An assailant who grabs an officer may be acting either aggressively or with deadly force. An aggressive assailant demonstrates behavior that is likely to cause physical injury. A deadly force assailant demonstrates behavior that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm.
For example, a subject who grabs an officer in a wrist grab or bear hug would likely be an aggressive assailant. By contrast, a subject who grabs the officer in a chokehold could very well be acting with deadly force. A chokehold might strangle the officer or submit the officer to unconsciousness. If an officer is unconscious, then everything available to the officer (including his or her service weapon) becomes available to the assailant.
As always, the distinction between aggressive and deadly force is based on the officer's perception, how a reasonable officer would respond in that moment, and the totality of the circumstances. For example, if an officer is grabbed by an assailant, the officer may consider: the assailant's size and strength, the skill level of the assailant, the size of the officer, the skill level of the officer, the presence nearby or involvement of other weapons, the degree of threat posed by the offender, the number of officers present, the number of suspects present, and the officer's level of exhaustion. Then, of course, the officer must use reasonable force based on the totality of the circumstances.
Depending on the circumstances and based on the "reasonable officer" standard, an officer may choose to use a physical technique to escape a grab, attack with personal weapons (hands, feet, elbows, head butt, and so on), get to a tool such as a TASER, or, in a worst-case scenario, elect to use deadly force.
The following are some basic escapes from various chokeholds. Keep in mind these escapes can include strikes on the assailant with personal weapons both before and during the escape.
Front Headlock Escapes
If an assailant gets you in a front headlock where the assailant is facing you, a move known as the "guillotine choke," here are two defensive techniques that will help you defeat the attack, assuming the grab is with the assailant's right arm (right side).
You should immediately grab the assailant's wrist and inside the assailant's forearm and elbow area, pulling the choke away from your neck, while simultaneously turning your head toward the assailant's body. Both motions will help prevent a choke. After this immediate response, you can execute these two options for escape.
Opposite Side Takedown—Place your right hand over the assailant's back, grabbing onto the assailant's clothing, if possible. This will keep the assailant from lifting and driving you backward to complete the choke. If the assailant tries to lift you, the assailant will have to lift your entire body weight, keeping pressure off your neck. Now use your left hand to press against the assailant's upper leg or knee, keeping it in place and preventing knee strikes to your head. Keep a low base and move slightly back, pulling the assailant into a lower position. You can then work your way around to the opposite side of the choke, slightly behind the assailant. Working from a low, wide base with knees bent, place your left arm behind the assailant's legs, using it to drive toward the assailant's lower body, and lifting, while using your head and upper body to drive the assailant backward. This will result in taking the suspect to the ground and result in you being in a side-control position on the ground. From this position, you can bring your right forearm across the suspect's neck and apply pressure, forcing the assailant to release the choke.
Body Rotation Escape—A technique involving fewer steps, and perhaps less training, involves first grabbing the wrist and elbow of the assailant. Stepping beside the assailant with your right leg, continue with a quick, tight, clockwise rotation, making a complete turn toward the subject while lowering your body. The finishing move could end in an escape or a takedown, while you continue to maintain contact with the assailant's arm. It is important to create as much space as possible for your head to escape the choke. This technique is made more difficult if there is a large difference in size or strength.
Side Headlock Escapes
If an assailant grabs you from behind and initiates a headlock from the side, there are many options for escape. Grab the assailant's wrist and inside forearm, pulling the choke away from your neck while simultaneously turning your head toward the assailant's body. Both motions will help prevent a choke. After this immediate response, here are two options for escape.
Rear Waist Takedown—Using the hand farthest away from the assailant, maintain a grip on the assailant's wrist, pulling the wrist and arm away from your neck. Using the opposite hand, reach around the assailant and grab his or her upper arm. You can now perform a basic rear waist takedown. To begin this simple takedown, step beside the assailant (foot next to foot) and then straighten the opposite leg behind the assailant. Now sit while pulling back on the assailant, taking him or her to the ground. Bring your right forearm across the suspect's neck and apply pressure, forcing the suspect to release the choke.
Face Rip-back Escape—Grab onto the assailant's wrist, pulling the assailant's arm away from your neck. Creating a wide base so your leg is behind the assailant, use your inside hand to reach back and grab the assailant's face, jerking it backward and down while driving your hips forward and looking to the sky. Another option is to extend the back leg, loading it for a knee strike, before striking the opponent's knee while driving the head back. Eye gouging is another option, but that's an extreme response and should be considered just below deadly force in intensity.
Choke from Behind Escapes
If someone approaches you from behind and gets you in what's called a "rear naked choke," there are many options for escape. As with all escapes from chokes, grab the suspect's arm and pull it away from your neck. If you can do so, get your chin tucked to your chest, which will help prevent the choke.
Now before you perform the escapes, you need to make a preparatory move and maneuver the assailant into a side head lock. Once in the side headlock position, you can perform one of these escapes.
Shoulder Toss—Grab the assailant's arm, then build a strong base by separating your feet and bending your knees. Then bending your knees, work your way back while leaning forward. This can put the assailant off balance, placing his or her weight on top of you. At that point, with the assailant's feet not firmly planted, you can literally flip the assailant over your shoulder of the same arm the assailant has around your neck. Slamming the assailant to the ground will likely force him or her to release the chokehold.
Scratching the Surface
There are many techniques for escaping chokeholds. This article just scratches the surface. Find the ones that work for you, depending on your size and skill level.
Whether the technique is explained in this article or you learn about it somewhere else, you have to be confident with it before you can use it in the field. And the only way to be confident with a move is to practice it.
Remember to incorporate your tools into your practice. You are not an MMA fighter, you are a sworn law enforcement officer. Be sure to include moving to draw a tool, cuffs, baton, OC, TASER, or even duty pistol (if deadly force is warranted) in your practice. Additionally, make sure your practice includes the use of the personal weapons you were born with: fists, knees, feet can be used to execute strikes, foot stomps, and kicks when viable and reasonable. It is critical for all officers to understand the proper use of force and practice escape skills necessary for their survival.
Dr. Michael Schlosser, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute, and the Institute's lead control and arrest tactics instructor. He retired from the Rantoul (IL) Police Department as a lieutenant.