Judo project hopes ‘soft’ sport can help reform police training

Judo project hopes ‘soft’ sport can help reform police training

The stakes were clear for the two dozen police officers who gathered for a workshop with an ambitious and increasingly urgent mission – to recalibrate how police interact with the public in America.

The course took place the same week as the jury selection for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer who was convicted on Tuesday of unintentional second degree murder, third degree murder and manslaughter. second degree guilty in the death of George Floyd.

No one attending the conference would deny that the profession failed the day Floyd died with Chauvin’s knee on his neck. They came to the classes with the idea that judo, the martial art with a deep world history and an imprint in the Olympics, but still shallow roots in the United States, might be able to solve this problem.

“The social contract between the police and the public is a bit degrading,” said Joe Yungwirth, a workshop coach who built his career working in the counterterrorism for the FBI and now runs a judo academy. in North Carolina. “All the law enforcement officers I know, we think we need to get this back in order somehow.”

This has been a running refrain for a year of shootings and police protests, all of which have been underscored by calls for police reform.

Replace lethal force with judo techniques

The judo project is obviously an idea outside the box. Because the sport, known to insiders as the “soft way” of martial arts, places little emphasis on hitting and is seen as less violent than some of its brethren, some judo and police leaders have seen a opportunity to use discipline to rethink officer training. Headlines from last summer pushed these courses, in development since 2018, to the top of the priority list.

The main concept of the week-long course held at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy focused on teaching cops how to verbally engage suspects, and then use physical judo techniques when necessary, to defuse confrontations without the use of lethal force.

The goal is to avoid situations like the ones that led to Floyd’s death and, last week, the death of Daunte Wright, whose funeral was on Thursday. Wright was shot by an officer who thought she was looking for her Taser when it was actually her weapon.

Jim Bacon, a former U.S. judo team athlete who is now a police officer in Lafayette, Colo., Says the most damning police encounters – many of which are now caught on police cameras or by spectators holding iPhones – have this in common: “The cop uses higher levels of force than should have been used. If they have more skills, they may not have to rely on the gadgets on the belt.” , did he declare.

Matthew Maestas, left, of the Torrington, Wyoming Police Department and Ryan Rhoades, masked center, of the Meridian, Idaho Police Department, practice a judo take on Instructor Taybren Lee of the Police Department. Los Angeles at a training workshop in March. (Eddie Pells / The Associated Press)

The workshop also offered a window into the different role that an Olympic organization, and perhaps the Olympics themselves, can play in society at large. The USA Judo P3 program is sponsored by USA Judo, the six-person operation in Colorado Springs, Colo., Which has helped Kayla Harrison and Ronda Rousey, now renamed Ultimate Fighting Championship, bring home Olympic medals, but it must also constantly nurturing its own basic system.

The national governing body has lost ground on both fronts, most recently due to the pandemic, and over the years due to the growing popularity of other martial arts, such as jujitsu and taekwondo, which have kept judo in the shadows in America.

With an emphasis not on strikes, but rather on using leverage and body position to execute holds and takedowns, judo has long been easy to overlook, both in the days when Bruce Lee was kicking and martial arts in American consciousness, and then more recently, when the UFC octagons eclipsed boxing rings among a wide range of 21st century sports enthusiasts.

“This touches on a societal issue,” said Keith Bryant, CEO of USA Judo. “And for us, it has the potential to bring more people to the table.”

Change the visual

In an exercise that went to the heart of judo training, conference planners Taybren Lee and Mike Verdugo played suspects who were weakened or mentally unstable, and challenged officers to use judo to defuse the situation. The scenarios were interpreted as if they took place in public, with pedestrians filming the action from all angles on their phone cameras.

“If we can talk to you, if we can keep you posted, it’s going to change the whole visual, especially when people are registering their iPhones,” Verdugo said. “It’s about keeping you upright and not crashing into the ground.”

Lee says the public would be alarmed at how little training the average police department provides to officers for street confrontations. And because so many interactions are now captured on video, the police are scrutinized in ways previously impossible.

“It’s not the officers’ fault that they don’t have the training,” said Lee, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department who also teaches judo for the Youth Athletic League, a sponsor of the. training program. “Sometimes departments haven’t spent the money on training, and in many ways the training hasn’t taken into account the realities of the technology out there.”

The officers of the original workshop were from Fort Worth, Texas; Billings, Montana; Meridian, Idaho; and other small towns scattered across the West. Another workshop for other cities is planned for next month.

American judo working out of the comfort zone

Leading this kind of effort is hardly the traditional role of leaders of an organization like USA Judo, whose most important mission is to help Americans bring home Olympic medals. But, as the past 13 months have shown, this could be the perfect time for the nonprofits that are the backbone of the US Olympic system to reinvent themselves.

American judo officials ran a training session to try and give officers techniques that could help them avoid using lethal force when encountering potential suspects. (Eddie Pells / The Associated Oress)

USA Judo was among 70% of U.S. national governing bodies that applied to the government for loans under the federal government’s paycheck protection program during COVID-19. It cut two of its eight employees. It currently has Olympic medal contender Angelica Delgado in a sport fans will have to scour the lists to find among NBC’s 7,000 hours of coverage this summer.

During the pandemic, most of the 400 USA Judo sanctioned clubs across the country have been forced to close or severely restrict their operations. With no sanctioned events to offer – the NGB will host its first national competition in 17 months this weekend in Salt Lake City – its membership has dropped by half, to around 5,000. For comparison, there is between 600,000 and 800,000 judoka in France, host country of the 2024 Olympics, and between 150,000 and 200,000 in this year’s Olympic country, Japan.

“People have always said that as soon as we have a gold medalist, judo will grow,” said Bryant. “But people thought that before. We had a gold medalist who won two gold medals [in Harrison]. It didn’t really move the needle. “

Actual applicability

The unannounced and unglamorous art of police training might not be either. But Bryant sees judo as one of those rare sports – unlike, say, gymnastics or basketball – which has a place both in a venue of competition and in real-world situations.

Members of the program’s task force include 2004 Olympic judoka Nikki Kubes Andrews, now a detective for the Fort Worth Police Department. And Bacon, the former member of the United States national team who is now an officer in Colorado.

“The public wants police officers to be better trained,” Bacon said. “That’s why we try to integrate judo, in order to be more effective in these situations without hurting the other person.”

USA Judo is offering free memberships to officers who participate in the training and hopes the police initiative may spark new interest in the sport. But Bryant readily admits that developing the sport in America will take time – and that none of it is designed to bring home gold medals from Tokyo this summer.

He’s also keenly aware that there are other ways to measure success during tough times in America.

“We sat down and started talking,” said Bryant, “and we agreed that when you look at George Floyd and all these situations, it felt like if these officers had been trained in judo in the proper way. , that would not have happened. “

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