GILLETTE — It was cold, dark and early — just like every other day.
Minutes before 6 a.m., and long before the sun rose, a handful of cop cars turned off Highway 59 into the seemingly empty industrial park.
A Gillette police car, followed by a police SUV drove slowly until they found parking spots near a patrol car driven by a sheriff’s deputy in a parking lot wedged between two buildings.
In one of those buildings, a light shined through the garage-like windows on its side. It was the lone sign of life in the otherwise abandoned area.
No crime had occurred. Actually, they were off the clock. But in a way, they were still working.
Through the early morning stillness, more signs of life appeared from the lit building. A sound. A synchronized clap from a dozen or so men with twice as many hands. Then a voice rose above the rest.
Inside, Eric Coxbill, a K-9 deputy, was on his back but in control. Laying on his back, he controlled the arm bar hold he trapped a willing victim in as he instructed proper technique. He also controlled the attention of the room of men, 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 have stuck.
For them, practicing jiu-jitsu in the mornings before, or evenings after, their shifts has become an extension of their job training.
They swap their badge and gun for a gi, a traditional jiu-jitsu robe, and whatever ego or identity is tied up in their profession goes on hold.
“Cops have egos,” Coxbill said. “They come in and are like, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to really learn this,’ and are like addicts and love it. Or they come in here, and they get put in a vulnerable position, they didn’t like it and didn’t show up again.”
Jiu-jitsu teaches control and positioning, tactics that when handled properly, make for more well-equipped cops and safer interactions on the street. The idea is to never put hands on people, Coxbill said, but when it happens, the training they put in on those cold, early mornings helps them more peacefully control the situation.
“We’re more calm in those 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 react appropriately. Your goal in law enforcement is just control.
“You never want to hurt anybody. Same in real life. If you’re in a self-defense situation and somebody’s trying to hurt you, you just control the situation.”
The culture of jiu-jitsu has grown within the Sheriff’s Office and spread to the Gillette Police Department slowly over the past decade or so, rising from humble beginnings in the Sheriff’s Office weight room until finally culminating in G-Town Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a Gillette jiu-jitsu gym opened in August by Coxbill and his wife, Natalie.
The presence of jiu-jitsu among cops and in the community has only grown since.
Becoming a champion
Before Coxbill was a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation world champion, he was a wrestler. But he’s always been a fighter.
After a collegiate wrestling career, he tried his hand at mixed martial arts and settled on jiu-jitsu as the focus of his training, which paid off this past year.
Coxbill entered three of the four major IBJJF tournaments 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 widely recognized worldwide.
First he won the American Nationals in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the end of June, then he won the Pan-American tournament in Florida in September. The major tournament he missed was hosted in Europe.
Then came World Master championship in November, which he also won, defeating an opponent from Finland to claim the world title.
“What he’s done in competitions this year is just crazy,” said Kyle Rhoades, the newest K-9 deputy for the Sheriff’s Office. “He’s killed everyone this year.”
Rhoades began practicing jiu-jitsu with the other K-9 deputies, Coxbill and Trevor Osborn, around 2018 before Coxbill established the gym they practice in now.
In fact, the very first jiu-jitsu sessions began in the weight room of the Sheriff’s Office, “which probably wasn’t super safe,” Coxbill said.
The higher-ups eventually gave him the OK to set up mats and padding in the small and unused former Animal Control building to use as a new practice space.
From the time Coxbill was hired in 2010 to the time he opened G-Town in August 2021, about a dozen deputies and officers were invested in jiu-jitsu enough to join his gym. The membership has since grown and is by no means exclusive to law enforcement. Anyone can join and benefit, whether it be for the exercise or the practical self-defense training.
There are even sessions for kids each week that more than a dozen have signed up for.
But the practice has stuck with cops for the purposes of exercise and mastery, and also for the practical benefits that apply to their careers.
“I always believed the more jiu-jitsu cops know, less cops would get hurt and less people would get hurt,” Coxbill said.
A certain level of anxiety, stress or even fear becomes a part of most jobs. That’s no different for cops, despite the stoicism that often comes with a badge and a gun.
Whether or not that vulnerability is admitted, that is simply the reality, Rhoades said.
“Everyone has fear,” said Rhoades, who has been on patrol about four years. “If any cop tells you they’re not scared on the job, they’re full of s---. They really are.”
But having fear and operating out of fear are two very different things. Confidence comes with mastery. Entering a situation with the knowledge that they can safely control the parties involved in a situation, without having to reach for the tools on the belt, gives the cops who practice jiu-jitsu a relative sense of calm.
“You can tell a difference with someone who has even the most minimal training in jiu-jitsu, out on the street, as a cop,” Rhoades said. “They show control. Their use of force rates typically go down because they can handle themselves in a situation, they feel comfortable in a situation.”
Rhoades said he used his jiu-jitsu experience in minor ways on the job — not in a direct one-on-one fight, but in more subtle ways. In some cases, he said it makes the difference between a small incident escalating into a bigger conflict.
“It’s very preventative,” Rhoades said, noting that when suspects see Coxbill’s cauliflower ears and visibly broken nose, “they know what’s up.”
The methods taught in the academy serve a purpose, but proper self-defense that also considers the safety of the other person takes time to learn and improve.
“It’s time and experience,” Coxbill said. “That’s what it is.”
Aspen Naylor joined the Sheriff’s Office as a jail officer in June 2020. Like Coxbill, he also has a background in wrestling. In the relatively short introduction to his law enforcement career, he already has seen the usefulness of the Brazilian martial art.
“Honing the skills that you actually need to defend yourself takes years,” Naylor said.
Like most quality education, it’s an ongoing process.
Earning the various jiu-jitsu belts takes years. Just recently, several cops passed the test required to move from white to blue belts. One advanced from a blue to purple belt. Coxbill is a brown belt, which he will remain until he is chosen to advance to the black belt, which can’t be tested for and can take many years to achieve.
But within those many years are many more early mornings at G-Town, working to improve at their craft — the jiu-jitsu and their jobs — each time.
“He wants cops to come and do this,” Rhoades said. “He wants to teach cops how to be better cops.”
When the two-hour roll ends, they clean the mats, swap their gi for their uniform and head outside into the daylight.
Wearing a badge and gun, they leave the gym and re-enter Gillette, a slightly better cop than they were when the morning began.