By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2007, All Rights Reserved
As a martial arts and self defense instructor I end up getting asked many interesting questions that range from subjects dealing with everything from "what would I do if...", to some small element of an obscure 800 year old technique that I've never heard of, to very complicated legal issues. Recently, I've spoken with several people about various issues that deal with the police; namely, whether the police are the "friend" or "foe" of the common man and whether someone should enroll in a self defense class just because the instructor is a police officer. Since I have a little insight on the topic I thought I should write a quick article to address some of those issues and help people better understand their relationship with the law enforcement community.
First, let me say that I am in no way anti-police and I have nothing but respect and admiration for the law enforcement community. I believe that it is every citizen's duty to support the police and their law enforcement efforts in any way possible. However, I don't subscribe to the notion held by some citizens that the police are somehow superhuman or that every police officer is a highly trained expert at all areas related to law enforcement, self defense, or dealing with violence. I've worked with the police enough to know that they are quite human, capable of mistakes, and just like any other large organization they have problems with their own training programs.
That being said, the first topic I wanted to discuss is whether or not the police are our "friends". Whether the police are "friends or foes" to the common citizen is a topic of much dispute depending on where you are, and often depending on socioeconomics. I find that most upper and middle class individuals see the police as a "friend" and most lower middle to lower class see the police as a "foe".
My opinion regarding the police is that they are definitely are friends, however, they are friends that we have to be very careful with. The police provide two major services to the public: law and order. The police provide the populace of this country with order when the order is threatened and this is their most important duty. If someone breaks into your home, you can call them and they'll send someone over to arrest the intruder. If a fight breaks out they'll come out and break it up. They "police" us as it were and provide us with protection and this is the obvious "friend" element.
One of the major sources of animosity that people have for the police is that they feel that the police aren't there when they need them. People misunderstand this "order" element of their function and they believe that the police are our personal bodyguards and then they get upset when they don't act as such. The truth is that the police are in no way the bodyguards of the public and you won't find a police officer anywhere who will tell you that they are. The police spend all their time dealing with crimes that have already happened and there is just no way that they can be our bodyguards. Thus it is up to each person to be their own bodyguard. Each and every person is ultimately responsible for providing for their own safety and if they don't then they really have no one to blame but themselves.
As for the "law" element, the other job of the police is to enforce the law and this again is a source of animosity. People seem to love when the law is enforced upon someone else but they sure do hate it when the law is enforced upon them. This is where you really need to be careful when dealing with the police because they will arrest or cite you just as quickly as they will anyone else. You need to understand that the police don't work for you, they work for the city or state and must apply the law equally.
Where most people get in trouble with the police is when they remember the "order" function but forget the "law" function of their jobs. As I said above, I think that everyone should support the police and assist them in any way possible, but there is one exception. That exception is when the possibility arises that you could be charged with a crime. If you're in a situation where the police are present and there is a possibility, or you think that there is a possibility, that you've done something illegal then you shouldn't speak to the police. I'm not saying that you should be rude or not cooperate with them, I'm saying that in that situation they're going to try to get you to talk to them but the only thing that you should say is, "I'm not making a statement until I speak with a lawyer".
People think that the police are only there to help us and the police use this notion against us, as part of their job. Watch any police show whether it be Cops, Law and Order, etc. and you'll notice something...the police try to get people to talk as much as possible before they have a chance to see a lawyer. When the police are called, whether its a civil complaint, a traffic offense, or after a serious crime, the police are trained to speak to everyone and either intimidate them with their position or to try to befriend them and make them feel comfortable so they can get them talking. The police want to make you feel that either you have no choice whether or not you speak to them, you do have a choice of course, or that it is in your best interest to speak to them, which it isn’t', in order to get you to make as many statements as possible BEFORE you get the chance to see a lawyer. That way, when you finally do talk to a lawyer you've already made so many statements that the only thing the lawyer can do for you is to try to arrange a plea bargain.
If you are in a situation where it is possible that you could be charged with a crime, and this includes self defense situations, the best thing that you can do is speak with a lawyer as quickly as possible and NEVER talk to the police or answer any of their questions beforehand. If you’re in a situation where the possibility exists that you could be charged with a crime and a police officer asks you what happened or to hear your side of the story, you should say one thing and one thing only, "I'm not making any statements until I speak to a lawyer". Once you have a lawyer the lawyer can protect you, but if you've already spoken to the police then chances are that there is little the lawyer can do.
Don't be dissuaded if the police tell you that not talking makes you look guilty or that if you talk the police can do something to help you, these are just tricks to get you to talk. Remember, the police can only arrest you, what really makes the difference is later when the lawyers, on both sides, get involved. The police can look scary and put the handcuffs on you, but a good lawyer can find a technicality to get you off, as long as you keep your mouth shut.
It really is sad, I know several people that ended up going to prison just because the police got them to talk before they had a chance to speak with a lawyer. In each situation the lawyer probably could have gotten them off if they would have refrained from speaking to the police first. A lot of self defense instructors will tell you to say "this" or "that" to the police after a self defense situation has occurred, or even that the police will help you to make a statement and word it just right. Don't believe any of this, the first and only person you should speak to is a lawyer.
Now, the second topic I want to cover is self defense classes that are taught by police officers. As someone who has been in the self defense game for awhile I can tell you that just because a class is taught by a police officer doesn't make it any better than a class that isn't.
There are some pros to taking a class taught by a police officer and one is that because people think that the police are better trained then everyone else they usually have very good turnouts. If a class has a good reputation and is advertised correctly, it is not uncommon for the class to have to schedule multiple dates to accommodate everyone who signs up. Self defense classes are usually more fun when you have a lot of people and having a police officer as an instructor can often do that.
Another pro is that you get the ear of a police officer for an hour or two so you can ask all the questions you want and have a great opportunity to learn all about the legal aspects of self defense and the role of the police in your community. You might also make a friend that can come in handy later when you have a problem with a neighbor or something.
There are also some cons associated with taking a self defense course taught by a police officer and the most common one is that, unfortunately, they are usually rather lame. Most people think that because the instructor is a cop that they are getting the best training possible but the truth is that in most cases you're not; as one person told me after taking one, "it was like being taught self defense by my mom". This is because since the instructor is a cop they have a greater responsibility then the average instructor.
For example, let's say you take one of these classes and later you get attacked. You use your training, successfully defend yourself, and wind up in court charged with assault. You get up on the stand and say, "I just did what the police officer told me to do". Now not only does the officer look bad but the entire Police Department as well. What's more is that the criminal who got injured might be able to sue the officer or the entire Police Department for his injuries. You see, because the instructor is a police officer they have a greater liability and responsibility then other people do and tend to err on the side of caution.
While I'm sure that there are some great classes taught by police officers, every person that I've ever spoken to that has attended one has had less then stellar things to say about it afterwards. The feeling that these classes were like being taught self defense by the guy's mom is quite common, from the comments I’ve heard, because police officers, because of their position, tend to give the politically correct answers instead of the best answers.
I'm sure that there are some officers out there who teach great classes but I don't advise taking a particular class just because a cop teaches it. All the police officers that I've spoken to who do teach self defense classes admit, to me at least, that the only reason that they're teaching it is for the money. If "Joe Blow Black Belt" teaches a class at a local gym he might get 5 people, but if a police officer teaches a class at the same gym he might get 30 people and be able charge twice as much.
It is an often held misconception that the police are privy to special training that civilians aren’t, but this really isn't true. Think for a moment about where the police get their training. They get it either first, second, third, forth, etc. hand from martial art instructors. The police practice pretty much the same techniques as any martial arts school does.
Most people find it interesting to find out that there is no standard defensive tactics, unarmed combat, martial arts, program for police departments. While the training offered by police academies is pretty much standard across the board, each police department is responsible for providing its own training to its officers. So what police departments do is find someone within their department who has martial arts training and they get them to teach, or they hire someone with martial arts training, or who has developed a special martial arts course for police officers, and they teach everyone.
Sometimes there is a sergeant who does Tae Kwon Do so all the officers learn Tae Kwon Do, or Jujitsu or whatever. Or sometimes the department just opens up the yellow pages and finds someone who is fairly cheap. At every police department's or military unit's door there is a whole line of martial arts and self defense instructors with their special "just for police officers" courses just waiting for the prestige of saying that they teach cops.
The only real difference between what police officers learn and what any other martial arts school teaches is that police officers don't fight with people, they arrest people. So while most martial arts or self defense instructors can teach techniques that allow you to seriously injure someone that is trying to seriously injure you, police learn to restrain them instead. Everything that police officers learn is meant to allow them to subdue and restrain a person with minimal injury to them, the bad guy, and for the common citizen that training is fairly useless.
The rub is that when police officers teach anything other than restraining techniques, they learned the techniques from a martial arts instructor, and that very same instructor may be teaching their own self defense class right down the street.
The last thing I will say about this subject is that not only are the police not privy to some special training that is withheld from civilians, and not only are self defense classes taught by police generally very politically correct, but police officers are not better at self defense than anyone else. If you watch “Cops”, “Shocking Police Videos”, or pretty much anything on “Court TV/Tru TV” you’ll see something interesting, when police officers get attacked they usually aren't any better at defending themselves then anyone else. You see all kinds of videos where police officers go to question or arrest someone and the individual turns and attacks the officer. When they start fighting the majority of the time you'd never know that the officer had any kind of self defense training at all.
Bottom line, the police primarily receive training in restraining techniques and if they know anything else they learned it from martial arts or self defense instructors, so you're not getting any special benefit by attending their classes that you wouldn’t from any other class. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take them or you won’t learn anything from them, I’m just saying don’t expect magic just because the class is being taught by a cop