Redefining Crime: Why We Are Failing Our Self Defense and Martial Arts Students

By Lissette Fitzgerald

“Crime is on the rise.”

While this statement may help sell a new student on a Martial Arts program, it is not a statement we hear our political leaders utter often; unless, that is, it comes during elections from a challenger to the incumbent. We are barraged with conflicting messages and information. On the one hand, we hear that crime is on the decline, prison populations are being reformed and rehabilitated, leading to productive members of society, and that programs currently in place are strong and successful deterrents; on the other, that Police Forces are consistently under staffed, underfunded, and undertrained, and that government agencies and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) are at permanent odds as to what is really going on.

The public is fed so many conflicting reports, from so many different sources, that the picture created in regards to the state of security within our borders, states, cities, and neighborhoods is, nearly without fail, a flawed mumble of information resulting in a false sense of either safety or danger. The key to unraveling the yarn of news reports, statistics, and politicians’ sound bites is understanding where these stem from, how, and why.

As Martial Artists, Instructors and School Owners, we are in a unique position to help our communities, peers, family, and selves face, cope with, and heal from the effects of crime, regardless of how it is reported, classified, or named. If we can recognize the key similarity between all forms of crime, the victim, perhaps we can start to see beyond the political wrangling, the ability to sell programs, the special interests and personal agendas, and begin instead to focus on education, information, and healing.


Why Investigate? Why Change?

The short answer: Most Self-Defense programs offered in Martial Arts Schools are failing their Students. By not being properly educated and prepared to understand their needs, Instructors make themselves unable to fill those needs and address the root issues. The unfortunate result is that, while they are diligently working to instruct students on ways to deal with the immediate physical confrontation involved in some crimes, they are leaving a vast gap in the learning process by not addressing other types of victimization and dis-empowerment that the student may be facing. These realizations often come in the form of personal experience, which was exactly the case for me.

My husband and I have been teaching Martial Arts and Self-Defense for many more years than we care to admit, but always as two separate and very different animals. However, it wasn’t until our oldest son entered Middle School that we realized the degree of change needed in teaching. For the three years that our son was in Middle School, from 6th grade through 8th, without fail, he was physically assaulted and bullied, on and around school grounds. We had not been able to interest him in Martial Arts at that point, because, as most parents know, “parents just don’t understand.” The first assault was perpetrated by four upper classmen, about 4 years older than our son, who was 11 at the time, outside of a classroom and in plain view of School Security Personnel.

At the time, my son immediately ran to the Security Guard to ask for help after having his wallet stolen and taking a beating, to which the Guard replied, “I’m busy now. Remind me tomorrow and I’ll see what I can do.” The Guard never left his post during the incident to provide assistance and we only came to find out once our son got home that day in a panic. The next day, we confronted school officials. The Principal would not take our calls, and we were remanded to one of the Vice-Principals.

What we learned from this experience was truly eye opening!

First of all, our son would have been eligible for suspension and/ or expulsion from school for his part in the assault, despite the fact that he was the victim. Second, even once the boys were identified, they were not removed from the classes that they shared with my son. In fact, the Vice-Principle decided to remove our son from the classes. Once we pressed charges and levied the Juvenile System, the boys were temporarily suspended from school, but were returned to the same classes along-side my son once their debt to the legal system was paid – a total of 2 weeks in Juvenile Detention was the most we were able to obtain, despite the fact that the four boys were repeat offenders. And, upon their return, my son spent the remainder of the year under threat of attack from the same boys and their friends, actions to which the school and School Law Enforcement Officers never responded.

The following year, just as promised, he was attacked again, as well as the year after that. Why didn’t we pull him from that school? We tried. At the time, threat of physical violence and bullying was not cause for granting a change of school in Miami-Dade County’s educational system. We also enrolled our son in a Martial Arts class under a close friend.

What became evident with time was that, having already been victimized, our son was not getting what he needed in the typical MA class. There was something missing that did not address the experience of being victimized. Those unresolved feelings and issues reared on the mat through what some referred to as lack of control, but was in reality the need to feel empowered, powerful, and capable of self-protection. It took a lot of trial and error and time to help him work through those feelings and he came out stronger and more confident as a result. Still, we felt that something about the material and method of teaching had to change, and fast. While we had always worked hard to keep our Self-Defense information fresh and relevant, this experience launched us, me in particular, on an investigative frenzy. That fevered inquiry lead to a complete transformation of the Self-Defense material that we were teaching and the way we were teaching it.

A Sea of Statistics

It all started with a question. “How can so many agencies have such disparate numbers for the same issue?” The more we researched, the more confused we became.

“Police recorded crime is, as known, not equivalent to ‘all’ crime. A well-known fact is that a large portion of ‘all’ crime remains unrecorded. Recorded crime may vary significantly as a consequence of dissimilar reporting rates and recording practices.”

— (European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, 2010)

With just under 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. boasts the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, 756 per 100,000 people in 2009 – nearly 25% of prisoners worldwide (School of Law, January 2009), in increasingly and dangerously overcrowded prisons. However, despite all of the arrests and trials, and a steady influx of prisoners filling our prisons, we are not running out of criminals.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime concluded that “only some crimes are reported by victims to the police, who [the police] may only record a portion of the incidents in the official data.” They further explain that “more serious crimes, such as murder or serious armed robbery, are likely to be recorded. Although in the case of some serious crimes, such as rape, where reporting may be difficult for the victim given the context of the crime, the official data reflects only a portion of actual cases.” (Crime, 2011)

The important thing to note is that this is not where the confusion ends. As I waded through countless reports ranging from the Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook – issued by the FBI to State and Local Law Enforcement entities as the official U.S. crime reporting bible, to International and NGO studies from organizations such as RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) and the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, among others, I came to a startling and, honestly frightening, realization:

None of these groups are using the same dictionary.

Depending on which data set is accessed, and the main objective of that data set, the very same crime is often reported under a very different and unexpected classification. The legal definitions of the same crime vary from state to state, which is the basis for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook – the need for a standard in crime reporting in order to produce an overall, national picture of crime rates.

[The next couple of paragraphs are a bit graphic, but necessary.]

In Massachusetts, Rape, or Forcible Rape, is defined by three specific elements:

  • Penetration of ANY orifice by ANY object,
  • Force or threat of force, or
  • Sexual contact against the will of the victim.

Massachusetts has one of the more progressive and encompassing definitions of rape in the U.S., though it is still lacking key components.

The Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook (UCR), however, defined Forcible Rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will,” citing Black’s Law Dictionary’s definition of carnal knowledge, “the act of a man having sexual bodily connections with a woman; sexual intercourse,” restricting the definition to male-female acts of penal-vaginal penetration, in essence, alienating male victims of rape and female victims that experienced no penal penetration. This is a definition that has stood, unchanged or challenged since 1929. The UCR, in fact, clearly distinguishes between these crimes in the following:

“Agencies must not classify statutory rape, incest, or other sex offenses, i.e. forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object, forcible fondling, etc. as Forcible Rape.” (Investigations, 2004)

As of the writing of this article, November of 2011, the FBI finally re-wrote this definition of rape, making it more inclusive of acquaintance rape and removing the gender limitations. This change, however, took 82 years.

Right away, even within governmental agencies, we can see the information breakdown. When we take into account that Medical Facilities and Victim Organizations have their own reporting systems and definitions for the same crime, we can see how quickly the information can be manipulated.

Political Positioning

Part of the problem begins with elected or appointed officials with an interest in retaining their positions. An incumbent has a personal agenda and a vested interest in demonstrating results that favor his position. One way to inexpensively accomplish this, whether as a Dean at a University responsible for policy, as Mayor of a city, Governor of a state, or Federal Agency responding to political demands, begins with definitions. And it happens all of the time.

The news publication Mother Jones reported in January of 2011 about political wrangling to redefine Rape as a part of an effort to limit government abortion funding. To quickly sum up their new definition, “rape is only really rape if it involves force” (Baumann, January 2011), effectively further restricting the already limited Federal definition of rape by limiting what determines a woman’s ability to say “No.” In other words, a definition that already excludes many victims and crimes, would further exclude situations such as statutory rape, acquaintance rape, and rape resulting from the drugging or mental impairment of the victim.

Considering that only about 15% of rapes fit the description being lobbied for, having passed this measure would preclude nearly 85%* of sexual assaults from the ability to be prosecuted under rape laws. (*Estimates compiled from different sources, then averaged. Most rapes, whether forcible or Acquaintance, are never reported, therefore, official rape statistics are calculated and estimates based on only reported crimes.)

Fortunately, the measures were recanted in response to public outcry, but, this is a big, powerful cog in the machine that drives the reporting of crime statistics.
We Can Count On Law Enforcement Agencies, Right?

Law Enforcement Departments aren’t there to protect the citizenry; they are there to protect the larger institution. As a matter of fact, they aren’t even there to stand by their officers. The training Departments and Institutions give their officers and staff is designed to build a legal barrier between themselves and any legal challenge that may adversely affect departmental continuity; this results in training that will neither prepare the officer for the situations they will encounter nor to deal with or help the public at large. In so doing, Law Enforcement agencies create an ever-deepening chasm between themselves, their officers and staff, and the communities they are meant to serve, an unfortunate side effect of which is reflected in the increasing number of cases of police violence against citizens, violence against officers, and the need for growing numbers of police watchdog organizations.

This institutional need for legal protection and assurance that the Institution will weather any storm, so to speak, is yet another cog in the crime reporting machine. You may recall the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime report I quoted earlier about the inherent inaccuracies of incident reporting at the officer level. Basically, because of the context of some crimes, victims may have a harder time reporting, recalling, or talking about the particulars of an incident. In turn, the report taker may fail to report all of the details received.  To continue with the example of rape, a person that was drugged and then victimized will have a hard time putting the pieces of the event together. Upon reporting what they do remember, it is up to the report taker’s discretion as to what pieces of information are relevant for investigation, for Local/ State/ Federal crime reporting, and what is likely to be useful in the case of prosecution. These decisions are made based on the training the report taker has received from the Law Enforcement Agency they represent, at which point the paradigm of the agency plays an integral role. Based on that paradigm, staff and officer training is created. The people at the head of the Institution dictate that paradigm.

Data is in the Eye of the Beholder

How does this all come to a head? The manipulation of definitions and numbers results in falsely hopeful crime reduction statistics. How so? The same way the definitions of rape change reflecting a drop in that particular crime, giving rise to other crimes perceived as less severe – such as aggravated assault, so do the definitions of every other crime. While in our courts we can argue First Degree Murder, procedurally and legally, we may only be able to report Second Degree or Manslaughter.

A couple of years back, in our old hometown, we were gripped by the case of a fatal stabbing which happened at our son’s high school in 2009. We lived, and the high school is located, in an affluent area of the city, but, as with most schools, security is only perceived, not factual. To summarize the events as they were reported in the news and by some witnesses, two young men of about 17 years of age were at odds over a girl. She was the girlfriend of one of the young men, who was described by some as a jealous and controlling boyfriend. The other boy was new to the city and did not even speak English, but, because he lived in the same complex as the girl, ended up becoming friends with her. She sometimes gave him rides to and from school and shared friendly conversation. It was reported that the boyfriend had already warned the other boy to stay away from his girlfriend or he’d have more trouble on his hands than the rides were worth.

One morning, September 2009, in between classes, the two young men wound up in a confrontation. The reports that have been released, although they did not offer many details because it was an ongoing investigation, stated that it started with an “intentional shoulder bump” which ended with the boyfriend stabbing the other boy five times with a four inch blade that he had brought to school on that day. At least one stab wound, allegedly the first, was to the back, the fatal blow entered between the ribs, piercing the heart, leaving the victim to bleed out in the courtyard in a matter of seconds.

The boyfriend responded by taking off the now bloody shirt, running out of the school, ditching the weapon, and hiding. He was found within a couple of hours and arrested.

What would you think that this boy would be charged with? He was charged with Second Degree Murder. The key difference between First and Second Degree, at least in this case, being the ability to prove premeditation. Were you surprised at the charges? We all were.

However, whether premeditated or not, while First and Second Degree may be classified separately by a number of agencies and NGOs, for the purposes of Federal reporting, under the UCR, either would be classified Criminal Homicide, which encompasses “the willful (non-negligent) killing of one human being by another. As a general rule, any death caused by injuries received in a fight, argument, quarrel, assault, or commission of a crime is classified as Murder and Non-Negligent Manslaughter.” (Investigations, 2004) In the Federal Reporting Standard, there is no difference between a murder committed in the heat of passion, a coldly planned killing, and a murder committed during the commission of another crime – such as a drug deal.

In this respect, the statistics favor Local and State Governments. By separating murders in a geographical area into more specific terms, rather than placing them into one, all-encompassing category, rises and falls in murder rates can easily be demonstrated and numbers manipulated. In this case, the Federal standard would provide a more complete picture of actual murder rates.

These same standards should raise another question: How much do reporting guidelines affect or influence the decisions made by crime report takers on scene, and, how does this influence affect the ability to successfully prosecute a rape or a first degree murder, or reduce charges or acquit a perpetrator?

The Need to Redefine

Here’s the rub: Crime does need to be redefined. It comes in so many new, subtle varieties – many that no one is tracking or addressing, leaving victims of these crimes to face, solve, and heal from them on their own. The example of the stabbing is typical of the kind of thing we picture when we hear the word “crime.” Crime naturally invokes images of violence, hooded individuals in dark, seedy alleys, weapons, and easily visible physical, mental and emotional scars.

But crime has changed dramatically!

What happens if you, for a moment, define crime simply as any action that results in the victimization of one or more people? Has that increased the number of crimes you can imagine?

What happens if we redefine “victim?”

Acquaintance Rape, Incest, Bullying, Cyber-Crimes, and Other Subtle Violence

Did the any of the terms in the subhead make you uncomfortable? That is part of the problem.

What do I mean by “silent” or “subtle?” In part, I am referring to that discomfort people feel at the thought of certain crimes. That discomfort encourages us to turn a blind eye, which is exactly what most crime reporting agencies do when the terms arise.

Silent and Subtle Crimes are those in which the main weapons are coercion and manipulation and/ or a campaign of defamation designed to emotionally attack or control the victim. Acquaintance rape is likely the easiest example to make. Through either drugs or manipulation, the person is victimized without the use of violence, and yet the emotional and mental scars are deeply made. Victims of acquaintance rape are, often, additionally, left unable to consciously discern whether or not they were victimized, yet emotionally and subconsciously, they experience all of the effects of the victimization.

Much in the same way, victims of cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying feel the psychological and emotional effects of the crime without physical force ever being leveraged. Even the typical “playground bully” rules mostly through a perceived physical threat than he does through actual physical confrontation and force. This is not to say that physical bullying does not happen; it does, and often. However, it is important to note that the majority of bullying is more akin to a PR campaign gone awry, in which the bully personifies the threat of exploitation of some sort, i.e. public humiliation, public beatings, revelation of an intimate secret, intimate or compromising images being exposed, negative rumors started, etc.

Recently, we have seen these particular crimes end in a tragic rash of suicides on the part of young victims too emotionally exhausted to continue to fight or face the abuse on their own, finding no support from the community, schools, workplaces, Law Enforcement, or even family. Be it in the public, online outing of homosexual students at a college, middle or high school, the spread of intimate images that end up in the hands of the wrong people, or the hacking of social website accounts with the intent to insult and denigrate the victim, Law Enforcement, Educational, Social, and Workplace Institutions are generally not equipped to address these situations, in part because it is a new style of crime that is hard to identify in some cases, but also because they are still not viewed as crimes.

The victims of many of these subtle forms of violence often simply receive a pat on the back with a reassuring yet empty promise that things will get better. “Don’t worry, they’ll stop harassing you.” “Have you tried to be their friend?” “It’s probably just a misunderstanding.” This dismissive attitude, or perhaps simple misunderstanding of the reality of the effects of the crime, also has a devastating effect, reinforcing the victim’s belief or fear that no one understands and that they are, therefore, alone in the experience.

Sadly, these crimes and their catastrophic effects are on the rise. While official numbers do not reflect the reality of these subtle acts of violence, their prevalence in the media and our environs means that the likelihood that someone close to you has at least experienced them is quite high.

As Martial Arts and Self-Defense Instructors, we are uniquely positioned to intervene for the victim, not directly in the situation, but, through our own furthered education, in the healing process. The question then becomes, “How can we make that difference?”

Why should this matter to Martial Arts?

On the surface, this information may not draw a straight line between the simple knowledge of the facts and what it represents to us as Martial Artists, Instructors, and Martial Arts School Owners, but the connection is critical.

As Martial Artists, a good number of us are involved in or acquainted with people in positions that directly affect and color these issues. Many Law Enforcement Officers are Martial Arts practitioners, and it is at this level that we can most quickly affect the changes that are so desperately needed. By fostering Martial Arts principles such as Respect and Compassion, we can begin to bridge the “Us Versus Them” gap that so many Institutions forge through policy and procedure. For those of us not directly involved with influential positions, the tenets and practice of most Martial Arts drive us to improve our awareness, be open to the experience of our partners, recognize attacks on and in different aspects of our lives and the lives of our loved ones, and, hopefully, provide the support base needed to face those challenges successfully.

As Instructors and School Owners, we need to review, assess, and adapt, in a truthful and responsible manner, the materials that we teach our students. It’s very easy to teach students to defend against obvious, explosive, physical violence, but what do we offer our students in order to prepare them for the reality of violent crime, subtle crime, or, more importantly, the aftermath of crime? The changing landscape of crime, with its new tools, tech-savvy, and changing intent is a plea to drive us, as Instructors, to adapt and evolve our Martial Arts and Self-Defense Programs to tackle these new forms of victimization, or to seek out programs that address these issues. Regrettably, the majority of Self-Defense programs out there are missing the mark entirely. While we are all trying to do the right thing, in teaching only defense against aggravated violence, we are actually doing a huge disservice to our clients, our students, our communities, and our families.

To add to this, some unscrupulous Martial Arts Schools and Self-Defense Programs bill themselves as “The Ultimate Self Defense” or other similar phrasings that imply that it is all a person will ever need, when all they manage is to turn out students who, with the bravado of their Self-Defense-Class shield in hand, are more likely to become victims than they were before taking the class. Others have used the guise of “Real Life Self Defense” to perpetrate their own forms of victimization. Others still, though well meaning, because of poor training, accidentally re-victimize people that have already suffered at the hands of a criminal.

What Needs to Change

On the large Institutional and Political scale, we need a more realistic and inclusive definition of crime, ideally, one developed with assistance from the myriad NGOs that specialize in each of the different crimes and in assisting their victims. On the Officer and Enforcement Personnel scale, we need to provide training that provides actual support for the staff, rather than the department. It needs to include realistic and effective physical defense, but must include a strong focus on de-escalation, communication, and, most importantly, working victim response. The training must be designed in such a way that the Officer is not left out in the lurch in a time of need and that refocuses efforts from the protection of the Department, to that of the community, public, and individuals within it.

On the educational level, as Instructors, we need a better understanding of what it means to defend one’s self, and we need to teach more complete, accessible programs that can disseminate that information. Too many programs address only women, or only children, while ignoring men, the family, friends, and the community.

As Instructors and School Owners, we need to be willing to further our own education, utilizing the countless, and often free, victim resource courses available from NGOs, State and Federal Organizations, so that, armed with this knowledge and new experience, we can better assist the student that has not yet been victimized and help heal the one who has been. Finally, the Family Unit needs to learn how to hold open, truthful discussion, without sugar-coating and without exclusion, about the things we might face in the world as we carry on with our everyday. Again, in this instance, as we further our own education, we can serve as a safe catalyst and support for our student families to address these issues and find constructive ways to resolve them.



Lissette Fitzgerald, known to friends and family as Liz, is a Sandan in Traditional Tae Kwon Do under Grand Master Katherine Wieczerza, a member of the Jeet Kune Do Athletics Association under Sifu Harinder Sing Sarbharwal, as well as a PFS Edged Weapons Law Enforcement Instructor under Sigung Paul Vunak and FAST Combatives/ FAST Defense Instructor. She is Co-Creator and Chief Training Officer of the ASSERT Empowerment and Self-Defense program, which is currently an integral part of the curriculum at several schools, universities, social groups, eating disorder clinics, Foster Teen transitional programs, and at-risk youth outreach programs. She has been studying under her husband, Cat Fitzgerald Sensei, a blend of Aikido, TKD, Muay Thai, JKD, Kali, and other arts for several years. She is responsible for research, case study, and curriculum building for both Neko Okami Integrated Martial Arts and ASSERT Empowerment and Self Defense and is co-founder of KSA Martial Academy in Nashville, TN. Liz is an award-winning Marketing Editor and Writer. For more information, Liz may be contacted by email at , or you can visit the ASSERT Student (, ASSERT Instructor (,) or ASSERT Professionals ( websites for more information on this research or to learn more about her findings.