Friday, December 5, 2014

Police Need More Choices

Regrettably, Thinking Enemy has been off line for several weeks. Writing strategic analysis of major long term issues with a minimum of political commentary, is a difficult job. Recently, the combined burden of teaching graduate courses in homeland security and working out some family health issues at home has prevented me from delivering a high quality essay on a regular basis. I will try to return to regular publication now that the semester is drawing to a close.

            I did not anticipate that my first posted essay in several months would concern the highly politicized issue of police use of force. But the issue has been manipulated into a national debate. And as it happens, I have a unique perspective on the recent death of NYC resident Eric Garner, apparently stemming from the inappropriate use of a choke hold by police.

            As research for a novel I am writing, I began two years ago to train toward a Black Belt in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I quickly learned that street fights almost always go straight to the ground, and that the most effective move to control an opponent is “the Sleeper.” With a slight variation, that move becomes a killer called “the Choke Hold.”

            The Sleeper is applied by wrapping your right arm around your opponent’s neck from behind, placing his chin and neck in the crook of your elbow, with the bicep on one side of the neck and the forearm on the other side. Your right hand goes on your left bicep, and your left arm is bent behind the opponent's head, with the left hand pressing the head and neck down and into the V made by the right elbow. Tightening the muscles of your right arm while pressing the head forward with the left squeezes the carotid artery on the sides of the opponent’s neck, restricting blood flow to the brain. The air passage remains unobstructed, and seven seconds later the opponent passes out. Release the hold and the opponent awakens without injury. It is a good move for subduing a dangerous threat without permanent damage.

            But move the encircling arm slightly to the side and the bone of the forearm passes directly across the windpipe. This is the Choke. Tighten the arm muscles and the opponent begins choking. A bit more pressure and the windpipe collapses – the opponent dies.

            In a desperate struggle on the ground it is hard to distinguish the submission move from the killing move. This is why a referee watches MMA fights closely. There are no referees to judge police and citizens wrestling on the ground.

            Several months ago, I had a chance to try the Sleeper while sparring with an off duty policeman  who was 6’ 3’ and weighed 320 pounds.  (Sound familiar?) I’m an average sized guy (185, 5’ 10”). Even when he cooperated I could barely reach around his neck. My arms were too short to apply the Sleeper – I could only go straight to the Choke.

I’m also in pretty good shape – each week I lift weights 5 days and spend 8 hours in the MMA studio. My 300+ pound opponent treated me like a rag doll. He brushed me off, then rolled on top of me. He didn’t need any special moves – he just crushed me to the floor. I could not move or breathe. If he had not relented, I would have died. When he rolled off, he laughed.  “I was just playing with you,” he said.

All this is not to defend the seven policemen who swarmed Eric Garner while he cried, “I can’t breathe!” I don’t know what happened. I can only imagine the fear and adrenaline that coursed through both Mr. Garner and the police. The incident deserves another close investigation.

But I do know that even when several police take a huge subject to the ground, it is a life and death situation for all concerned. And so, based on my personal experience, my question is this:  With all the technology available today, why are police engaging potentially dangerous opponents in a wrestling match on the ground? Is there no way to immobilize a threat and return to talking? Must the choice always be stun guns, pistols, or mano-a-mano?

I see why it benefits politicians to turn such issues into passionate arguments that divide and energize political bases. But wouldn’t it benefit the rest of us to look for a technical solution to this problem?