GILLETTE – It was cold, dark and early – like every other day.
Minutes before 6 a.m., and well before sunrise, a handful of police cars pulled out of Highway 59 into the seemingly empty industrial park.
A Gillette police car followed by a police SUV drove slowly until they found parking near a patrol car driven by a sheriff’s deputy in a parking lot wedged between two buildings.
In one of these buildings, a light shone through the garage-shaped windows to the side. It was the only sign of life in the otherwise abandoned area.
No crime had been committed. In fact, they were late. But in a way, they were still working.
Through the morning stillness, other signs of life appeared in the lighted building. A sound. A synchronized clap of ten men with twice as many hands. Then a voice rose above the others.
Inside, Eric Coxbill, a K-9 deputy, was on his back but in control. Lying on his back, he controlled the grip of the arm bar in which he trapped a willing victim while teaching the appropriate technique. He also controlled the attention of the men’s room, about half of whom were also cops.
The group came to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu for different reasons. But for the cops in the room, some common lessons remained.
For them, practicing jiu-jitsu in the morning before or in the evening after their shift has become an extension of their professional training.
They exchange their badge and weapon for a gi, a traditional jiu-jitsu dress, and any ego or identity related to their profession remains on hold.
“Cops have egos,” Coxbill said. “They come in and say, ‘Oh man, I really have to learn this,’ and are like drug addicts and love it. Or they come here, and they’re put in a vulnerable position, they didn’t like it and don’t more presented themselves.
Jiu-jitsu teaches control and positioning, tactics which, when handled correctly, make cops better equipped and interactions on the streets safer. The idea is to never get a hold of people, Coxbill said, but when that happens, the training they take on those cold mornings and early mornings helps them control the situation more peacefully.
“We’re calmer in these situations because we do it all the time in a regular training atmosphere,” Coxbill said. “For law enforcement – or real-life self-defense – since you’ve been in these situations or seen situations, you can respond appropriately. Your goal in law enforcement is just control.
“You never want to hurt anyone. Ditto in real life. If you are in a self-defense situation and someone is trying to hurt you, you are simply in control.
The culture of jiu-jitsu developed within the Sheriff’s Office and slowly spread throughout the Gillette Police Department over the past decade or so, from humble beginnings in the Sheriff’s Office weight room to ‘at its climax in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu G-Town, a Gillette jiu-jitsu gym opened in August by Coxbill and his wife, Natalie.
The presence of jiu-jitsu among the cops and in the community has only grown since then.
Before Coxbill was a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and world champion of the Brazilian International Jiu-Jitsu Federation, he was a wrestler. But he’s always been a fighter.
After a career as a varsity wrestler, he tried his hand at mixed martial arts and chose jiu-jitsu as the center of his training, which paid off last year.
Coxbill has competed in three of the IBJJF’s four majors as a brown belt and won all three in his belt and weight class. There are many jiu-jitsu associations, but the IBJJF is the most recognized in the world.
He first won the US National Championships in Las Vegas, Nevada in late June, then he won the Pan American Tournament in Florida in September. The major tournament he missed was in Europe.
Then came the Masters World Championship in November, which he also won, beating an opponent from Finland to claim the world title.
“What he’s been doing in competitions this year is just crazy,” said Kyle Rhoades, the newest K-9 assistant for the sheriff’s office. “He killed everyone this year.
Rhoades began practicing jiu-jitsu with fellow K-9 MPs Coxbill and Trevor Osborn around 2018 before Coxbill established the gym they now practice in.
In fact, the very first jiu-jitsu sessions started in the weight room in the sheriff’s office, “which probably wasn’t very safe,” Coxbill said.
Superiors eventually gave him permission to install mats and padding in the old, small and unused animal control building to be used as a new training space.
From the time Coxbill was hired in 2010 until he opened G-Town in August 2021, a dozen MPs and officers were invested enough in jiu-jitsu to join his gym. The number of members has since increased and is by no means exclusive to law enforcement. Anyone can register and benefit from it, whether for exercise or practical self-defense training.
There are even sessions for the kids every week that more than a dozen have signed up for.
But the practice has remained with the cops for the purposes of practice and mastery, and also for the practical benefits that apply to their careers.
“I always thought that the more cops knew, the fewer cops would get hurt and fewer people would get hurt,” Coxbill said.
Some level of anxiety, stress, or even fear is part of most jobs. It’s no different for cops, despite the stoicism that often accompanies a badge and a gun.
Whether this vulnerability is admitted or not is just the reality, Rhoades said.
“Everyone’s scared,” said Rhoades, who has been on patrol for about four years. “If a cop tells you he’s not scared at work, he’s full of bullshit. They really are.
But being afraid and acting out of fear are two very different things. Confidence comes with mastery. Entering a situation knowing that they can safely control the parties involved in a situation, without having to grab the tools on the belt, gives cops who practice jiu-jitsu a sense of relative calm.
“You can tell the difference with someone who has even the most minimal training in jiu-jitsu, on the street, as a cop,” Rhoades said. “They’re showing control. Their use of force rate generally decreases because they can fend for themselves in a situation, they feel comfortable in a situation. “
Rhoades said he used his experience of jiu-jitsu in a minor way at work – not in a direct one-on-one fight, but in a more subtle way. In some cases, he said, it makes the difference between a small incident escalating into a larger conflict.
“It’s very preventative,” Rhoades said, noting that when suspects see Coxbill’s cauliflower ears and visibly broken nose, “they know what’s going on.”
The methods taught in the academy serve a purpose, but good self-defense that also takes into account the safety of the other person takes time to learn and improve.
“It’s time and experience,” Coxbill said. “It is what it is.”
Aspen Naylor joined the Sheriff’s Office as a prison officer in June 2020. Like Coxbill, he also has a background in wrestling. In the relatively short introduction to his career in law enforcement, he already saw the usefulness of the Brazilian martial art.
“Showing the skills you really need to defend yourself takes years,” said Naylor.
Like most quality education, it is an ongoing process.
Winning the various jiu-jitsu belts takes years. Just recently, several cops passed the test required to go from a white belt to a blue belt. One went from a blue belt to a purple one. Coxbill is a brown belt, which he will stay on until he is chosen to move on to the black belt, which cannot be tested and can take many years to achieve.
But over those many years, there are many more mornings in G-Town, working to improve their craft – jiu-jitsu and their jobs – every time.
“He wants the cops to come and do this,” Rhoades said. “He wants to teach cops how to be better cops. “
At the end of the two-hour roll, they clean the rugs, exchange their gi for their uniform, and step out into the light of day.
Wearing a badge and a gun, they leave the gym and bump into Gillette, a slightly better cop than he was early in the morning.