Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, Nov 2001

An Introduction to Police Defensive Tactics

By Bernie Lau

Copyright © Bernard Lau 2001. All rights reserved.


Police defensive tactics are NOT the same as self-defense. The role of defensive tactics in law enforcement and corrections is to assist the officer in performance of arrest and restraint, and to increase the margin of safety for both the officer and the suspect. Defensive tactics charge the officer with protecting others as well as themselves. The definition of "defend" as used here is neither punitive nor passive, but instead "to repel danger or harm while serving and protecting." Meanwhile, self-defense encompasses any and all means of protecting oneself. Self-defense techniques are not meant to apprehend an assailant. Indeed, there is no regard for the safety of the attacker whatsoever. So obviously self-defense and defensive tactics are not synonymous.

Defensive tactics are not martial arts, either. While martial arts provide a technical basis for defensive tactics, they are generally not suitable for use on the street. That said, martial arts training offers many benefits to officers, including fitness, strength and agility, balance and flexibility, stress reduction, recreation, etc. Indeed, the benefits for self-perfection inherent in long-term practice are enormous. Therefore, without denying that martial arts training can benefit officers, it is not necessary.

On the other hand, training in defensive tactics is more than simply issuing officers a nightstick and saying, "Don’t hit anybody in the head." It only takes a few seconds to be issued a tool, but learning to use it is a never-ending process.

Furthermore, you don’t always have the right tool in your hand. It may be on your belt or in your car, and while it just takes a few seconds to get it, that may be more than you have. Therefore another purpose of defensive tactics training is to give you a few seconds. You can use those seconds to get a tool or to plan a better response or simply to breathe and therefore regain mind control.

Finally, once you learn the techniques, you can’t forget to bring them with you, either. Sure, you can lose the skills if you panic, or if you refuse to practice them, but there is no way anyone can take them away from you short of rendering you unconscious.

Learning Defensive Tactics

The body is slow to learn a new skill, but once it has learned through practice, the skill becomes almost instinctive. Experts claim that it takes between 200 and 800 repetitions to become really proficient at a new physical skill. So, as defensive tactics are a physical skill, don’t stop practicing until you have done your 800 repetitions!

As noted above, there are a couple rules for officers to follow when using defensive tactics. The first is KIS: Keep It Simple. The second is to maintain mental control. During high stress situations, maintaining mental control is not an easy accomplishment: people are angry, crying, or hysterical, and this affects everyone around them. Yet if your mind is out of control, your body will follow suit. Steps that help you maintain mental control include the following.

In defensive tactics, the least violent response is generally the most appropriate. Therefore it is convenient to view levels of force using the following continuum. What is most important and significant is that the force be appropriate to the situation. If you are in mental control, then the appropriate level of force is often at least one level lower than if you are not.

Whatever level of force you use, certain techniques can help you. These include distraction, body language, and verbal techniques.

Since verbal techniques are so important, some further explanation is required. There are at least three kinds of messages that you can expect to receive during verbal communications. They are content, feelings, and behavior/response. Content is what you get from listening to lectures in school, or what Joe Friday wanted when he used to say, "The facts, ma’am, just the facts." Assuming you and the other person speak the same language and are not trying to deceive one another, then content can be passed fairly consistently. Feelings are emotions such as anger, fear, hurt, trust, and concern. Feelings are often discernible even without understanding a word of what the other person is saying. Behavior and response is where things get tricky. Sometimes people are trying to deceive you, and sometimes people are trying to manipulate your emotions. Nonetheless, you need to make a proper interpretation of the observed behaviors and then make an appropriate response.

To make this happen, you must act with authority. Even if you don’t feel like you’re in charge, pretend that you are. At the same time, be tactful. Be fair. Listen. Be courteous. And most importantly, control your emotions. Even if the situation escalates to where you need to use force, your ability to communicate effectively is still critical to gaining the subject’s cooperation. If you just inflict pain and give no directions or instructions, then of course the subject will fight back, and most likely, you’ll be accused of brutality, too. So talk to the subject after applying a technique. Tell him what you want him to do. And keep it simple. One step at a time, that’s the key.

Elements of Physical Confrontation

A Sequence of Events
Some Distractions

All of the following are intended as distractions rather than strikes, and are to be used to make an opening for some other technique. These techniques must not be relied upon for pain compliance or used for punishment.

For Additional Information

For a biographical article about Bernie Lau, see "Seattle Aikijujutsu Pioneer Bernie Lau" at the Journal of Combative Sport.

If interested in organizing a seminar with Bernie Lau, contact Neil Yamamoto at

Lau also has the following professionally produced videos available for purchase.

Cost is US $39.95 per tape. Washington State residents, please add sales tax (8.6%, or $3.45, per tape). If ordering all eight, the cost is $280. Washington State residents please add sales tax (8.6%, or $24.00). Regardless of number ordered, shipping and handling is $5.50 (North America)/$11.00 (international).

To order, send check or money order to:


PO Box 1694

Lynnwood, WA 98046-1694

To order via credit card, use the EJMAS PayPal site. For shipment verification, please include an e-mail address with your order.

Want to use paypal? Click here.

Make payments with PayPal - it's fast, free and secure!

For faster service email us to tell us what you just bought!

JNC Nov 2001