FORT PIERCE, Fla. — St. Lucie County deputies are learning a new skill to help protect themselves in tense, potentially dangerous situations.
The St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office is the first in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast to require deputies to be trained in jiu-jitsu.
It is proving to minimize harm to people being taken into custody and reduce the number of use of force incidents in the agency.
Chief Deputy Brian Hester said deputies for years have voluntarily trained in the martial art at a local jiu-jitsu club.
He's been learning Jiu-Jitsu for more than a decade.
"It's about the control rather than tapping someone out or trying to get them to submit," Hester explained.
Right now in the agency, Hester said, about 50 deputies regularly train in jiu-jitsu.
"We would like for it to be a part of all of our deputies' weekly routine," Hester said.
The agency offers its deputies classes times three times per week.
Hester said the agency is now requiring 20 hours of jiu-jitsu training for all new hires. Beginning next year, it will also be a required part of annual training for all deputies, whether they're working as a school resource deputy, in the courthouse, on road patrol or on the SWAT team.
The St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office has three black belts on staff. They help with training, taking competition jiu-jitsu and adapting it to real scenarios law enforcement officers might face on the job.
"To being on the ground on your back with someone trying to take the gun out of your holster, being on the ground on your back with someone trying to choke you or punch you in the face, to standing and someone rushing you and tackling you," Hester explained.
These stricter training requirements come at a time when Hester acknowledges law enforcement is under a microscope.
"We'd be silly not to acknowledge that there's national pressure," Hester said. "There's community pressure for uses of force. People are constantly watching and scrutinizing law enforcement uses of force."
Jiu-jitsu, Hester said, is helping the agency reduce injury to deputies and the people they are trying to take into custody. Jiu-jitsu focuses on maintaining control of someone, buying deputies time for backup to arrive.
"They don't use pummeling and striking, but rather manipulation and control in using the suspect's leverage and their body to maintain that control," Hester said. "There's no injury that's caused from this use of force and no complaint of injury. It's simply control until someone can help handcuff, or they can handcuff someone themselves."
Hester said some deputies with more use-of-force incidents have been recommended to go through more of the training.
"I'll just use generic numbers. Let's say they had three uses of force within a certain amount of time. Now, looking at those deputies, I haven't seen a single use-of-force incident," he said. "The more confident they are, the less likely they are to react in a way that they may use excessive force."
He said deputies still have other less-than-lethal options, like tasers. They still have guns. Jiu-jitsu is just one more skill Hester hopes enhances public trust in the outcomes of law enforcement encounters.
Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers said within the last six months, he also implemented jiu-jitsu training requirements for his deputies, requiring four hours for new hires during orientation and four hours for deputies once a year.
Martin County and Palm Beach County do not have jiu-jitsu training requirements.