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I Learned the Art of the Chokehold from a Retired NYPD Officer

Could martial-arts training help prevent police-brutality cases, like the horrific killing of Staten Island father Eric Garner this summer?
October 28, 2014, 7:00am

Brazilian jiu-jitsu has gained currency in military and law enforcement circles. Photo via Flickr user JBLM PAO

I’m fighting a cop.

Looming over his prone body, I reach out for his wrists and pin them to the ground. His arms are now useless but—like some kind of massive, irradiated, post-apocalyptic beetle—he clings onto me with his legs.

I stand up and he remains attached. Suddenly, he reaches down and pulls my legs out from under me. In the millisecond it takes for my body to come crashing down, I realize how exposed I was (and how smart he was to take advantage). He smothers me immediately, and I am no longer a threat.

“You OK?” Mike Codella asks in a thick Brooklyn accent.

I’m fine.

Codella is an expert at Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a contemporary martial art that he used during a 20-year career with the New York Police Department. Graying but still broad-shouldered and fit, he now runs Codella Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy on Staten Island.

“Like most people who got involved in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I saw the early UFC fights,” Codella told me. In those fights, which infamously took place in a cage, he watched a slight young Brazilian named Royce Gracie contort himself in all sorts of weird positions to win an essentially no-holds-barred competition. Amazingly, the men he beat dwarfed him in size and strength. Codella, himself only 5'7", figured he could incorporate the same holds that this Brazilian used in a cage to subdue much larger men on the street.

Codella recounted a situation that took place during his time on the city’s Special Frauds Squad. “There was some kind of Nigerian bank fraud and the guy actually became confrontational,” he said. “He was tall, lanky, probably like 6’3’’, and he took a fighting stance. Basically, I just took him down with a common jiu-jitsu takedown and mounted him, and he was kicking and trying to buck up. Obviously, he could not. Then, eventually, I just put him in an arm lock where he kind of gave up. And then we just cuffed him… The idea was to just take this big guy down without even having to strike him.”

Using his techniques in the field is safer for the officer as well as the suspect, Codella argued, but it also is better from a PR standpoint. “Especially in today’s climate, it doesn’t look good hitting a guy,” Codella explained.

Over the last 20 years, jiu-jitsu has become popular with law enforcement officers of all stripes. Relatives of the legendary Royce Gracie now run Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy, in California, which has developed a curriculum specifically for military and law enforcement personnel. A dizzying array of organizations have been certified by the Gracie Academy by having a member either take a five-day instructor course, which allows that person to train his or her colleagues, or, at minimum, an online class. The list includes the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the DEA; the FBI; the Coast Guard; the Air Marshals; the Border Patrol; the Secret Service; and sheriff’s departments and corrections officers from Texas to New Jersey. Police departments of major cities that are certified include Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

“Generally, the agencies pay their way just like an agency pays for an officer to go to a firearms instructor course or any other defense-tactics course,” said Charlie Fernandez, who directs the program for the Gracie Academy. The academy conducts about ten of the five-day seminars per year, Fernandez says, with an average of 40 officers at each.

The NYPD has its own team of jiu-jitsu enthusiasts, the Finest Grapplers, who compete in events like the North American Grappling Championship. Members of the team provide training to other officers at the Police Academy’s main gymnasium twice a week, according to the group’s website. At the new UFC gym in Staten Island, members of the NYPD’s Lieutenant’s Benevolent Association, a union representing high-ranking officers, receive a special discount if they join. Maxum Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a gym on Long Island owned by an NYPD homicide detective and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, also offers a special discount to members of the association. At LaSalle Mixed Martial Arts, another Staten Island spot, the head jiu-jitsu instructor, a native of Brazil, trained his home country’s national police before moving to the states.

“I get a lot of cops,” Codella said of his own gym.

One of the reasons Royce Gracie was able to subdue much larger men was that he used chokeholds, an essential part of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. “We do teach a vascular neck restraint,” Fernandez told me. That sort of hold, he explained, “applies bilateral pressure to the sides of the neck, which slows the blood flow down to the frontal cortex, and that’s the part of the brain that controls consciousness. Most of the time the subject complies when they feel that. If the subject does not comply, then the subject goes unconscious at that point, which enables the officer to safely handcuff ‘em and then the officer can do whatever resuscitation or follow-up care that their agency mandates.”

Codella demonstrates such a restraint by taking a seat behind me. He wraps his legs around my torso and secures one arm under my armpit and the other behind my neck.

“Try to get out,” he says.

I thrust my hips off the mat and roll away, but Codella maneuvers an arm underneath my neck and starts to squeeze. Using his legs, he positions me for maximum torque.

The harder I fight it, the worse it will be. He squeezes harder, but I try to relax. A second passes and Codella cinches down more.

Pain begins. I manage to resist for only a split-second longer before I tap out.

As far back as 1985, Benjamin Ward, the New York Police Commissioner at the time, issued an order limiting the use of chokeholds unless a person’s life was in danger and a chokehold was “the least dangerous alternative method of restraint available.”

In 1993, chokeholds were banned regardless of circumstance. “Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT use chokeholds. A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to, any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air,” reads the patrol guide.

However, complaints about chokeholds have increased dramatically since 2001, according to a report by the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board. That year, there were 82 complaints. In 2009, complaints peaked at 240. Last year, there were 179.

During this same period, the UFC transformed itself from spectacle with a cult following to the leading organization for a sport that almost everyone has had heard of, if not watched. The UFC’s last pay-per-view card in 2001 generated a mere 65,000 buys. A year later, a card broke 100,000. In 2005, things really took off when a reality series, The Ultimate Fighter, appeared on cable television.

Codella thinks police should be taught the correct way to apply a chokehold, and that if they were, maybe we wouldn’t have so many cases like that of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after being wrangled to the ground in a videotaped incident this summer.

“If these guys did this in the academy, for the six months they’re in the academy, if they trained some jiu-jitsu and some chokes, they’re never gonna kill a guy with a choke. I’ve been training for almost twenty years and I’ve never seen anybody die with a choke,” he said. The officer who leapd on Garner simply didn’t know the correct form for a chokehold, according to Codella. “What he put on was not a chokehold. You can’t talk when I’m choking you. If I put a choke on you, you’re not gonna say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ because you’re not gonna be able to.”

In jiu-jitsu, fighters are taught to release a choke when someone taps out or, if a person doesn’t tap, when his or her body goes limp.

Codella says that if the officer in the Garner incident had received proper training, “The minute he feels that guy is about to go to sleep, he woulda released it. I’ll never, ever kill a guy with a choke. I’ll never kill a guy unless I want to.”

Eben Pindyck, a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Oregonian, and other outlets.