lessons to learn how to handle physical altercations.

The Lynnwood Police Department recently required all certified officers within their agency to take jiu jitsu lessons, in an effort to improve de-escalation tactics. Chief Jim Nelson said the lessons are intended to teach officers how to respond to physical attacks by exerting the least amount of force.

“The goal is really for (officers) to experience the conflict in a pressurized environment,” Nelson said, “in an effort to really make sure they’re trying to keep their mind engaged.” That way, officers who end up in a physical confrontation or struggle can try “to keep that force at the lower level,” he added.

Jiu jitsu is a form of Japanese martial arts and close combat that can be used in a defensive or offensive way to subdue an opponent. Police defense training typically incorporates some aspects of jiu jitsu, and individual agencies have the choice to send officers to receive additional defensive tactics training. However, a spokesperson from the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission said Lynnwood is the first department in the state to mandate the training for certified officers.

Training takes place at Kindred Jiu Jitsu in Edmonds, where approximately 90 department employees — including officers and command staff — have signed up for the training that will take place for the next two years. 

“There’s always been pieces of ground fighting in law enforcement training because that’s where most things end up, so this skill set is kind of a perfect match for us,” Nelson said.

For years, Nelson said the department had been looking at ways to improve officers’ defensive tactics training. Police have access to defensive training, but there were often logistical issues with holding large training sessions that accommodate all officers, he explained. 

Kindred owner Kyle McCutchen (right) does a demonstration for two Lynnwood officers.

Though police receive some training for handling physical conflict, Nelson said it’s not as in-depth as most people think. The hope is that martial arts training will help those officers who have never been hit or in a fight before to know what to expect before it happens in the line of duty.

“I have a lot of people here who probably never really have been on the receiving end of real physical violence, and I don’t want the first time for that to happen to be an officer on the street in a real conflict,” he said. 

Each Wednesday, a group of a dozen or so officers meet at Kindred, where owner Kyle McCutchen demonstrates techniques before guiding them through the motions. McCutchen is an 19-year police veteran who in the past has trained officers in other departments. 

He said officers are not being trained to use offensive martial arts moves like chokeholds, which the Washington State Legislature banned for police use earlier this year.

“We’ve completely modified it to be practical for police use,” he said. “Obviously we’re not choking people, we’re not breaking people’s arms but the control aspect to it – the self-defense aspect to it – is all relatable to this line of work.”

Other U.S. police departments have also turned to martial arts in an effort to improve de-escalation tactics. Earlier this year, police in Marietta, Georgia, which have undergone the training, reported fewer injuries during arrests – both to the trained officers and to those being arrested. According to Marietta police data, officers trained in jiu jitsu were injured during a forceful arrest 48% less often than officers without training. Additionally, those being forcefully arrested were injured 53% less often with trained officers than those who were not trained.

“Their data showed (training) affected things,” McCutchen said. “They were using force less, there were less injuries to officers, (and) less injuries to the public.”

Nelson said the lessons are funded through the police training budget and some state money police departments received to pay for changes made to state legislation regarding law enforcement.

–Story and photos by Cody Sexton

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