Content note: This story contains references to sexual assault and domestic violence.
The hardwood floors in the Homer Middle School gym were lined with thick blue mats, and women wearing workout gear hydrated and snacked along the edge of the large room. Several barefoot police officers, dressed in department tees, chatted at a table nearby, while four others and two Brazilian jiu-jitsu trainers formed a semicircle around the mat. Homer Police Department Lt. Ryan Browning stood in the center.
About 80 women and girls came from across the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and even Palmer to take the department’s four-hour self-defense course last October. Training included lessons on maintaining situational awareness, like not being plugged into a phone in potentially unsafe spaces, and breaking from an attacker’s grasp.
Police say such techniques are meant to empower women to feel safe in a state that’s long ranked at or near the top in the nation for rates of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Alyssa Bish is from Anchorage and found out about the training through the police department’s newsletter. She came down for a ladies’ weekend with her friend for the class.
“I think it’s a really good opportunity to learn some skills that are applicable in so many settings,” Bish said. “I have three golden retrievers that I walk regularly at night, and just always have that concern, ‘Am I safe? Am I aware? Do I have the skillset to respond if something happens?’”
Browning got the idea for the defense program after the disappearance of a local woman — Anesha “Duffy” Murnane” — in 2019. Then last year, he said a young man from Homer was stalking women in town, and ended up assaulting one of them in her car outside of her home.
He said those events highlighted the fact that violent acts are possible even in a small, tight-knit community like Homer.
“We went to Chief (Mark) Robl and said, ‘Hey, we want to do a self-defense class for women. Can we do that?’ And his response was, ‘Absolutely, whatever you need,’” Browning said.
A 2020 survey from the Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center estimated that nearly 58% of Alaska women have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or both during their lifetime.
Browning said the department is training women, in particular, since they’re the primary victims of isolated incidents of violence.
“I think it’s important to have a woman-only class and men who are positive reinforcing instructors,” he said. “Some of the feedback we got in the last class was that it was really good to practice on women, but it was even better to be able to try it on a man and see how that feels, with some positive coaching and reinforcement.”
Rachel Chaffee is an assault survivor and practices Brazilian jiu-jitsu at Redemption MMA in Soldotna and came down to help with the training. She started studying the martial art back in 2012.
She said it’s important for women to practice their self-defense skills because muscle memory will help overpower any fear response during an actual attack.
“It’s been extremely important and empowering to me to know I can work to get away, I can defend myself, and in some of the most vulnerable positions, I can break someone’s arm or choke them out if I absolutely have to — which is a pretty powerful statement to make,” Chaffee said.
On the mat, Browning demonstrated how to get out from under someone who’s attacking him. He used Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he said is designed for a smaller person to defend against a larger, stronger opponent using leverage and timing.
Browning taught with skill and humor as he walked the attendees step-by-step through the techniques, before they tried them out for themselves.
After hours of repetition, they formed a semicircle on the mat again. Four hours had gone by quickly. Browning said he hopes the women walked away confident they can set boundaries and enforce them.
“We want to have a good reputation, and we want to be there for folks,” he said. “If there’s anything that we could do to kind of mitigate some of the violence that’s happening and that Alaska is known for, then 100% we want to be on the front line of that.”
Browning said the Homer Police Department hopes to hold women’s self-defense courses several times a year, after the class last fall saw an outpouring of interest from women across the Kenai Peninsula.
If you’re interested in attending a future self-defense training in Homer, you can email Lt. Ryan Browning at firstname.lastname@example.org or give him a call at 907-235-3150.