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MIGHTY CULTURE
Joshua Skovlund

Is jiujitsu the best step toward police reform? One LAPD veteran thinks so

Several shootings involving police have occurred this year, bringing on an outpouring of civil unrest in the form of widespread protests or riots, and cries for reform to reduce police brutality and institutional racism.

"Defund the police" has become a common refrain throughout the US and has grown in popularity in several cities. New York City shifted approximately $1 billion away from the New York Police Department. The Seattle City Council approved a 14% decrease in the Seattle Police Department's budget.


A main focus of the discussions surrounding police reform has been to call standards in law enforcement training into question. Both sides of the debate have proposed suggestions — from banning chokeholds to preventing police from carrying firearms.

Coffee or Die spoke with Mark Mireles, a veteran of both the US Marine Corps and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), about what he believes would help law enforcement in situations that lead to the use of lethal force.

Mark Mireles by his squad car during the 1992 Rodney King riots in LA, to the rear of the Foothill police station, the epicenter of the Rodney King beating. Photo courtesy of Mark Mireles.

Mireles served as a Marine for four years in the 1980s. He worked as an LAPD police officer for 28 years before retiring and entering the private security industry.

His nearly three-decade-long career in the LAPD unfolded across Los Angeles' most violent years. Mireles has engaged criminals in all varieties of hand fighting, less lethal deployment, and lethal deployment. Three times he earned the Medal of Valor, which is the highest award for personal bravery bestowed to LAPD's officers.

Mireles trained under the legendary Jean Jacques Machado and is a third-degree black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ). Mireles also holds a black belt in judo, which is the parent art of BJJ. He won the World No-Gi Championship in the masters black belt ultra-heavy division in 2019. He is also a four-time Gold Medalist in the World Police and Fire Games in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, and earned All American honors in the Olympic-style Greco-Roman wrestling.

There is a movement gaining momentum for law enforcement officers to be trained in Brazilian jiujitsu. This form of martial arts has been around for centuries and has been used by a wide variety of professions, from your average security officer in a mall to the most highly trained US military special operations soldier.

BJJ is defined by GracieMag as "a martial art of Japanese origin in which one essentially uses levers, torsions and pressure in order to take one's opponent to the ground and dominate them. Literally, jū in Japanese means 'gentleness,' and jutsu means 'art,' 'technique.' Hence the literal translation by which it's also known, the 'gentle art.'"

Mireles explained why he believes law enforcement officers should receive the best training possible in "handcuffing, arrest and control, defensive tactics, and I'm talking about outside of less lethal" because "officers — and this is nationally — put their hands on people every single day, but they get the least amount of training for that."

He highlighted two recent examples that drew international attention: the Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting of Jacob Blake and the Atlanta shooting of Rayshard Brooks. One major factor he pointed out in both situations is that the police officers involved failed to fully control the suspect with their first physical contact.

In BJJ, there are multiple levels of proficiency deemed by the color of belts. Beginners are white belts, followed by blue, purple, brown, and black. Black belts are considered masters of BJJ.

"If the officers were trained in tactics to a blue belt level, they would have been successful, I believe," Mireles said about the Atlanta and Kenosha incidents. "To thwart the problem by being able to take the suspect and control them and take them down to the ground rather than getting into these extended tussles."

Mark Mireles won a silver medal in judo during the 2017 World Police and Fire Games. Photo courtesy of Mark Mireles.

Mireles believes the primary mission of law enforcement is to "save and preserve human life, and to do everything that you can to do that." BJJ is a practical approach to add as an additional step in the escalation of force before an officer has to resort to their pistol in a use-of-force event. Mireles specified there are obvious circumstances where an officer goes straight to their pistol or police rifle during active shooter or hostage scenarios.

In Mireles' view, the officers involved in the Rayshard Brooks shooting did an "above and beyond job on verbalization" in their attempts to keep Brooks calm during the encounter. He added that there is a lot of speculation as to whether the officer should or should not have returned fire after Brooks shot the Taser at police, but he wants to focus on the point where the Atlanta officers could have stopped the situation from reaching the deployment of lethal force.

He believes that hand fighting — anything involving physical contact from the forearms to the hands — is critical for officers to know. Handcuffing a suspect is performed by law enforcement daily, and it's at that point when suspects fight and/or try to run away, according to Mireles. In his opinion, BJJ teaches you how to manipulate the hand to control a person's body, and this hand manipulation is crucial during the process of handcuffing a suspect or during other physical contact. This is when the Atlanta officers could have stopped the escalation from going further.

The Kenosha Police Department shooting of Jacob Blake is a similar situation in which the officers on scene lost control during an arrest attempt. Over his 28-year career, Mireles has implemented his experience in martial arts and has been involved in events just like those leading to the Kenosha and Atlanta shootings.

"I would offer, and I could be wrong, but these officers in Atlanta and Kenosha — in that time where they're trying to hold on to the suspect — that they don't have, they could have much better training in hand fighting to better control their suspects," said Mireles.

He said his experience helped him gain control of suspects he was pursuing, preventing a further escalation of force. Mireles believes BJJ would possibly have helped these officers from having to resort to lethal force. He added that from what he could see and according to the state laws in Wisconsin and Georgia, these officers were justified in their use of lethal force.

Mireles combined his law enforcement, military, and martial arts experience to start a BJJ academy, where 70% of his attendees are either police officers or firefighters. He has received positive feedback from his trainees on how directly applicable the training is and how it has helped them in their careers. To Mireles' knowledge, very few police academies actually train their cadets in hand fighting or BJJ.

Something that Mireles teaches at his academy is what he feels is the only way to approach a suspect who is resisting arrest. He said, "You're trying to get a noncompliant person to become compliant through verbalization, but when it comes time to use force, that force has to be decisive and explosive."

Mireles taking on his Russian competitor during the 2017 World Police and Fire Games. Photo courtesy of Mark Mireles.

Mireles described a blue belt in BJJ as "life insurance" for officers. "It's going to go a long way on the street, and if it's not your thing, do it anyway, because it's life insurance," he said. "If you love your wife, your significant other, your kids, you have to do everything you can to make sure that you go home safe at the end of watch, and hand-to-hand combat skills are very important to do that."

"Going home safe" doesn't just mean being physically safe; it also means protecting your job and reputation when it comes to policing. Mireles believes the use of BJJ to prevent an escalation to less lethal or lethal force with a suspect resisting arrest is a way to ensure that.

Setting up a national, standardized level of hand-fighting training for the entirety of law enforcement would be a difficult and time-consuming task. Mireles recommends that law enforcement officers join their local BJJ gyms and start learning on their own personal time while waiting for their department to implement training procedures for hand fighting.

"If you're a true professional, you're going to do everything to push yourself to the highest level of proficiency, and that's only going to occur through training," said Mireles. "Invest in your survival rate, both literally and through civil liability, by training in hand fighting."

This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.