Over the past week, Seattle’s recent “jaywalking rumble” has gained worldwide interest. It has provoked a spirited debate, among martial artists and the public at large, over the limits of reasonable force. Some believe that the police officer’s punch was brutally excessive, and that some form of joint lock would have been more appropriate. The following article expresses my dissenting view.
In the martial arts, a “joint lock” is a technique that targets a joint in an opponent’s body, holding it near or outside its normal range of motion. The purpose of a joint lock is not to inflict harm, but to issue a credible threat of harm. The recipient of a joint lock is expected to submit: to move, or to stop moving, as directed by the applicant.
Locking techniques exist for nearly every joint in the human body. Depending on the technique selected, the recipient may or may not be physically immobilized (“locked”) upon application. The recipient may or may not experience significant pain, as a signal to comply, before the onset of bone or soft tissue damage.
Joint locks can be applied in the context of combat sport, law enforcement, or self-defense. The use of joint locks is usually restricted in fighting competitions, due to the high risk of injury.
Joint Locks for Pain Compliance and Restraint
The use of the joint lock as a “nonviolent” coercion method–and an alternative to striking–is complicated by a number of factors. First, their difficulty: locking a particular joint requires a skillful positioning of the target’s neighboring joints, and of their entire body. This is especially true in the case of standing locks, where the applicant is in danger of being struck immediately in response, or thrown to the ground.
Whereas a imperfectly executed punch or kick is somewhat less effective for its flaws, an improperly applied joint lock may be completely useless–accomplishing nothing more than to present an opportunity for counterattack. This first challenge can be mitigated with sufficient training, but the next cannot.
Second, the experience of pain is idiosyncratic. A target may be so strong, so flexible, or so emotionally disturbed that no safety buffer between pain and damage can be found. Without the pain, there is no immediate and visceral threat, and no apparent necessity to submit. The target may struggle violently against the hold, placing themselves at risk, inadvertently or out of spite. Observers are then left to wonder how a supposedly nonviolent restraint resulted in a dislocated shoulder, or a broken elbow, or worse.
Finally, while locking and holding the target’s joint in place, the applicant is sacrificing their own mobility. This is a significant risk when multiple potential threats are present.
When martial artists practice joint locking methods, they rarely apply them to a worst-case conclusion. In training, the target submits before any damage is done, so that practice can continue. Unfortunately, this tends to support a belief that locking techniques are both safe and reliable. In truth, these are risky techniques made safer by mutual cooperation. When that cooperation is withdrawn–as one can rightfully expect in street confrontations–the joint lock must be considered dangerous.