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The Dive: Martial arts at WPD, and 'the sunshine tax'

WHQR's Ben Schachtman sat down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about the latest edition of The Dive, our joint newsletter. This week, it’s a look at the Wilmington Police Department’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training program.

It’s a counterintuitive conceit: the more confident you are in your ability to win a fight, the less likely you are to get into one.

But that’s what Wilmington police officer Christian Marshall says he has seen in the field since the department started requiring new officers to train in Gracie Survival Tactics, a specialized version of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) tailored for law enforcement.

Proponents of BJJ training point to the success of the Marietta Police Department in Georgia, where officials say it's reduced injuries to officers and suspects alike. Marietta’s jiu-jitsu program is not without critics, according to The Marshall Project. That includes those who suggest the training could inspire officers to seek out confrontation, and those who say the available data isn’t robust enough to account for other variables. But the city has inspired others to follow its lead.

Read this week's edition of The Dive from The Assembly and WHQR here.

Benjamin Schachtman: Alright, Johanna, thanks for being here.

Johanna Still: Thanks, Ben. For this week's issue of The Dive, you took the lead and you told us a bit about Wilmington Police Department's new jiu-jitsu training program. Can you talk to us about first what is jiu-jitsu, for those who might not know?

BS: Sure. So this is a martial art with its roots in the legendary Gracie family that really avoids punching and kicking in favor of getting your opponent to the ground with a series of grappling moves, and controlling them using submission holds. And over the last year and a half, the Wilmington Police Department has been requiring all of its new recruits to do 20 hour training in this. And it's also providing four hour ongoing training for existing officers.

JS: Now, why would this be something that a police department would be interested in? What makes it so different from how they handle interactions with criminals or incidents in day to day life?

BS: So this is what interests me – and my colleague Kelly Kenoyer and I went to the WP training facility, because I guess I had initially assumed that this would just be another way to say tackle a suspect who was fleeing from police or disarm someone who had a weapon. But what we learned was that it had more of a philosophical, mental benefit – and that officers who know that they can control a fight, and win, are actually less likely to get into that fight, which sounds counterintuitive. But that's what Christian Marshall, who is one of the WPD officers who's running this program, told us – that many of his colleagues in police work have gotten into altercations because they felt overwhelmed because someone was screaming in their face or attacking them. And they just went from, as he put it, zero to 10. But knowing, basically having the confidence to know that you could win the fight, let them sort of hang back and stay cool and maybe not get into that fight.

JS: So it can reduce the number of potentially violent interactions and then also reduce the severity of the interactions themselves.

BS: So that's the argument – and a lot of people who are in favor of this type of program, because WPD is not the only place where this is happening, point to Marietta, Georgia, which instituted this program about three or four years ago and started requiring all of its officers to train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. And they shared data that seems to indicate that both fewer officers are getting hurt, and fewer suspects are getting hurt, and not getting hurt as bad when there are altercations. Now, WPD has released their own data, after we filed a public records request. But honestly, it's too early in the game to really say whether or not it's moved the needle. We're only about a year and a half into this program. But that's what officers who are training in this martial art are hoping.

JS: And I'm sure some advocates would say that more training can't be a bad thing.

BS: Absolutely. Right now, the level of training that WPD is requiring is probably not enough to keep anyone fully skilled and ready to go in jiu-jitsu. But the hope is that this will get officers interested, and that they will you know, they'll they'll buy into the program.

JS: Interesting. Well, we'll stay tuned to see how those stats move in the coming years.

BS: Absolutely. And I should note that you also have a piece in this week's edition of The Dive, looking at the ‘sunshine tax.’ And that's a phenomenon where employees in places like the Wilmington area that have pretty nice year-round weather and some pretty beautiful beaches sometimes get paid less because employers are pitching the environment as kind of a workplace benefit. And, obviously, not everyone is always thrilled about that. So, you can find that and more details about the Wilmington Police Department's jiu-jitsu program at WHQR.org And for now, Johanna, thanks for being with us.

JS: Thank you, Ben.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.