Q&A: What is the best Martial Art for Law Enforcement?

I received a message from a reader stating, What form of martial art would you recommend for Police? I go to the academy in about 6 months. Being a total DT Dork who has practiced martial arts off and on my entire life, this is a topic I LOVE to talk about! Over the years I have picked up FOUR very important facts as they relate to martial arts and Law Enforcement.

Four truths about martial arts and law enforcement:

  • 1) Being naturally fit or someone who tends to be naturally good at martial arts type activities means NOTHING when you are going against somebody who is better trained. This goes both ways. If YOU are trained, your drunk resisting tough guy is less of a problem for you.
  • 2) When placed under stress you WILL revert to whatever you have done the most. You do NOT want this to be some crazy backyard WWF wrestling nonsense you and your friends used to do in high school if you’re a cop. That shit looks awful on YouTube and tends to get cops sued…even if it is technically justified.
  • 3) Martial Arts are NOT fighting. All Martial Arts will help you with the motor functions necessary to be able to perform in a physical confrontation. You will NOT however be out there doing katas, or performing some rolling spider guard super ninja technical death punch. Real violence (Even semi controlled violence such as during an arrest), is an ugly and vicious thing. There is no room for some of the intricacies found in many martial arts. Focus on the Gross Motor Skills that don’t go away when under pressure such a nice simple knee or elbow.
  • 4) As an extension of #3 it is important to remember that even the best Martial Arts, Create Training Scars.
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Okay you say…Now I’m confused! Didn’t you say it is important to practice martial arts to be able to handle physical confrontations as a cop? Yup! What I’m saying is that regardless of the martial art practiced, it is important to always keep in the back of your head that you aren’t really trying to practice that martial art! You’re taking an opportunity to practice the motor skills necessary to be able to perform your duties while using the LEAST amount of force necessary to get the bad guy into cuffs.

You aren’t practicing Tae Kwon Do for example…though your coach / sensei or whatever will obviously disagree! You are instead using the class as an opportunity to practice thousands of kicks and punches and hopefully the basics of ground fighting. If you enjoy the particular art you’re practicing for it’s own sake, that’s fine. Just remember as you practice your spinning back kick or super complicated rubber guard that THOSE skills are just for sport. The bulk of what you practice should be the BASICS that will translate into Defensive Tactics and you need to mentally remind yourself of that as you are practicing.

I will give an example of a training scar caused by martial arts training. When I was in Level 2 Defensive Tactics Instructor course, I was tired and worn out. We had been punching and kicking and defending against knives and all sorts of weapons for a week. I always seem to get the 100%er super overzealous partner that only has two speeds…110% and 5,000%. My partner and I would dress in the FIST suit and attack each other with nearly full strength attacks. As I zoned out during the training, I found myself slipping into the old Karate/Tae Kwon Do/Kickboxing routine of firing off several combos of punches and kicks and then sort of pausing once my opponent (the bad guy) was stunned or whatever. What I should’ve been doing was following up the attack and immediately trying to get the suspect into cuffs. Instead I found myself sparring. This is obviously a no go on the street and was a training scar I had to work to change. All martial arts will provide some form of training scar, since martial arts are in reality a SPORT with a variety of rules and codes and not a fight.

This is why I recommend whatever martial arts you practice be as close to real life as possible. Ultimately if you cannot find a realistic system, or cannot afford the training ANYTHING will work. Just remember that you are practicing the MOVES not the art. This is why some of the more esoteric arts like a flying drunken snake choking a monkey Kung-fu probably isn’t appropriate.

The criteria I look at is:

  • Is the martial art REALISTIC and Practical? The simpler the better!
  • Is there SPARRING? The closer I can get to full contact/full realistic sparring WITHOUT getting injured or killed the better.
  • Is the training affordable or something I can make fit into my life?
  • Does the system incorporate weapon defense? I’m not talking about the Chinese 16 piece staff or some medieval farming implement turned weapon. Does it have knife (or even better GUN) defense and disarmament? Does it practice with weapons that are the equivalent to an officer’s baton, patrol knife, etc?

Here is my list of what I feel are the most effective martial arts for cops and Corrections Officers and why.


#1 Krav Maga: I placed Krav Maga at the top for a reason. Krav Maga is an Israeli art originally taught to several specialized units in the Israeli Defense Force. It has grown into a worldwide phenomenon and you can find schools for this all over the place. Krav Maga is based upon dealing with real violence and has the added benefit of incorporating knife, gun and other weapons defense. In my opinion you can’t find a better martial art to practice for law enforcement. Many of the body weapons used are knees, elbows and you see a variety of palm strikes are exactly what is taught in defensive tactics. There is a reason for this. It is what works!

One of the cons of Krav Maga is that it tends to be hard to find reputable places to conduct training and in my experience is very expensive.


#2 Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ): Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is my second choice for best martial arts practiced for law enforcement. Again BJJ is a SPORT, but it’s focus on ground work along with take downs and the ability to conduct full force sparring against resisting opponents are all huge pluses. There are so many lessons to be learned by BJJ as well as potential pitfalls that I will later be writing an entire post on this subject alone. Do I feel it is appropriate (or even safe) for cops to roll around with suspects in a ground fight? Hell no!

I have heard people complain that ground training is too heavily emphasised in Defensive Tactics. I have to both agree and disagree. I feel the wrong things are often over emphasised in ground training without putting it into a law enforcement (or corrections) specific context. Trust me when I say I don’t think cops should be fighting on the ground. There is a difference between ground CONTROL and ground FIGHTING. I will explain the two later, but I cannot stress enough how dangerous the ground is for cops. Once you are in a fight on the ground make no mistake…you are in a life and death situation and it is therefore critical to be comfortable being able to survive attacks on the ground as well as having enough skill to transition OUT of the fight and stand up so you can either break contact or transition to another tool.


#3 MMA (Mixed Martial Arts): Mixed Martial Arts is an eclectic mish-mash of kickboxing, boxing, wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and just about anything else that works. Do I think cops need to be MMA fighters out fighting in cage matches somewhere? Hell no. While MMA IS a sport, it is one that is driven by what WORKS not what looks cool. It focuses on a good blend of stand-up striking and ground fighting skills. Because of this it is perfect for law enforcement. Just keep in mind as you’re practicing that it isn’t some sparring or cage match that you should be preparing for. If you are on a call and shoot in and take a suspect to the ground, mount him and start raining blows down on his face you are going to have a LOT of explaining to do.


#4 Judo: Whoever decided to call this the Gentle Art was smoking crack. Anyone who has tried Judo out can tell you there is absolutely NOTHING gentle about Judo. I found it in some ways to be significantly more physical than BJJ. Judo is an excellent sport to practice as a cop. It’s focus on throws and take downs and basics in ground work translates well into police work. Unfortunately Judo has been mired in almost debilitating amounts of rules. I just showed up every day and practiced whatever they would let me and didn’t worry about what you can or can’t do in competition. I also found the grappling aspect to be severely limited, but I did take it up after practicing BJJ for several years. For me personally, the traditions and rules of the dojo also took away from the training value. Nothing against traditional martial arts, but coming from the relaxed atmosphere of a MMA / BJJ gym it was very noticeable.

All MA

Other martial arts and training.

Of course the above list barely scratches the surface of martial arts out there. There are dozens more styles I can think of off the top of my head, not to mention things like wrestling, Army Combatives and Marine Corps Martial Arts. Ultimately I can’t stress enough how important it is to train in SOMETHING even if it is some style of traditional Karate or Tae Kwon Do. Many of these styles change from instructor to instructor and some of the traditional styles are perfect for law enforcement. Korean Hapkido (especially the somewhat modernized ‘Combat Hapkido’) blends joint locks, throws and a flurry of strikes to make for a well rounded style.


I don’t have any experience with Japanese Jujitsu (Danzan Ryu Jujitsu), but recently read an excellent article about it’s relevance as a martial art that is appropriate for law enforcement. It is worth looking into if you can’t find a Krav Maga or BJJ academy nearby.


Filipino Martial Arts (Arnis/Eskrima/Kali): No discussion on martial arts and police defensive tactics can be complete without talking about the variety of Filipino Martial Arts (FMA). Many old school DT instructors have extensive training in Arnis, Kali and Eskrima. The influence of the Filipino arts can be seen throughout defensive tactics, especially in knife and stick defense. These arts are equally suited to armed and unarmed tactics and they make a certain amount of sense considering law enforcement’s use of the baton or ASP as well as the possible need for sudden knife defense.

With that being said however, I personally feel FMA can be extremely difficult and time consuming to be able to reach a level of mastery necessary to be effective in a law enforcement setting. You are better off sticking with Krav Maga if you are looking for a martial art that incorporates weapons since it has many of the same aspects as the Filipino arts, only streamlined down to what works and what doesn’t work in a shorter period of time. This is purely my personal and admittedly limited point of view of course.

In Conclusion…

Ultimately your best bet is to look into individual schools and check out what is taught. Talk to the instructor. Observe a few classes or see if they allow a few free classes to see if it is a good fit for you.

Don’t agree with something I said or feel like I’m missing something critical? Feel free to let me know. I appreciate any feedback.

Originally published at So you wanna be a cop?.