Self-defence in the police service Part 2

Wolfgang Birkenbach, 2nd TG WT, reports on his experiences with self-defence strategies and body language during many years of police service.

Self-defence strategies :

I will now discuss situations in which I use or have used what is referred to as direct compulsion in the form of physical violence against individuals (or objects). If violence or resistance appears likely during a police assignment (which I always take into account as a possibility), a police officer is required by Section 49, 50 of the Saarland Police Law to threaten the use of “direct compulsion“ before acting (if the situation allows this).

According a police officer can use direct compulsion if other methods of compulsion are not possible, are unlikely to be successful or are inappropriate.
Direct compulsion is any direct physical action against individuals or objects. Under certain circumstances a police officer is also permitted to use so-called aids to physical violence, e.g. handcuffs or police dogs, and under these circumstances he may also have recourse to weapons such as a truncheon, gas sprays and (in extreme cases) firearms.

These situations almost always start in the same way. My opposite number adopts a provocative, wide-legged stance in front of me with his arms in front of him, then talks continuously to ”get up steam”. He remains completely unimpressed when I try to calm him down. Because of the ”professional detachment“ we are always required to maintain, and the adrenalin effect that is gradually transforming him into Superman, the hothead always assumes that the police officer(s) will probably not (be allowed to) do anything. In these situations my subject/would-be opponent is often at fairly close range. For me this is the visual and verbal phase which immediately precedes a possible or now very likely tactile phase. On the basis of experience I never allow the other person to get within arm’s length of me. This is a personally chosen safety distance which I will not allow anybody to shorten. As I have seen far too often, a shorter distance carries the enormous risk of a sudden attack with a punch or a devastating head-butt.

In this very critical phase my facial expression is of great or even decisive importance. I try to show no emotions whatever, i.e. the other party should not be able to tell whether I feel tense, shocked, afraid, angry, confident (superior), insecure or anything else. At the same time I meet his gaze with an expression of indifference, as if I were looking through him (though in some situations it is advisable or even necessary to look very stern in order to show absolute determination). Frequently I find that the ”aggressor“ becomes unsure or even disconcerted merely as a result of my gaze and calm, controlled behaviour. One of my deliberate aims is to prevent the other person from assessing my expression (and behaviour), thereby making him increasingly unsure and nervous.

My behaviour during the visual, verbal and subsequent tactile phases is very much in keeping with the four WT strength principles, which can be almost optimally combined with the four fighting principles.

1.: Free yourself from your own strength! For me this is the primary strength principle!! I always try to maintain physical and mental control so that I do not use energy unnecessarily when none is required. Only then am I able to respond as well as possible in any situation. (Incidentally, I not only apply this first strength principle during the other times I am on duty, but also to a major part of my private life!).

2.: Free yourself from your opponent’s strength! By acting intelligently in the verbal and non-verbal phases I try to let verbal attacks by a provocative subject ”bounce off” me, thereby preventing myself from being provoked into an overreaction.

3.: Use the opponent’s strength against him! Any remarks and statements directed at me are immediately analysed, assessed (in legal terms) and answered in a polite but very firm manner. I doing so I clearly emphasise all the disadvantages and consequences for the other party.

4.: Add your own strength to that of the opponent! If I am able to induce the other person to see reason, rethink or give up, it is I who determine what happens next.

Many years ago I already developed my own strategy (BlitzDefence?) for the always critical “pre-fight phases” I have described. Even then I successfully used the “chin-on-hand“ ready pose described in the book “Blitzdefence“. Either consciously or unconsciously, I realised that this position held many advantages for me as a police officer who practices WT. This is the pose in which I always adopt the (WT) advancing step position (with all the bodyweight on the rear leg). My upper body faces the other person in a frontal position. Being right-handed, I place my right forearm across my stomach, thereby protecting both flanks. My left elbow is supported by my right wrist, with my left forearm vertically in front of my left to centre chest area. The hand is held in the area of the chin and left cheek. This seemingly casual attitude always gives the other party the impression that I am listening carefully to what he says. Minor gestures are made almost exclusively with the left hand during the conversation. This means that I can move freely and unobtrusively without my opposite number realising that I am monitoring his every move with the utmost concentration. If he comes too close I extend my left arm against his chest to bring him back to at least arm’s length. If he complies, the situation becomes more relaxed for me again and I resume the unassuming, harmless and peaceful-looking “chin-on-hand“ pose.

Another reaction for which I am also always prepared is for the other party to knock my arm aside. Striking my arm is seen in law as active resistance, and the law now allows me to use ”physical violence” to overcome this resistance. My reaction to the blow to my arm is an immediate and surprising counter. While he is still striking/pushing my left arm, my right arm attacks him. Accompanied by a forward step (low kick) my two (seeking) arms look for contact with the aggressor. Thanks to the trained Chi-Sao reflexes in my arms and legs I am regularly able to bring the other person under control reliably and safely within a very short time. In my case I try to ensure right from the start that the opponent has no chance to “develop“ his attack. My aim is to use the “five fight phases“ and the four fighting and strength principles to take him to the ground and immobilise him until I can e.g. handcuff him. I have found that it is often enough to use an advancing step and phases three (punches or palm-strikes, “seeking arms“), four (holding, gripping, immobilising, throwing ...) and five (immobilising on the ground) to break any resistance reliably and effectively.

The sequence of these five phases is applied flexibly to suit the particular situation. For two reasons I tend not to use kicks, punches or chain-punches from phases one and two, or only in exceptional cases (if my life or health is threatened). For me these reasons are:

1. The risk of injury to the opponent (anybody who has practiced WT intensively for such a long time knows what serious injuries the opponent can sustain). This is also one of the main reasons for my great reluctance to apply physical force.

2. The witnesses who may be present (if there are witnesses, experience shows that everybody will remember how the police officer (in uniform) kicked or punched the other person to the ground. During witness statements the person who first attacked the police officer and was therefore the actual cause of the ensuing violence is all too easily portrayed as a “victim” of police brutality).

I only respond with kicks, punches or chain-punches if my opponent attacks wildly or tries to use a weapon against me. In such cases my aim is to put the opponent completely out of action, whether there are witnesses present or not. The only thing that counts for me then is the rigorous and uncompromising use of WT techniques.

I am however required to use only the “minimum response“ which is absolutely necessary to overcome the resistance I have encountered. In this respect the control and restraint methods I have learned in WT have not only proved extremely effective, but are a fundamental requirement for a (every!) police officer.


Unlike people who have no experience of police service, I have the advantage (??) of being in situations involving aggressive and provocative individuals very frequently. However a situation begins or ends, it is a matter of adrenalin and sheer stress for all those involved. Rational thought and behaviour tends to be the exception among our “clients“, and this must be specially taken into account by a police officer. I have learned to handle matters on both the verbal and non-verbal level through many years of police experience, and think I am fairly capable in this respect. For this reason alone, a large part of the “relaxed confidence“ I have already mentioned is not least also due to my long years of WT training.

If I am in a potential pre-fight situation as a police officer, I am required to confront both the situation and the opponent. If provoked or if a physical attack appears likely, a civilian would be well advised to turn around and walk away, but since I have a duty to fulfil as a police officer and am required by law to accept danger during the course of my work, I must do my duty. Accordingly I am expected to deal with such situations verbally, without the use of ”direct compulsion“, on the basis of the negotiating skills and tactics learned during my training and as a result of professional experience.
In contrast to those of my colleagues who are less experienced or inadequately trained in self-defence terms, I think I can safely say that I am basically able to ”work” with more consideration when using physical violence. This means that I usually cause the opponent less injury and pain. My recipe for success (??!) is probably that my opponent does not register the drastic and sudden change from my initial “professional detachment“ (polite demeanour, restraint without overreaction) to the use of immediate force, or only registers it too late. Until this moment he has probably assessed me as calm and passive, and if this is the impression he has gained, it is fully in line with my intentions before I resort to the use of direct compulsion. This ”method“ is without doubt the result of my many years of experience in handling such people and situations.

If the polite but firm behaviour I have described above enables me to avoid a physical confrontation, this is absolutely my aim and corresponds to my idea of good police work in this area. I am firmly of the opinion that a fight avoided is a fight won. Looking back, I am unable to remember how many of these situations I have encountered and how many confrontations I have avoided or defused before things became serious. My approach has certainly met with a positive response from my superiors, and I am the officer most frequently asked to attend difficult situations where conflict is likely.

If I consider my fighting abilities (with all modesty!) and take into account the effects the determined and uncompromising use of my WT techniques can have, this is a major factor in explaining why I have such a high intervention or action threshold. It is also why I attach such great importance to the verbal phase, during which body language (both mine and that of the opponent) plays an extremely important role. Even if it is all no use and the conflict escalates into physical violence (resistance), I still try to start at a lower level (phases three, four and five; control and restraint) which is less damaging to the opponent. If I am obliged to use physical force, it is not to destroy the opponent but only to gain complete control or a victory over him.

A police officer is always required to exercise restraint and deescalate a situation if possible. When provoked he must not be tempted into ill-considered action or ”panic reactions”. Accordingly the approach to be taken by a police officer in a pre-fight situation is in my view slightly different from that described in the book ”BlitzDefence“. But for the normal citizen the strategy in “BlitzDefence“ is 100% appropriate and advisable from a police point of view. If the applications and forms of behaviour are followed exactly as described, any BlitzDefence user will be legally on the safe side. He or she must always remain aware that the legality of any physical violence may subsequently be carefully and individually examined by others (police, the courts, prosecution service) to establish whether it was justified or excessive as legitimate self-defence.

Wolfgang Birkenbach 2nd TG WingTsun