In a large room covered in mats, Nicholas Romero and Martin Gutierrez roll around testing out different grappling techniques, holds, and escapes.
Nearby, Nicholas Provencio thwacks one of several heavy bags on a far wall. Later he and Gutierrez climb into a brand new boxing ring for some sparring, with Gutierrez catching punches on a pair of mitts that are just getting broken in.
At first look, the latest addition to the Santa Ana Police Department looks like a nicely tricked-out fight gym, complete with a new leather smell. However, this is actually the home of the agency’s brand new De-Escalation Training Center.
That’s because, in addition to the self-defense practice area, the room also features a class area with seats and a digitally connected flatscreen for classes and presentations that are as essential as the combat space. And even the combat will teach kinder, gentler uses of force, as counter-intuitive as that may sound.
Assistant Chief Sergio Enriquez said the goal of the De-Escalation Training Center, in addition to helping officers become more adept in physical altercations, is to help them become even more skilled in avoiding hands-on interactions.
“That’s why the classroom is so important,” he said.
Santa Ana Police Department, which will offer the new space for use as a regional training center for other agencies, plans to bring in instructors and experts to offer lessons and seminars to keep officers up to date on the latest trends and data on de-escalation, and techniques to defuse tense situations.
The hope is officers will emerge able to end potential fights with words, not to mention arm drags and leg sweeps.
“This begins in the classroom,” Enriquez said.
De-escalation has been a buzzword in law enforcement for the past decade and remains a growing phenomenon. Embraced by many, decried by others, de-escalation is a science that is still evolving to maintain optimal safety for citizens and officers alike.
Already taught in police academies, de-escalation has arrived. But its application in the field remains a hot topic.
“We have very little information about what kinds of training can actually change behaviors in the field,” said Nancy La Vigne, Director of the National Institute of Justice.
At the De-escalation Training Center, those topics will be explored.
“Our focus on de-escalation is a framework of training,” said recently retired Chief David Valentin.
He said officers will build on lessons learned in the Academy and in the field.
“How to recognize options and demonstrate how to use those options so you don’t have to go to lethal,” is the objective, he said.
According to the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) in the Department of Justice, “Public officials and policy makers from across the political spectrum have embraced de-escalation training as the key to safer interactions between police and the public.”
According to the OJP, citing ground breaking work by Robin Engel, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati and one of the nation’s top criminologists, “de-escalation training can dramatically reduce injuries among civilians and law enforcement officers alike.”
As an example, the Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) program, “demonstrated statistically significant reductions in use of force incidents (−28.1%), citizen injuries (−26.3%), and officer injuries (−36.0%) in the post-training period,” according to research cited by OJP.
ICAT is designed especially for situations involving persons who are unarmed or are armed with weapons other than firearms, and who may be experiencing a mental health or other crisis.
As Enriquez put it, “We want to enhance the skill set of frontline officers. If we give them the skill set, it allows a boost in confidence in case of a conflict and results in less physical confrontation.”
In the instances when verbal measures don’t work, the Training Center covers those as well. The Santa Ana Police Department has a number of certified defensive tactic instructors, who can guide and work out with officers in martial arts and other areas of self-defense.
Across the country, a number of police departments are turning to martial arts such as jiu-jitsu and judo to provide alternative ways to decrease violence when necessary.
Jiu-jitsu is all about neutralizing and negating attacks. Through this martial art, potentially violent combat can be transferred into something more like choreography — less about brute force and more about physics and technique. Jiu-jitsu,which translates to “the gentle art” from the original Japanese, takes the energy from the attacker and, in theory, allows even a smaller, weaker person to use leverage and body mechanics to control an aggressor, even if they are stronger and larger.
Ever since the beating of Rodney King was caught on tape, the public has been appalled by a barrage of viral videos that show use-of-force altercations that devolve into seemingly violent free-for-alls.
Grappling sports can be, and are becoming, an invaluable alternative in physical struggles. Grappling can replace the striking, clubbing, kicking, and elbowing. And research indicates grappling reduces injuries to both officers and assailants, and can prevent the need for or use of potential deadly force.
Not everyone is a fan, however.
“Law enforcement is missing the mark,” said Atlanta-area civil rights attorney and NAACP organizer Gerald Griggs to the Marshall Project. “They need to just be protectors, and not warriors in the community,” he said. “That doesn’t necessitate them learning to become mixed martial arts fighters.”
However, research also shows that officers with training are less easily provoked into physical encounters.
In Georgia, a small agency has been on the leading edge of the jiu-jitsu training movement. In 2019, the town of Marietta’s police department came under scrutiny after a video showed several officers striking a man multiple times while attempting to take him into custody. In the wake of the melee, the department implemented a mandatory jiu-jitsu program to train officers and personnel in methods to “establish a safer custodial environment for both officers and arrestees,” according to the police. Since then, many departments have followed suit.
Romero, one of the defensive tactics instructors at SAPD, says if an officer has proper self-defense training, “it protects themselves and the suspect.”
Martial arts training can help officers, “rely on skills rather than the tools on your belt,” Enriquez said.
Valentin said the department wants to create “building blocks that do not involve the use of a baton or a weapon.”
In addition to the classroom and self-defense training, the visions for the room are far ranging. There are discussions about opening the room up for programs in employee wellness, yoga, and maybe even an ice bath.
Or as Eriquez said, “It’s a one-stop shop.”