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St. Paul police credit jiu-jitsu training for reducing injuries — and excessive force settlements

The training, which the department calls “response to resistance and aggression,” represents a major shift from what St. Paul was teaching its officers before 2015. Inspired by Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it teaches officers working in pairs to use leverage instead of strength, enabling smaller officers to take larger people into custody. The techniques are intended for encounters that don’t involve a suspect carrying a gun or other weapon.

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ST. PAUL — Told by a police officer that he’s under arrest, a man clenches his arms in front of his body, refusing to put them in position to be handcuffed.

One officer wraps his arms around the man’s waist from behind while a second officer grabs his legs. Working together, they lower him to the ground and handcuff him.

The encounter isn’t real. It’s a training exercise that a room full of St. Paul police recruits are watching. But the techniques they learn by practicing on each other are what they’ll be expected to use on people resisting arrest once they begin their patrols next year.

The training, which the department calls “response to resistance and aggression,” represents a major shift from what St. Paul was teaching its officers before 2015.

Inspired by Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it teaches officers working in pairs to use leverage instead of strength, enabling smaller officers to take larger people into custody. The techniques are intended for encounters that don’t involve a suspect carrying a gun or other weapon.

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The training has resulted in lower levels of force, fewer injuries among suspects and officers, and historically low settlements in police misconduct cases, said St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell.

As police departments here and around the country are re-examining their use-of-force practices, particularly since a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on and killed George Floyd last year, Axtell says the study of the training changes St. Paul already put in place show they’ve “been good for our community and our officers.”

The St. Paul training is “a step in the right direction,” though it can’t stand on its own, said Maria Haberfeld, chair of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration.

Departments must be diligent in who they hire as officers because “no matter how much you invest in education and training, if you’re going to offer this training to people who are not emotionally mature, who cannot control themselves well enough in stressful situations, you’re not going to achieve the desired goal,” Haberfeld said.

New training after re-evaluation

The St. Paul Police Department began re-evaluating its training in 2014 “following several incidents where officers appeared to use more force than necessary to gain control of resistive subjects,” wrote Sgt. Sean Zauhar, who works in the training unit, helped revise the department’s use-of-force training and studied the results. “While these actions appeared unwarranted during administrative review, they were in line with the SPPD’s current training and practice.”

It also came at a time when widely shared bystander videos of police encounters was becoming more common. Those videos usually “didn’t look good,” Zauhar said.

The police department didn’t name specific cases that led to the changes, but one incident from the time that garnered attention was the 2012 arrest of Eric Hightower , which was captured on video posted on YouTube. An officer who pulled Hightower’s hair and hit him in the ear with pepper spray initially was fired, but an arbitrator overturned that decision, finding the officer did not use excessive force .

Team approach

Sgt. Sean Zauhar Contributed / St. Paul Police Department via Pioneer Press square

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In developing the new training, Zauhar said, they looked into research of what works and sought to incorporate de-escalation at every step.

Officers in St. Paul usually respond to calls in pairs, but the department’s research concluded the previous training didn’t emphasize working together when they encountered people resisting arrest.

Now, the training is team-focused. Officers are instructed to not rush into situations unless there’s imminent danger.

In the past, officers were taught to target pressure points for “pain compliance,” but that only spurred some to fight harder. Officers often found the technique ineffective when a person was under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in a mental health crisis, Zauhar said.

If those steps didn’t work, officers tended to control people by punching, kicking, using knee strikes, spraying a chemical irritant or stunning them with a Taser.

Basics of jiu-jitsu

Zauhar and two other officers who built the new training program, Chad Malmberg and Tom Menton, have backgrounds in various combat sports, including jiu-jitsu. Their experiences taught them “there are more effective things we could be teaching,” Zauhar said.

The foundation of the revised training is based on the basics of jiu-jitsu — the “gentle art” — which Zauhar said they selected because it has a low injury rate compared with other martial arts.

However, while jiu-jitsu uses armbars and neck restraints, the St. Paul police curriculum teaches neither. Rather, it focuses on the fundamentals of positioning your body to control and pin a person to the ground.

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Officers are instructed to put pressure on people’s shoulder joints when they’re on the ground but to limit compression on the upper torso and back to ensure the subject can breathe, Zauhar said. If someone continues to struggle with officers after they’re handcuffed, police are told to sit them up or roll them onto their side.

St. Paul already was teaching those principles before Floyd’s death by positional asphyxia in Minneapolis, but the case caused the department to further emphasize the point to officers.

Varying training scenarios

The revised training takes recruits through more scenarios that aren’t predetermined to result in use of force, focusing on de-escalation, “rather than having the mentality after your training approach that everything is going to go bad,” Axtell said.

The training is now 120 hours for response to resistance and aggression, which had been 80 hours before. There are another 80 hours of scenario-based training focused on the work of patrol officers and 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Team training.

Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said she’s viewed St. Paul as innovative when it comes to adopting training about leverage for use of force, and adding nuance to defining the type of resistance they encounter in updating the department’s use-of-force policy in 2018 while trying to match officers’ level of force to a person’s conduct.

“A lot of departments have really stuck to the old-fashioned way of doing things — that officers always had to have one level higher force than resistance of that person,” said Gross, who noted that St. Paul previously had concerning numbers of officers fatally shooting people and those numbers have declined.

Strikes, use of chemical irritant decline

St. Paul Police officer Jeff Whitbeck, center, leads a class on clearing a misfired rifle on the gun range at the Richard H. Rowan Public Safety Training Center in St. Paul on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press free

Recruits in the 2015 St. Paul police academy were the first to go through the new training, and veteran officers began learning it during quarterly training in 2016.

Zauhar, who earned his doctorate in criminal justice, gathered data from 2,845 incidents of St. Paul officers using force between 2014 and 2020. (Officers use force in less than 1% of incidents they respond to, according to department statistics.)

On average, since the training began, the data showed reductions of:

  • 37% in the use of force.
  • 68% in officers using strikes.
  • 51% in the use of chemical irritants.
  • 39% in Taser deployment.
  • 44% in injuries to people being arrested.
  • 25% in injuries to officers.

In that same time, there was a 29% increase in people who “demonstrated aggressive and assaultive behavior” toward officers and a 15% increase of people carrying a weapon. Officers used less force against people who “displayed passive and active resistance,” Zauhar noted.
There still have been high-profile use-of-force cases, including a series of incidents of police K-9s biting people who weren’t suspects, which led to St. Paul tightening its policy for using the dogs in 2019 .

St. Paul approved a $2 million settlement in 2017, the largest on record in the city , to a 53-year-old man, Frank Baker, who was hospitalized for two weeks after he was bitten by a police dog and kicked by an officer.

Since then, police misconduct settlements have fallen to their lowest amount in at least a decade — a total of $24,000 in 2019, $5,000 last year and $70,000 this year, according to the city attorney’s office.

Hard time to find officers

The current academy has over 60 people, the most in the city’s history, after city budget pressures prevented the department from bringing new officers onboard since 2019.

Recruiting new officers continues to be difficult, not just in St. Paul but throughout the country, said Axtell, who estimated applications were down 75% compared to five years ago. Axtell said he’s focused on “hiring the heart and training the mind.”

“Our academy instructors can train you on how to stop a car, how to write a police report, how to make a safe and effective arrest, but we simply can’t teach you how to be nice if you aren’t naturally nice,” he said.

Richard Pittman Sr., St. Paul NAACP president, said the changes St. Paul police made to its use-of-force policy reflect “more of a community-based mindset.”

“No police department is without issues,” Pittman said, pointing to Joseph Javonte Washington, who was wounded a year ago when a St. Paul officer shot him.

Pittman said he regarded that shooting as an “overuse of force and authority” because officers also used a pepperball and a K-9 against Washington, who was naked and unarmed. No charges were brought against the officer after the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office found that Washington “abruptly jumped” out of a dumpster where he was hiding and the officer reported he couldn’t tell if Washington had a weapon in his hand.

Axtell terminated the officer, pending the grievance process. Pittman said he has trust in Axtell holding officers accountable.

Pittman said he’s also seen Axtell bringing on more diverse officers. Including the current recruits, 31% of the department’s officers are people of color, compared with 23% when Axtell became chief in 2016. Axtell recently announced he’ll step down when his term ends in June.

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