Going to the Ground

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Ten years ago this month Going to the Ground was published by Joe Svinth at EJMAS January 2007. 

Not a whole lot is different, I’d say…More Tasers. More cops are getting shot, but that does not mean no ground fight happens. The latest incident in Arizona involved a shooting and close combat with the officer getting his head bashed into the ground, before being rescued by an armed citizen; locally a deputy was shot during a grapple with a disturbed subject laying in the road, who grabbed the dep’s backup gun at his ankle. The deputy resorted to a knife in that encounter.

Going to the Ground

Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) go “hands on” in both armed and unarmed physical confrontations more often than perhaps any other armed professionals. Within the self-defense and martial arts communities, this naturally has led to a great deal of interest in the experiences of officers in physical encounters. And no other information coming from the law enforcement community has received as much attention as an elusive set of statistics that purportedly show that 90% (or more) of physical altercations “go to the ground.”

The responsibility for the popularizing of this statistic is most often laid at the feet of the famous Gracie family, proponents of the art of Brazilian jujitsu, and dismissed as a shameless attempt at marketing themselves and their family fighting system which, not coincidentally, emphasizes fighting on the ground.

Unfortunately, I have yet to see a single source within the martial arts community — affiliated with the Gracies or otherwise — that accurately cites the actual study, or that does not either accept the statistics (or repudiate them) almost wholesale. If the constantly repeated Internet forum discussions and “letters to the editor” to various trade magazines are any indication, the topic has actually become an emotional argument for some. That argument usually finds those who practice Brazilian jujitsu or a similar system with a strong ground fighting component supporting the stats, and those who practice an art with minimal or no ground grappling denying their relevance. After personally posting the information below on several Internet forums with a wide dissemination, I still see the statistics often misquoted, misunderstood, and misapplied. I have seen them dismissed as pertaining “only to law enforcement,” and explained away as not offering lessons for self-defense.

The statistics provided here are quoted directly from the ASLET (American Society of Law Enforcement Training) pamphlet for their July 1997 Use of Force Training Seminar. The training was presented in Los Angeles by Sergeant Greg Dossey, Sergeant John Sommers, and Officer Steve Uhrig of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). It includes a description of the study and methodology used in investigating Use of Force incidents by LAPD.

In 1991, Sergeant Dossey, an exercise physiologist with the LAPD, completed a comparative study of use of force incidents reported by LAPD for the year 1988. Sergeant Dossey looked at all 5,617 use of force incident narratives written by officers in 1988, and devised a method for codifying the information contained and analyzing it for what they identified as dominant altercation patterns. The study was replicated in 1992 by LAPD’s Training Review committee.

Below, I will provide direct quotes (in italics) from the 1997 ASLET report along with some analysis and commentary which should help shed more light on what lessons law enforcement and the concerned citizen can glean from the study. After that, I will do the same with information taken from a 2003 survey of attendees at a Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar.

1997 ASLET “Use of Force Training Seminar: Future of Non-Lethal Force Training–Reality Based and Integrating Techniques for Non-Lethal Force Training”

For the purposes of this article, the significant findings of the 1997 ASLET study are: [EN1]

1. During 1988, there were 316,525 arrests made by LAPD.

  • 5,617 (1.7%) of these arrests required the completion of a use of force report.

  • 2,031 (0.6%) altercations developed from these arrests. “Of the 5,617 reports examined, only 2,031 incidents contained a sufficient level of aggressive resistance by the suspect toward the officer to qualify as an altercation.”

Thus, the study confirms what every police officer knows: most arrest situations involve little or no use of force, and minor resistance does not qualify as a “fight” (or in this case, altercation). Semi-compliant persons are often stopped by a mere order to comply or with a firm control of an arm or wrist for handcuffing. Nonetheless, even these low level uses of force may require use of force reports in many agencies, as does the pointing of a firearm at a subject who may not resist physically in any way. This study has accounted for these facts.

2. During 1988, there were an average of 867 arrests and 5.6 altercations per day. Eight hundred fifty six officers reported injuries from such altercations. These 856 officers missed a total of 2,095 days from work due to injuries sustained in altercations.

3. Altercations were most likely to develop from the following field activities: disturbances of the peace (33.8%), traffic stops (18.5%), and observed narcotics activity (14.8%).

4. Over 90% of the subjects involved in altercations were male; only about 9.5% were female.

5. Five scenario patterns accounted for 95% of the altercations: “Within each of these five patterns, a description of the most frequent first, second, and final combative action was generated by the computer… Four combative actions by suspects accounted for almost two thirds (65.8%) of these I.O.D. injuries; the officer was kicked 23.4 percent, punched 16 percent, thrown/tripped 15 percent, or was bitten 11.4 percent. In 1988 the average officer in uniform and assigned to the field was in less than 3 altercations.” The thrown/tripped statistic includes injuries sustained from wrestling on the ground.

As for the five patterns, they were:

  • Subject pulls away from an officer’s attempt to control the subject’s arm. “33.7% Officer grabbed the subject by the arm and the subject pulled his arm away; the most frequent second act was the officer applying a joint lock (32%) and the most frequent final subduing act was the officer taking the subject down to the ground (46%)”

  • Subject attempts to punch or kick the officer. “25.4% Subject ran at the officer and swung punches and kicks; the most frequent second act was the officer evading the subject and striking him with the baton (26%; a close second was taking the subject to the ground 22%) and the most frequent final subduing act was taking the subject to the ground (35%).”

  • Subject refuses to assume a searching position. “19.3% Subject refused to assume a searching position as verbally ordered by the officer; the most frequent second act was the officer applying a joint lock (35.5%) and the most frequent final subduing act was taking the subject to the ground (36.5%).”

  • Subject flees and officer pursues. “10.5% Subject ran from the officer, officer chased the subject; the most frequent second act was the officer taking the subject to the ground (40%) and the most frequent final subduing act was also taking the subject to the ground (39.5%).”

  • Subject takes a combative posture, but does not attempt to strike the officer. “6.8% Subject assumed a fighting, martial arts, or boxing stance but did not attack the officer; the most frequent second act was the officer striking the subject with the baton (38%) and this was also the most frequent final act (41%).”

The study also included the percentages of injuries based on targeting of the attacks. For example: kicking resulted in injuries to the legs (36%), the head (27%), the rib cage (22.5%), and the groin (14%). Although several fractures occurred, the most common injury was a bruise to the legs, head, ribs, or groin. The most common injury suffered in ground fighting was a strained lower back.

6. The report concluded: “Nearly two thirds of the 1988 altercations (62%) ended with the officer and subject on the ground with the officer applying a joint lock and handcuffing the subject.” Given this, it is better put that the LAPD data says when officers physically fought with suspects (versus simply encountering minor resistance or non-compliance which required a minor use of force, but did not escalate into an altercation), 95% of the time those fights took one of five patterns, and 62% of those five types of altercations ended up with the officer and subject on the ground with the officer locking and handcuffing the suspect.

After this report was published, LAPD instituted a program that included training in ground control skills, which in turn were based on modern judo and jujutsu grappling skills specially adapted for law enforcement. A follow-up study presented the following conclusions:

  • Use of force incidents and use of force percentages were reduced. The average 5.6 altercations per day in 1988 reduced to 1.7 altercations per day in 1991. Certainly, other factors were involved, [EN2] but Sergeant Dossey has been quoted (at Defend University, www.defendu.com) as saying he believes this was in part due to increased confidence in handling altercations.

  • Injuries were reduced. Suspect injuries were down 34.6% and officer injuries were down 17.7% in 1991.

  • The same 5 patterns still accounted for 90% of altercations. Although the same basic patterns applied, the chance of officers receiving a punch or kick attempt increased from a 2-11% chance (depending on scenario) to a 25-71% chance (depending on scenario). Officer involved in shootings increased by 6.3% as well. Thus, it appears that even as officers became better trained, suspects were becoming more violent.

Calibre Press Survival Seminar, 2003

In its April 2003 online newsletter, Calibre Press published results of a research project completed along with PPCT Management Systems. This project measured the other side of the equation, namely the frequency in which police officers were forced to the ground by attackers. About 1,400 cases were reported by officers attending the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar. [EN3]

Respondents were asked whether an attacker had ever attempted to force them to the ground. More than half (52%) reported this had occurred. Of that number, 60% reported that their attackers had been successful in taking them down. Of the 60% taken down, 52% reported receiving ground control training prior to the event, and 40% after.

At the time of the assault, most of the assailants were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Most of the takedown incidents occurred during domestic and other disturbance calls, or during traffic stops. These are the same situations in which the majority of officers are assaulted and killed each year (31% during disturbances, accounting for 15.6% of officer deaths, followed by traffic stops, accounting for 15.1% of officer deaths).

  • 45% of the attempts to take the officer down occurred during interviews

  • 40% occurred at handcuffing

  • 10% at escort

  • 5% during booking

Standard assault patterns took the following forms:

  • Pulling the officer to the ground (33%)

  • Pushing the officer to the ground (28%)

  • Tackling the officer to the ground (24%)

  • Kicking or punching the officer to the ground (15%)

Once the officer was down:

  • The subject continued to assault the officer once the officer was down (64%)

  • The subject fled (31%)

  • The subject waited for the officer to get back up to continue the fight (5%)

Of the ground fights, suspects generally continued with grappling and pinning techniques (77%), or used punches, kicks, and strikes (66%). However, in 21% of the cases, the subjects attempted to disarm the officer, with 5% being successful. As a side note, the FBI states that of 594 law enforcement officers killed between 1992 and 2001, 46 were killed with their own weapon.

On the ground, the officers tended to use weapons other than firearms:

  • Pepper spray (OC) was used 29% of the time

  • Impact weapons (sticks, batons, flashlights, handcuffs, etc.) were used 26% of the time

  • Hands, feet, holds, etc., were used 24% of the time

Officers used firearms in just 13 cases (less than 1% of attacks). However, during these 13 uses of firearms, three resulted in suspect fatalities.

Final Comment

Statistics should be viewed more as guidelines than as specifics. The varied situational, environmental, physical, and psychological intersections that occur within confrontations make each and every one different. However, if similar patterns occur time and again, the patterns should not be ignored.

The LAPD study does not show that “90% of fights go to the ground.” Instead, the LAPD study shows that 95% of altercations took on one of five familiar patterns (with which any street cop will be intimately familiar). It also shows that of that 95%, 62% ended up with both the officer and the suspect grappling on the ground.

Obviously, being professionally charged with restraining someone versus being primarily focused on escaping an attack will change the dynamic of a confrontation after the initial engagement. This is why I believe police in an arrest situation are more likely than a citizen in a self-defense situation to stay on the ground during a physical encounter.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that more than half the officers surveyed by Calibre Press reported that suspects had attempted to take them down, and that the suspects accomplished this 60% of the time. Of that number, the overwhelming majority stayed on the ground grappling with the officer (77%). When considering these patterns of assault, they are of the same nature as criminal assaults on citizens. In other words, the mechanics of an assault (versus the mechanics of arrest) do not change simply because one of the people involved is a police officer. [EN4]

To conclude, one can quibble with the exact percentages, but being on the ground happens frequently during serious altercations. Could a person’s being taken down and not having an effective means to deal with the situation increase odds of death or serious injury, either to him/herself or to the assailant? My personal view is that this is the case.



Dorsey, Greg, John Sommers, and Steve Uhrig. (July 1997). “Future of Non-lethal Force Training-Reality Based & Integrating Techniques for Non-Lethal Force Training.” ASLET Use-of-Force Training Seminar, originally presented at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers, Los Angeles, California, July 10-12, 1997

Dunston, Mark S. (April 2003). “Instructor’s Corner: Ground Fighting — Assaults on Police Officers,” Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline #630


EN1. The 1997 ASLET study also goes into liability concerns such as excessive force complaints, lawsuits, and settlement amounts paid out, but these are beyond the scope of this article.

EN2. During this period, TASER use increased by 76.7%. This factor should not be ignored when evaluating the reduction of altercations and suspect/officer injuries.

EN3. These seminars take place yearly throughout the United States and include officers from all walks of the law enforcement profession, from federal agents to patrol and tactical officers, detectives and corrections personnel, and any other type of sworn law enforcer.

EN4. In the cases involving violence that I have seen in which neither of the involved parties was an LEO, most had a significant portion (or at least a significant moment) during which one or both of the participants was on the ground, or fighting under conditions that were similar to ground fighting (e.g., on a bed, on a couch, etc.).


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