The following is a reader submission from Maurice Scardigno: a Detective Lieutenant who works for a large northern New Jersey police department. Scardingo has worked in law enforcement for nineteen years and has trained jiu-jitsu “on and off” since 1997. He is currently a brown belt under Karel “Silver Fox” Pravec.
I work for a large northern New Jersey police department. That day, I was the only Patrol Division sergeant on the road when a call of a domestic violence incident in-progress came in over the radio. Dispatch gave out the address, which I happened to be passing.
As I jumped out for the car and started running up the property, a woman, completely disheveled, ran out of the house. Thinking that she was the victim (and that I was the hero), I grab her, put my arm around her and say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you. You’re going to be ok.”
She replied, “No! No! He’s upstairs! Hector (not his real name), my son, he’s killing my husband!” I didn’t ask how (which I later realized was tactically unsound), and I ran up the apartment steps into the house.
When I got to the top of the steps, I was looking for bad guys and victims. ”Where’s the threat?” I asked myself. It was a little apartment. One bedroom. Basically, the kitchen was in the living room. The glass coffee table was broken. The flat-screen TV and computer were on the floor. I saw Hector: big, athletic, 6’4″, 240 lbs. He was mounted on top of his father, strangling him with both hands. The father’s face was beaten, but he wasn’t resisting — or moving. He was unconscious, motionless. The son looked possessed. He was literally killing his father with his bare hands, continuously strangling him, jerking his head back and forth every time he exerted himself on his father’s neck.
This wasn’t the first — or last — time in my career when I was forced to make a split-second decision that could have traumatic consequences for me, the suspect, or the victim. In fact, these decisions are made regularly by police officers throughout the country and often end with injuries, deaths, lawsuits, bad press, administrative suspensions, forced medical or psychological evaluations, terminations or a host of other undesirable consequences. Nobody wins.
In my nineteen years in law enforcement, I’ve been fortunate to never have to shoot anyone. I’ve pulled my weapon countless time and was always prepared to use it. Thankfully, I’ve never had to. I’ve been in dozens of physical confrontations, sometimes with a partner next to me, sometimes alone. Most of the time, I came out without getting hurt, and so did the bad guy.
Hector didn’t even look at me when I walked into the room. I don’t even know if he knew I was there — he just stayed mounted on top of his father, strangling him. Hector was certainly using deadly force, which means I could use deadly force. My options began running through my head:
1. I could shoot Hector in the head (which would instantly neutralize the threat and maybe save the father).
2. I could begin beating him with my baton (which probably would work).
3. I could use my pepper spray (but in almost 20 years, I’ve never seen OC used to deescalate and calm a combative suspect).
4. I could tackle and punch Hector off of his father (but I’m not very strong and don’t have real knockout power. It would be a scramble — he was going to want to fight, and depending on how we landed in that tiny apartment, it could’ve been really bad for me).
5. I could punt Hector in the head (which would probably yield the same result as #4).
6. I could use Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
While Hector was strangling his father to death, I got a “seatbelt grip” on him and ripped him off. While we were on the ground, I took him to my support side, so I wasn’t lying on my weapon, just in case. I had good back control — my hooks were in, I was maintaining pressure with my hips, and my head was in a safe position. We were ear to ear.
He started to freak out and began swinging violently. It was like trying to hang on to a bucking bronco. He was trying to punch me, pull my hair, and scratch my face. But I stayed calm. The position was very familiar to me because I train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Despite being much smaller, weaker, and outweighed by 70 pounds, I used my body weight, leverage, and technique and stayed safe. I transition from the seatbelt grip to the gift wrap position, also known as “twisted arm control.” I transitioned from back control to knee-on-belly, then held Hector in an S-mount while he continued to resist.
Mid struggle, his father came back to life, taking a gasping breath as the blood rushed back to his brain. Hector continued to resist, but it was useless. I was holding Hector’s wrist with one hand, and that was all I needed. No punches. No kicks. No baton. No pepper spray. And definitely, thank God, without firing my weapon.
I’m not superhuman. I’m a forty-something-year-old husband, father of two who doesn’t like to work out and has a crappy diet. But I know jiu-jitsu. I used leverage, balance, and technique.
Backup officers arrived on scene minutes later. Hector was handcuffed without incident. His parents realized how close the father came to death at the hands of his son and explained that Hector had a history of mental illness, and a recent change in his medication regimen had made him uncharacteristically aggressive. They thanked me for not killing their son and hugged me, both in tears.
I’m a BJJ hobbyist. I don’t compete. I’ve never fought MMA. I’ve trained a couple of times a week consistently since the late 90s and have gone sometimes weeks without training, sometimes months. I actually took a twelve-year hiatus at one point. I enjoy jiu-jitsu, but I’m not an expert. I take it seriously when I’m on the mats training, but training isn’t my life. It definitely takes a back seat to my family, wife, kids, house, and work, but I’ve been training consistently enough over the years that I’ve become proficient enough and gained some incredible benefits from it.
Knowing Brazilian jiu-jitsu gives me confidence. Why? Not because I’ve learned any secret death touch, not because it’s made me faster, stronger, or given me knockout power, and certainly not because it has made me unbeatable. What BJJ has done for me over the years is put me in very difficult positions, usually in very physically uncomfortable situations, over and over and over and over, and forced me to deal with it. I’ve learned to not freak out, not lose my composure, not lose my temper, not panic, not get scared, and find the logical solution.
My instructor, Karel “Silverfox” Pravec says, “Brazilian jiu-jitsu may not be intuitive, but it is logical.” Hypothetically speaking, if ten different officers arrived on the scene in that apartment before me, each would have used a different solution to solve the immediate problem of Hector strangling his father to death. Ten perfectly legal options to stop the threat. I’d argue all of them would be worse than me using very simple, very learnable, very fundamental BJJ techniques. Positioning and leverage. That’s it. No gunshots, not broken bones, no lawsuits, no deaths. Just me — and jiu-jitsu — saved Hector’s life.
I’m not comfortable second-guessing the actions of all of the officers who have recently used deadly force on unarmed suspects. I understand. I’m certain none of them woke up that morning and premeditated shooting an unarmed suspect. I also think it’s fair to assume that they felt they were out of options. They were losing the fight. They were going to die. They were scared. They had no choice. They were never in a similar physical situation and forced to use logic to find a solution. They used the only weapon they knew would work. And although most of the investigations into the incidents turn out to rule it was a “good shoot,” I’m certain that all of those officers wished that they weren’t put into a situation where they felt shooting a suspect was their only solution.
The only defensive tactics or martial arts training most officers receive is when they are recruits in the police academy. It’s sad, but true. Oddly enough, for most agencies, it’s not a priority. Weapons training, (firearms, baton, pepper spray) is mandated. Learning how to close the distance on an aggressive suspect, taking him to the ground, and controlling him is not. Officers around the country do what they are trained to do: “fall to the level of your training.” Although Hector was much larger and stronger, I completely controlled him on the ground. He was absolutely zero threat to me because I train BJJ. That day, Brazilian jiu-jitsu saved his life.