Pittsburgh, PA


(by Justin Vellucci)

For Tim Novosel, Brazilian jiu jitsu is more about control than contact.

The Pittsburgh police commander — who launched a jiu jitsu training program for city cops about two years ago — talked about the importance the martial art places on focus instead of force. Nearby, a dozen officers grappled nearby on an ocean of blue mats in Pittsburgh police’s North Side training academy.

The officers’ limbs — each cloaked in a navy-blue gi, a robe-style top that’s part of jiu-jitsu’s uniform — furled around each other trying to gain an upper hand. Trainers in black gi leaned in periodically to help officers with dominant positions or demonstrate how to master moves like the Triangle Choke.

“It’s like human chess, it’s such a thinking man’s sport,” said Novosel, 51, a North Side native who took over leadership in February of Pittsburgh’s Zone 2 station, which covers Downtown. “You’re always examining the body and seeing how you can fit.”

“I’m passionate about it because it you came and told me, ‘Patrol over there,’ I’d rather go out without my gun than without my jiu jitsu,” he added. “It’s another tool on your belt.”

A couple of generations ago — long before Novosel joined the Pittsburgh force in 2007 — cops trained by boxing, the commander told TribLive.

Today, he said, Pittsburgh police integrate Brazilian jiu jitsu into teaching recruits the bureau’s defensive tactics — and keeping more tenured officers fit and focused.

About 120 officers — three of them women — have taken part in the bureau’s voluntary jiu jitsu training, with 50 coming to sessions regularly.

The martial art, which originated in Japan and integrated elements of wrestling while being taught in Brazil in the 1970s, allows smaller individuals to challenge larger attackers, its proponents say.

Brazilian jiu jitsu, or BJJ, training is said to improve self-defense and physical fitness, teach cops to seek control and sharpen teamwork and officers’ well-being.

Some police departments cite data hat shows how the training decreases use of force and helps minimize arrest-related injuries and hospitalizations for cops and suspects.

Novosel said he uses his jiu jitsu training principles “every time I touch somebody.”

Teaching control

Certain incidents, though, stand out, he said.

One night, Novosel remembered being called to Tequila Cowboy, a North Shore bar, where a man — who was “6-foot-4 and 280 pounds of muscle,” said the commander with a smile — was screaming and causing a scene.

The man started to get physical. Novosel said he relied on his jiu jitsu training to safely stop the man’s attacks.

“Ten seconds — done,” Novosel said.

Last year, for the first time, a Pittsburgh police academy class of 24 recruits studied jiu jitsu as part of their formal training, police said. More than half of those officers have continued training since graduating March 6, Novosel said.

Since the covid-19 pandemic, a cadre of officers has joined Novosel twice a week to train at the bureau’s brick-lined North Lincoln Avenue academy — handfuls of them breaking sweats as a speaker nearby pumps out 90s-era alt-rock staples such as Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole” or Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication.”

Once every two weeks, a pair of private trainers from Steel City Martial Arts volunteers to guide the sessions.

There are no payments or bureau contracts between the parties, police said. The private trainers are working for free, and the cops taking part are doing so voluntarily.

“What jiu jitsu teaches you is control. It doesn’t teach you how to fight — and that’s why this translates well for the officers,” said one of those trainers, Santino Achille, 39, of Peters in Washington County, who owns Steel City Martial Arts. As he spoke last Tuesday, officers practiced grappling, or “rolling,” on mats in the nearby gym. “When you look out here, you won’t see a single punch, a single kick.”

“There’s a difference between the sport and the reality with policing,” added Don Bluedorna Downtown attorney by day who has trained with Steel City Martial Arts for 20 years. “But, being able to adapt in a critical situation, to control somebody, is essential. This training gives them confidence, so they don’t overcompensate with aggression.”

The newly formed North Allegheny Police Department, a school district police force, also sat through a Steel City Martial Arts presentation about starting jiu jitsu training for officers, Achille said.

North Allegheny police Chief Eric Harpster, a 36-year law enforcement vet who served as a task force officer for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said he participated in jiu jitsu training while working for Pittsburgh police.

Police in Pittsburgh said it’s too early to start parsing data to measure the impact of jiu jitsu training locally on use-of-force rates, injuries and hospitalizations, or other metrics.

Helping with use of force

The scope of the trend to train law enforcement in jiu jitsu remains unclear nationwide. But the discipline’s benefits appear to be echoing elsewhere in the U.S.

Gracie University, a California group that teaches jiu jitsu trainers, said on its website that it’s been advocating for jiu jitsu training for those in American law enforcement for nearly 30 years.

Gracie Survival Tactics, a “train the trainer” course the group has offered for at least 15 years, works to “help officers verbally and physically de-escalate while humanely prevailing resistant and/or aggressive subjects,” according to the company’s website.

To illustrate Brazilian jiu jitsu training benefits, Gracie University points to the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, Ga., where municipal police made the training mandatory for all new hires in April 2019. One year later, the program was extended, on a voluntary basis, to the whole department.

To date, 95 of Marietta’s 145 sworn officers have attended more than 2,600 jiu jitsu classes. The training has helped reduce Marietta officers’ use of force, with Taser deployments dropping 23%, Gracie University said. Officers who train in jiu jitsu there use force on suspects half as frequently as colleagues who haven’t taken the training.

Pittsburgh police Officer Sean M. Jozwiak thinks the training also benefits men and women who seek to protect and serve here in Pittsburgh. Jozwiak started teaching defensive tactics to recruits at the academy last summer; in-classroom training for the recent grads started July 24, 2023.

“This gives me a foundation, a base, on how the body works,” said Jozwiak, 37, who grew up in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood and has lived for seven years in Brookline. “That knowledge, that confidence helps me teach recruits.”

“No one should be purposely injuring anybody into submission — and all the things they learn here are crucial,” added Detective Jed Pollock, 43, of Moon, as he paused his jiu jitsu grappling this week and wiped sweat from his brow. “It’s better for us. It’s better for the public. I’m just really proud to be a part of it.”

For others, jiu jitsu dictates tone.

“As a cop, (jiu jitsu) gave me confidence to speak with someone in a stressful situation,” said Pittsburgh police Officer Kevin Hendry, 49, who worked for Swissvale police for two years before joining the Pittsburgh force in 2019.

Hendry earned his jiu jitsu black belt, also in 2019, from trainer Tommy Costa at High Ground Jiu Jitsu, a members-only club with locations in Monroeville and Greensburg.

“I maintain a calm and level head,” Hendry said. “All my training has helped me know how to de-escalate a situation, instead of escalating it.”

Novosel said he and others embrace jiu jitsu as they mature in their respective jobs.

Novosel knows he’s not the same man who in 2008, while still in his 30s, won a heavyweight title in the martial art known as muay thai. But taking part in jiu jitsu training multiple times a week has led him to other improvements in his life; his diet’s better and so are his sleep routines.

“As an officer, when you start to do this, you become better,” he told TribLive. “And you want to become a better cop.”

Standing Tuesday near the blue training mats, Novosel reflected on how jiu jitsu has helped to unify and break down walls between many officers on the Pittsburgh force. It’s teaching officers from different backgrounds and with different levels of experience to speak a kind of shared language, he said.

“Police-wise, everyone’s from a different place — there are recent academy graduates, 20-somethings, ‘rolling’ with department veterans,” Novosel said. “There are guys here from narcotics, guys from homicide. I think every zone’s represented.”

“Here,” he added, “you get a chance to be more than just guys on the same shift.”

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Reprinted with permission from the May 6, 2024 edition of TRIBLive. All rights reserved.