When Elmwood Park police responded to a reported assault at a Broadway laundromat in September, officers had no idea what kind of powder keg they’d stumbled upon.
An emotionally disturbed 27-year-old man from Paterson had allegedly attacked his grandmother, then turned his sights on a good Samaritan who tried to intervene, according to borough Police Chief Michael Foligno. Body camera footage released by the borough showed that when officers arrived, the man quickly began to fight them, too.
Elmwood Park Patrolman Ken McKinney said that in the past, the struggle would have ended with McKinney slamming the man to the concrete. But after two years of training in Foligno's private defensive tactics course, McKinney chose a gentler tack.
He hooked his arms beneath the man's armpits and sat back, smoothly bringing him to the ground.
Patrolman Anthony Ingraffia, 25, coiled himself around the man's legs, immobilizing him as McKinney straddled his back and wrestled his wrists into the handcuffs. Minutes later, officers stood up the unhurt man and arrested him.
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Sitting in an Elmwood Park Police Department conference room two months later, McKinney, 30, a former state corrections officer, wondered why they’d never been taught these techniques before.
"I was like, 'This is so simple. Why didn't I learn this in the police academy?'" McKinney said. "It works. It was fluid. It didn't hurt anybody, and it just clicks. Everybody's safe."
The way the officers conducted themselves — and the fact that they were able to arrest without incident an erratic man bent on resisting — buttresses Foligno's long-held contention that teaching officers to use their hands is the best way to end the string of controversial police killings that have tormented the country in recent years.
When you teach officers proven techniques to properly restrain suspects, he says, those officers are much less likely to reach for their handgun or use the potentially deadly locks and holds that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis and Eric Garner in New York.
Foligno has been doing that for the past three years, frequently gathering officers from several departments for training sessions led by Jimmie Rivera, a professional mixed martial arts fighter from Newton.
The chief — along with Rivera and Ron Schulmann, co-founder of Tiger Schulmann’s Martial Arts — has also started a company under the Tiger Schulmann’s umbrella called Guardian Law Enforcement Defensive Tactics. The company is devoted to teaching a cop-friendly form of Brazilian jiujitsu, a grappling art similar to wrestling, so officers can get control over suspects without the need for lethal force.
This will reduce injuries, lower legal exposure and build confidence in the ranks, Foligno said.
“We’re giving you a plan, a playbook, something to refer back to,” he said. “We wanted to make sure it was a perfect fit for everyone, whether you never trained before or you’re a jiujitsu black belt. And I think we accomplished that.”
The laundromat incident proves his point, he said. McKinney and Ingraffia said they'd trained for that exact situation on the mats. When it happened in real life, they smoothly coordinated their attack with nary a word.
“There was barely any speaking, but I knew exactly what he was doing and he knew what I was doing,” Ingraffia said.
The program — which was once limited to Elmwood Park officers — has quickly expanded after other departments in Bergen and Passaic counties saw the class’s value. Foligno said Guardian has trained about 45 cops from neighboring agencies, including Garfield, Lodi, Midland Park, Glen Rock and the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office.
A recent training session at Tiger Schulmann's Martial Arts in Wayne drew rave reviews from officers working in Emerson, Wayne and Little Ferry.
“The techniques they teach here are bar none better than we’ve ever been trained before,” said Little Ferry Police Chief Jim Walters, who was still sweating when he walked off the mat.
Walters has sent two of his officers through the program, and one of them will be a Guardian-certified trainer soon. The chief plans to have that officer train the department’s rank and file several times a year.
“I think it’s so important for our department — and every department — to have this type of training,” Walters said. “This is something we lack, and it’s probably the most important and necessary [skill set] to be out there.”
A new state program?
After years of stagnation, the state's Police Training Commission finally approved a new Brazilian jiujitsu-based defensive tactics curriculum, according to a November 2021 letter signed by commission Administrator John F. Cunningham.
"The goal is to have a program that allows for control of resistant subjects while limiting officer and subject injury," Cunningham wrote.
The Attorney General's Office also said that starting last June, the commission doubled the amount of self-defense training that academy recruits get to about 80 hours.
“Through enhancements to the defensive tactics curriculum, and by doubling the amount of time recruits spend receiving this vital training, the Police Training Commission and the State Police are ensuring that those entering this noble profession are ready to meet the physical and mental demands of the job, and are capable of using the least amount of force necessary to safely resolve unsafe situations," New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said in a statement.
The commission also wants to implement a defensive tactics refresher course for all officers based on the new academy curriculum, said Sharon Lauchaire, a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office. She lauded smaller programs such as Elmwood Park's, which she called a "good example of a local enforcement agency that has embraced the approved PTC defensive tactics concepts agency-wide."
But some training advocates — including Assemblyman Brian Bergen, a Morris County Republican — still want the state to go further.
In an interview, Bergen agreed that there’s been “a lot of positive movement” on the subject. But he worries that if lawmakers don't enshrine training standards into state law, the programs may not stick.
“It could become a fad that goes away,” said Bergen, a West Point graduate and combat veteran who has called Foligno’s program a model for how officers should be trained. “We need our police officers to have significantly more training than they do in self-defense. And it needs to be a mandatory requirement that’s funded. That’s just the bottom line.”
In 2020, Bergen proposed a bill to greatly increase self-defense instruction in the academies and mandate that every law enforcement officer participate in 48 hours of in-service self-defense training every year. The bill would also send $250,000 to the Police Training Commission to establish the courses.
But lawmakers voted to table the bill in October, making its future unclear.
‘It works. I’ve tried it’
Departments across the country have reached similar conclusions about the value of such training.
The Marietta Police Department in Georgia incorporated Brazilian jiujitsu into its training regimen after a controversial arrest in 2019 in which officers were caught on tape striking a man at a local IHOP restaurant, according to an article in Police1, a trade publication for law enforcement.
A subsequent study found that over two years, there was a 23% reduction in Taser usage, a 48% decrease in officer injuries, a 53% drop in civilian injuries and a 59% decrease in overall use of force among the newly trained officers.
“The data clearly supports a broader consideration of the effectiveness of grappling arts in law enforcement,” the article concluded.
But concerns remain, especially about how officers already inundated with training requirements will find time to shoehorn in another block of instruction.
Then there’s the cost, which has worried Emerson Police Chief Michael Mazzeo.
Guardian Law Enforcement charges about $700 for 16 hours of instruction, which is reasonable in the martial arts world but expensive for perennially cash-strapped agencies.
Despite this, Mazzeo has shifted schedules around so he can keep sending officers through — as of November, seven of his 22-officer unit had participated. And, like Walters, he plans to get one of his officers certified so they can teach the rest of the department.
Ingraffia, the Elmwood Park officer, might say that's a great idea.
"It works — I've tried it. I've done it," Ingraffia said. "You never want to use this stuff, but if you have to, you're going to be successful.”
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ police learn jiujitsu tactics to restrain hostile subjects