Editor's note: View our related photo gallery, "Four Safer Strikes."
I recently interviewed Det. Josh Smith of the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department about a force incident he was involved in a few years ago while a deputy. Although he is fine now, Smith will never forget what happened that afternoon because he used the wrong type of strike to protect himself.
He was off duty driving east on a main street in the city of Yucaipa when he saw something unbelievable. A man was driving his vehicle backward into eastbound traffic. Smith thought, This guy is backing into me at the same speed I am going forward.
The deputy swerved to get out of the way just as the driver stopped his vehicle. Smith got out of his vehicle and contacted the driver, who was clearly drunk. Smith identified himself as a deputy sheriff, told the driver to stay with the vehicle, and got on his cell phone and called dispatch. But when the drunken suspect heard Smith talking to dispatch, he suddenly attacked.
The suspect swung wildly at Smith's face. Although Smith had identified himself as a deputy, there was something the drunk did not know about him. Smith had been training in mixed martial arts and was skilled in defensive tactics. He squared up with the suspect and as the man dropped his rear hand, Smith hit him in the face, knocking him out cold. Smith thought, What a great hit. I knocked him out with one punch.
But within a few minutes, Smith realized there was something very wrong with his right hand.
As a result of the punch, the tendon of Smith's right ring finger had been severed at the top knuckle by the suspect's front teeth. Even worse, both he and the suspect were bleeding. The paramedics did their best to clean the wound, but Smith later contracted staph and got blood poisoning. After a painful surgery, several weeks off duty, months of rehabilitation, and an anxious wait for his blood test results, Smith still wonders, "Who won that fight?"
Don't Go Bare Knuckles
There are arguments for and against law enforcement officers using closed hand punches. I teach both open and closed hand strikes. However, I also recommend that most officers stay away from hitting suspects with their bare knuckles. The rationale is twofold.
First, if you injure your hands hitting a suspect, it will be very difficult for you to pull a trigger (TASER, pepper spray, firearm), hold a baton, or continue striking with that broken hand. Boxers and martial artists break their hands in matches and in practice even while wearing protective gear like wraps and gloves. You will not have the luxury of protective gear like that on your hands when you get into force incidents.
Knuckle strikes can also expose you to bloodborne pathogens like staph, M.R.S.A., H.I.V., and hepatitis. Trading blood with suspects is not a good idea - even if you do knock them out. Instead, learn four strikes that can lessen the likelihood of injury and transfer of blood: palm strikes, bottom fist strikes, knee strikes, and elbow strikes.[PAGEBREAK]
A palm strike can deliver significant force, yet it is very unlikely to break your hand. Two elements of an effective palm strike are often overlooked. The first is to keep the thumb and fingers of the striking hand held tightly together to prevent the thumb from catching on the suspect's clothing or body. If your thumb gets caught, your tendons can be pulled. The second element is placement of your chin. Position your chin as close to the striking arm as possible. This simple technique will make it very difficult for a suspect to hit you on the chin and knock you out.
Deliver the palm strike from the shoulder with a straight extension of your arm, hitting the suspect's chin with the heel palm area of the hand. To create maximum force, turn your hips into the strike as it is delivered. The strike will force the suspect to focus on the blow to his chin. Most suspects will raise their hands to their face in response to this strike, which will keep his or her hands away from your duty belt. A palm strike can be an effective defense if the suspect grabs your shoulder (see photos on page 68).
Bottom Fist Strikes
You deliver a bottom fist strike with the bottom portion of a closed fist, and it can be applied to numerous vulnerable areas of the body. A properly applied bottom fist strike to the chin of a suspect can knock that suspect out.
In most martial arts the bottom fist strike is called a "hammer fist." I must admit "hammer fist" sounds infinitely cooler than "bottom fist," but one of the responsibilities of force instructors is to defend the techniques they teach to juries in civil and criminal cases. When jurors hear the term "hammer fist," they imagine the officer went to the local hardware store, got a hammer, and then beat on the suspect.
When I explain the "bottom fist" to a jury, I tell them the officer chose to hit the suspect with the soft fleshy potion of the bottom of the hand-hence the term "bottom fist"-in effect limiting some of the traumatic injury to the suspect. Properly trained, most officers can generate nearly as much force with a bottom fist as they can with a strike with knuckles.
Knee strikes can be effective in many situations. When delivering one to a suspect's mid-section, you must control the suspect's head-don't let it move an inch-to make the move as effective as possible. This control will ensure the suspect receives the full force of the strike.
When delivering this strike, use your rear knee. Too little force is generated with a front leg knee strike and it will allow an experienced grappler to grab your knee and take you down to the ground. This move must be performed aggressively with full power.
The elbow strike is an effective close range tool. You must control the suspect's head in order for the strike to be as effective as possible. Like the knee strike, the elbow strike must be performed with a rearward power movement. To increase the power of this technique, turn your hips into the strike.
Like the palm and bottom fist strikes, the target area of this move is the suspect's chin. Point the thumb of your striking hand down toward the ground during the strike. This will expose the hard bone of your elbow to hit the suspect.
Transitioning to Other Options
After you utilize one of these strikes, it's important to transition to an appropriate force option. And proper execution is critical. You must be able to seamlessly transition between each force option: baton, TASER, pepper spray, additional strikes, or control holds in order to control the suspect in a less-lethal force encounter.
These strikes will help keep you safe during and after the fight. If you have ever talked to cops who have been exposed to bloodborne diseases, they will tell you they might have won the battle, but they're not sure if they won the war. Perhaps they will let you know when they get back their blood test results.
Mike "Ziggy" Siegfried is a detective, academy instructor, and use-of-force subject matter expert with the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department.