An email writer posed this question: “If a criminal has a knife (no other weapon), should 2 or 3 cops be able to subdue him?”
That is a good question. It is a question that, if answered without a realistic understanding of the laws of physics and human capacity, can result in death, imprisonment, or the end of a career for a police officer.
This particular question includes the assumption, for this hypothetical, that the person with the knife is a criminal.
Responding officers, of course, must assess the criminality or dangerousness of a person with a knife in the light of whatever knowledge they have at the moment that they make a response decision. There are two overarching issues in this proposition. The first is the nature of the officer’s observations, the second is the set of choices made by the knife holder.
Let me deal first with the knife holder. We often talk about levels of persuasion used by police officers to gain compliance. This is known as the “use of force continuum” that, until recent years, was standard policy and training for law enforcement. The idea was that the officer was to identify and classify the level of resistance they encountered, then calculate a level just above that resistance and counter with the minimum necessary force to overcome that resistance.
The continuum usually began with “officer presence” – a uniformed, authoritative manifestation that presumably produced in the mind of a rational lawbreaker a desire to submit to an arrest with no further violence. The continuum was often graphically represented as a ladder or stair steps ending in deadly force. This model has largely been rejected by both trainers and courts for a various reasons of practicality.
My point here is that the idea that it is the officer showing up that is the first determinant of the wrongdoer’s behavior is erroneous. First and foremost, it is the law that requires a lawbreaker to submit to an arrest, not the officer. In most states, even if the arrest is not lawful, the citizen must submit because there exist remedies that can be applied later.
All citizens, by social contract, agree to submit to authority and comply with the laws of the land for the greater good of the collective community. This means that criminal conduct is not only a knowing violation of the community good, but that criminals explicitly accept any consequences of their own behavior. Those consequences are well known and predictable.
I’m perplexed that the current movement whose first assumption is the wrongdoing of a police officer who uses force to gain compliance with the law, takes no account of the choices of those against whom force is used who violate the first rule of citizenship.
The other issue - that of the officers’ decision making process - is that the decision of how to gain compliance is a complex one. The factors that go through an officer’s conscious and subconscious mind involve complex legal and regulatory standards as well as primitive survival responses to basic brain functions governing the fight, flight, or freeze neurochemistry.
These factors include decisions based on the officer’s experience and training, some of which are so instantaneous and instinctive that the officer may not have a conscious memory of them, or are so subtle that they cannot be communicated or understood by a calm prosecutor, judge, or jury looking at the known facts from a distance.
Many of these factors do not show up on video, and most importantly, do not fit the template that most citizens have how violent encounters occur because they have little in common with the images of television and movies that are as imprinted in everyone’s minds. One could compare television police stories and real world encounters to soap opera romances compared to real life marriage. Expectations created by fantasy do not create appropriate behaviors in real life.
The tensing of muscles, micro expressions flashing in a millisecond, a subtle angle of the shoulder or foot, or the change in breathing can signal – in context – resistance or aggression. Athletes are given great honor for such instincts in boxing or swinging at a pitch; as well as great latitude for failure. Interpreting and reacting to the complex physics of a pitched baseball a third of the time makes a batter a hero! By contrast, one mistake by a police officer ends a career even if, were all possible facts known, he or she made a reasonable decision.
As one can see, the question of whether two or three cops can take a criminal with a knife into custody without using deadly force (the implication of “without deadly force” being contained within the question) begins well ahead of what the public would ever see involving many factors that are not even visible.
If a person who an officer reasonably believes has engaged in criminal behavior, and is displaying a knife, and who is resisting, evading, or not complying with a police officer’s arrest, begins the question of what reasonable level of coercion is necessary to gain the resister’s compliance with the law.
The first question that seems to capture the attention of critics is the size of the knife. Perhaps common sense would seem to dictate that a large knife is more dangerous than a small knife, with the scale of dangerousness diminishing with the size of the blade. This assumption is not true. Some considerations are the vulnerabilities of human anatomy to a stab or incision, and the maneuverability of a blade in human hands, rather than how big or frightening the bladed weapons appears.
Multiple areas of the officers’ body are vulnerable to pain, disability, and mortality. We don’t have to go past the 9/11 airline hijackings to remember the lethality of a blade as small as a box cutter.
The August 2015 attack on a Belgian train was stopped by two trained U.S. military men and a civilian. The three did subdue the attacker, but one of our heroes suffered a cut from the attacker’s box cutter than nearly severed his thumb. Addressing, again, the ethics of use of force, a lawbreaker does not earn the consideration of the lawful actors’ (the good guys) willingness to have a life altering injury to prevent injury to the lawbreaker. The lawbreaker has forfeited any such consideration by law and social convention.
The human heart is typically less than three inches from the skin. Stab depths are effected by the elasticity and compression of the body so that the length of the blade is not the limit of the depth of a stab wound. Although ballistic material is often worn by police officers, the material is designed to spread the force of a blunt bullet, not a thin blade. Therefore a knife could penetrate a bullet resistant vest that can stop a bullet. Again visiting the ethics of use of force, the fact that an officer has tools, training, and protective gear for dealing with violent resistance does not, therefore, justify any concession of advantage to the lawbreaker.
Add to the risk of a single fatal stab, the vulnerability of eyes, arteries, and fingers to a slashing incision, one can imagine that a police officer attempting to gain control of a resisting subject who has a blade might be distracted or disabled by pain, blindness, or dysfunction with one intentional or accidental slash or stab.
The swiftness of a knife wielding person would obviously be affected by the size of his blade. A long samurai sword swung in an arc would take longer to maneuver than a paring knife. This makes the paring knife potentially more lethal than the sword in close encounters. A ten year old little league pitcher can hurl a baseball at 50 MPH. A thrusting or swinging motion with a blade is very fast and can be happening in literally an infinite number of angles. Add to that any running motion that might be a part of resistance or attack, even assuming an additional 3 MPH of body motion, makes any police attack on the knife as a target highly unpredictable.
Many training exercises police use involve a static dummy target, or role players who simply can’t accurately replicate a person motivated and willing to kill another person. What our imaginations envision of what a standoff between a bad guy and some cops would look like is not reflective of the speedy and deadly attack of a resisting felon in a real confrontation.
The argument that officers can use a night stick to create distance and knock a knife from a person’s hands assume an officer’s eye hand coordination under extreme physiological stress is accurate enough to be a certain success (since a second chance is by no means guaranteed!) The dynamics of movement, the speed and the infinite possibilities of direction makes getting close enough for a stick strike too much of a risk.
Not only is hitting the target an uncertainty, the effectiveness of an accurate strike is not certain either. Resisting criminals may be under the influence of alcohol, other drugs, or just adrenaline. All of these chemicals reduce response to pain. This means that a strike must not merely hurt enough for a person to drop their weapon, the strike must be powerful enough to break the anatomical structure enough to stop the control of the attacker over the weapon. That means interrupted nerves, broken bones, and damaged musculature.
Meanwhile, a motivated aggressor not limited to fighting just with his or her knife, but with the other hand as well as feet and head and teeth. Moving in close enough to do anything suggested by a non-lethal response presents the officers with too many threat variables to effectively control. I liken it to trying to reach into a blender to stop the blades from spinning without getting cut.
Another argument is that a gun is never a “fair fight” with a person who has a knife. A few points to remember are that 1) the resistor is making a choice to resist the law and the agents of that law and therefore is not entitled to any fairness until he or she is in custody; 2) just because a resistor is displaying one weapons doesn’t preclude the possibility that he or she has an additional weapon; and 3) a bladed weapon, as this writing has shown, is a deadly weapon and therefore merits a deadly weapon in response – not as a matter of some street fighting ethics but as a matter of tactics designed for the good guys to certainly win.
Keep in mind that a failure by the police in terms of allowing an officer to be wounded or killed, or to allow a dangerous person to escape and thereby threaten the peace and lives of other citizens, is a very high cost financially and morally to the community.
The TASER, or other electronic control device (ECD), is not appropriate as the first choice against an edged weapon. Best practice is to deploy an ECD against a person with a deadly weapon only if at least one other officer is present with lethal cover (i.e. with his or her firearm drawn) in case of ECD failure. ECDs have limitations and conditions for success that make the outcome of their use too unpredictable to be used as the primary option when facing a bladed weapon.
It must be noted that even deadly force is uncertain, as in many documented cases of attackers' continued aggression after sustaining a deadly injury. Once again movies have convinced us that people who are shot fall dead immediately, which is rarely true.
The simplest answer to the initial question is no, multiple police officers should not attempt to arrest a criminal who is armed with a knife without an immediate deadly force option. The best outcome is always for the person who has chosen to be armed with a knife to then choose to submit to the lawful orders of our laws representatives – the police officer.