A Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office cadet reportedly died Tuesday from heart failure suffered during an intense training exercise.
“It is with great sadness we report the unexpected passing of one of our recruits,” Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Officer Jessica Gabaldon wrote in an email Wednesday in response to questions from San Jose Inside. “The recruit had been participating in defensive tactics training at the academy yesterday. The recruit was rushed to the hospital by ambulance; however, tragically did not survive.”
Though the county withheld the name of the decedent, multiple sources familiar with the matter identified him as 39-year-old John Nishimura, a member of Academy Class No. 21. They say he collapsed Tuesday while sparring with a proctor who wore a RedMan suit—padded, head-to-toe gear designed to absorb blows from baton strikes.
The cadet reportedly spent the ensuing hours on life support at San Jose Regional Medical Center, where officials say he was pronounced dead before the day’s end.
Law enforcement academies use RedMan suits in what’s known as weaponless defense training, which aims to stimulate confrontations between officers and suspects. But the method has been a source of controversy for decades because of its serious injury risk.
In the three-and-a-half decades since RedMan Training Gear’s founding, one news article after another has documented the damage incurred by aspiring law enforcement officers using the signature red foam suits.
A 1992 Los Angeles Times report details how the Alhambra Police Department had second thoughts after several officers came away from training sessions with “concussion-like symptoms” and, in one case, a broken toe. More recently, in 2016, an investigation in Massachusetts found that failure to heed product warnings about the protective suits led to a police recruit losing an eye during a state-run academy training.
Though RedMan trainings haven’t garnered any local press attention to speak of, sources tell SJI that they’ve been the subject of heated internal debate at the Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Sean Allen—speaking as an employee rep and not on behalf of the agency—said he’s received numerous complaints about RedMan training over the years—several of which surfaced after three deputies beat inmate Michael Tyree to death in 2015.
Most notably, Jereh Lubrin—one of the three correctional officers convicted in Tyree’s murder—broke his arm during RedMan training as years prior.
According to Allen, a former Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association board member who’s worked for the Sheriff’s Office since the mid-1990s, RedMan exercises are often used as punishment for some of the more difficult cadets.
“There have been multiple allegations of trainers targeting trainees because of perceived ‘bad attitudes,’” he said. “In one case, an employee suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung. In other incidents, there have been broken limbs, head and face trauma.”
As a lifelong martial artist and experienced instructor, Allen said he finds the number of complaints about the practice concerning, to say the least.
“I have trained and learned from international level martial artist and I have never hurt a student during training,” Allen sad. “RedMan should be used to teach cadets how to ‘survive’ a violent encounter using all options, [including] evasion. But if taught or learned incorrectly, it could result in either extreme aggression or cowardice.”
The Sheriff’s Office has yet to respond to requests for additional information.