How many guards does it take to restrain a threat?

That’s a rhetorical question. But it’s one that refuses to die, especially now that the family of Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah is intent on suing the government. In 2010, Dinesh, an inmate in Changi Prison, kicked a prison officer in the abdomen. This sparked a 30-minute confrontation that ended with Dinesh’s death. The government has offered compensation, but his family wants to sue the government instead. This is unsurprising, since the official autopsy report was never made public, and without seeing CCTV footage of the incident — if any exist to begin with — nobody knows what really happened.

This is a very sticky situation. To be certain, many of the questions surrounding his death could have been answered if videos were available, if a coroner officially investigated the death and made his findings public from the start, and if the government actually acts on its watchword of transparency instead of keeping official documents away from the public eye.

But one thing especially irks me: uninformed activists and bloggers harping on the fact that 8 to 10 officers (the numbers aren’t consistent) restrained Dinesh. It is as if the numbers alone suggests wrongdoing or police brutality. Indeed, there have been claims of brutality and excessive force — none of which, as far as I can see for now, has been backed by evidence.

These people ask, why do you need 8 to 10 men to restrain a prisoner?

Okay, what arbitrary number then?

Because that’s what this quibbling over numbers is. Arbitrary.

I’ve known actual prison guards and read of their tactics and mindsets. One of them, Rory Miller, has 17 years of experience and specialised in handling unruly prisoners and cell extractions. He was a member in his prison’s tactical unit, handling cases just like this one. Care to guess how many guards he would take to respond to an incident like this?

Everybody he could find.

When dealing with a threat, such as a violent inmate, the rule is: the greater the number of responders, the greater your options, and the higher the chances of everyone being safe. Including the suspect. I’m not talking about Dinesh’s case now, rather I’m talking about principles of force.

Can the authorities send in one guy? Sure. Miller used to be ‘that guy’. But Miller has decades of experience training in and using classical jujitsu. Not modern jujitsu; the kind samurai used to immobilise, cripple and kill on ancient battlefields. He has an innate understanding of human body mechanics very few people will ever achieve, if only because very few people even know where to get that kind of training from. Also, he went in solo…with the rest of the team just out of sight, ready to back him up if things went wrong. And the prisoners he went after? The majority of them were either just making noise or not immediately attacking Miller, giving him the tactical flexibility he needed to resolve the situation.

Can the average guard walk in and end a situation by himself? No. Simply because your average person, much less guard, does not have the decades of experience and specialised training Miller has. It is not necessarily a question of competency or training — it is a question of real-world experience, and that you cannot learn in a dojo or training room. How many guards in the prison, at the time incident, can claim to have Miller’s level of experience?

There is no substitute for experience. How do you train your brain to recognise when and how to step up to someone, slide the web of your thumb and forefinger into his philtrum, then slide up your hand and sweep out his leg to throw him to the ground? How to adapt your body mechanics, how far to close with him, how to move your limbs, how to move on slippery ground, how to move your other hand, how to defend yourself from a possible counterattack, how to move so you won’t expose yourself to a different threat, what to do if this move fails? And to do all this under adrenal stress, when tunnel vision is setting in, the hands are shaking — and the threat, too, is experiencing the same benefits and drawbacks of adrenaline, and is NOT constrained by safety requirements? All this can’t be learned in a textbook or in basic combatives class. This takes experience.

This is not to say the solo guard won’t prevail — it’s just that there’s a much, much higher chance of bruises, broken bones, blood infections, concussions and other injuries. On both sides. With one guy, you don’t have many options. If the first move doesn’t stop the threat right away, things might escalate, requiring ever-higher levels of force. The news said Dinesh started the incident by attacking a guard: if this were true, then a solo guard will be at an immediate disadvantage. With no backup around, and already taking blows from the get-go, he has to use a higher level of force to regain control of the situation. Or pay the price.

How about two people? Again, you still need skilled guards. It’s easy to slip past two ordinary humans if you know how to drop your weight. I’ve seen drills which require the participant to escape multiple attackers whaling on him simultaneously. The same considerations for a solo response apply, albeit to a lesser degree. If they cannot stop the threat right now, things will still get ugly.

If less-lethal tools are available and authorised, using them is highly recommended. Tasers and OC spray fall in between verbal orders and laying hands on a use of force continuum. Tools like that give the guards an edge — but they do not always replace the need to put hands on a suspect. Case in point, the guards did use OC on Dinesh. If OC dissuades a threat, great. But if it doesn’t, then the guards have to use bare hands to restrain the threat. And OC is an oil, making hands-on techniques even trickier than it already is. For one thing, your hands may slip. For another, OC may get into your eyes.

It’s time to rephrase the question a little. How many guards does it take to end the threat right now and ensure everyone’s safety as far as reasonably possible?

At least four. One for each limb. It’s a simple tactic. The guards surround the threat, secure each limb, then basically sit on the threat until he decides to give up. If you get a bunch of average guards — not tactical team quality, like Miller and his team, but regular guards — this tactic has a high chance of working well even under stress and when communications break down.

Restraining someone is tiring if he puts up a struggle. What most martial arts don’t tell people is that restraining someone, such as by using a wrist lock or a arm bar, does NOT automatically win a fight. In most classical battlefield martial arts, physical restraint moves set up a limb break. Or a crippling move. Or a kill shot. Those that don’t assume that you want to take the enemy alive and that you have both backup and a tool to secure him without needing your hands. And that you are willing to kill him if he doesn’t comply. Modern-day civilian self defence moves assume that you can call the police after you’ve secured the threat. If you ARE the police, you need different tactics. Like more manpower.

Physical restraint using bare hands, without wanting to escalate into more damaging attacks, is simply forcing a stalemate and hoping you can attrit the suspect’s stamina before you run out — or before he finds a way to escape. If a team has eight or more people, that means that if the first four guys get tired, they can swap out and keep up the pressure until the suspect gives up or runs out of energy. It also means they do NOT have to use a higher level of force.

Now going back to Dinesh: the whole incident assumes it’s just Dinesh and the guards. What happened to the other inmates? If the guards do NOT respond with a large force, if there are other inmates around, and the inmates see a fellow inmate attacking a lone guard, who is to say the inmates won’t seize the opportunity to gang up on the lone guard? Or challenge the guards in the future? Violence is not just between two parties — it is also a means of communication. If you are not killing someone, force is a means to coerce a subject into obeying your will — and to communicate a message to observers.

The problem is, a message or a tactic that is meant for a specific target can (and therefore, will) be misinterpreted by a third-party audience. This includes uninformed civilians with little to no knowledge of martial affairs and read about violence as it actually happens in the real world. From Zuccotti Park to George Zimmerman, I have seen so many people spout ‘police brutality’ and ‘excessive force’ without an inkling of what those words actually mean. Or what security forces need to accomplish the mission.

But that’s because we live in a safe world. One that has no need for average people to use violence regularly, where violence is an exception, not a rule. In such an environment, stylised or inaccurate portrayals of violence (think Hollywood) influences and informs how people feel about violence. None of which have anything to do with reality.

This is the real world. Not the Octagon, not the Olympics, not Hollywood. The suspect is coated in oil, the guards are not necessarily combat athletes and bad luck happens. It’s easy to imagine the suspect slipping free, the guards not being able to get a good grip, the guards being affected by the OC in the air, people crashing and slipping all around, the suspect gaining his second wind…there are so many variables the average civilian can’t even begin to conceive, that are learned only through blood and sweat.

The same reasoning applies to people who don’t believe that someone could put up a fight for 30 minutes, or that someone who weighed ‘only’ 51 kg is mostly harmless. Just pick up a cat and toss it at the nearest human. Weight isn’t as important as willingness to fight and power through pain and fatigue.

I’ve seen fights that’ve lasted for a long time. My sources have been in violent incidents which have lasted long, long minutes. For example, an aggressive emotionally disturbed person who wants to fight will fight until his body can no longer physically function. This is beyond the point of exhaustion, going on in spite of broken hands and limbs, being unable to register any kind of pain or fatigue whatsoever. Then there are other factors, like the ones I described above: slipping around with OC, suspect recovering, etc. It’s not likely, it doesn’t usually occur, but when — not IF — it occurs, a fight like that will become the longest thirty minutes of the first responder’s life.

(This is not to say the ’30 minute fight’ described in the beginning could have happened. From what I’m reading, the incident was over pretty quickly, and the 30 minutes could have included transit time back to Dinesh’s cell. But I digress. This is not about Dinesh; it is about fights that last for a while.)

For the ‘activists’ I’ve mentioned above, violence is no longer about tactics or effectiveness. It’s about how well a story fits and confirms preconceived notions of violence and state power. It’s about how violence makes them feel instead of what really happened. Hows and whys don’t matter, only personal opinions and which parts of a story fits personal prejudices. And taking potshots at The Establishment, regardless of justification.

This is not the activism and the reporting I set out to develop. There are questions of transparency and accountability here. But claiming excessive force and police brutality solely because of the number of responding guards is uninformed nonsense that serves no purpose. To reporters, bloggers and activists who want to talk about violence: first do your research and know what you’re talking about. There are better things to do than to quibble over numbers.