With the recent police shootings of Laquan McDonald and Mario Woods, I’ve seen a lot of armchair quarterbacks asking why the police didn’t simply take the knife away from them and arrest them instead of shooting them. A pastor named Cole Brown (Twitter handle @colebrownpdx) was one such critic and said even his wife knows how to disarm a guy with a knife and then called all police incompetent. This statement told me all I needed to know about his ignorance of real life combat. A suspect on PCP like Laquan McDonald would’ve carved his wife up like a Christmas ham if she had tried to disarm him, but I digress. The point of this post is to explain why police very often shoot guys that are holding knives.
First let’s start with the legal aspect of it. Cops are allowed (and in fact duty bound in many cases) to use deadly force if a suspect poses an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to another person.
It should go without saying that a knife, even a box cutter, poses such a threat if wielded by someone intent on using it in an assault. A knife can put an eye out in an instant. That’s serious bodily injury. A knife can sever the carotid artery in an instant. That’s serious bodily injury at best, but most likely death. Same with the femoral artery, jugular vein, etc. There are a lot of places on the human body that are very vulnerable to a blade and it only takes one swipe with that blade-a fraction of a second-to be potentially fatal. And contrary to popular (but ignorant) belief, the kevlar in officers’ vests will not stop a blade.
Having said that, the mere act of holding a knife and refusing to drop it makes one a serious threat to anyone nearby. Officers are trained that they need a minimum of 21 feet of distance between themselves and the knife wielder to be considered “safe.” Some departments have pushed that distance out to 30 feet in their training.
Why? Because unlike in the movies, someone wielding a knife can’t be easily disarmed of it. Even if the officers outnumber the suspect, the chances of the suspect getting at least one stab in with the knife before he is subdued are still pretty high. And as I’ve already stated, one stab is enough to cause SBI or death. So cops are under no obligation to allow themselves to be stabbed before they’re allowed to protect themselves.
Here’s some pictures of a cop who underestimated a suspect with a knife and thought he could disarm him because the suspect was small.
WARNING: GRAPHIC VIOLENCE
Watch this training video to see how quickly someone with a knife can close distance and get a stab in before the officer has time to draw his weapon and fire.
What about tasers? The maxiumum range of most police tasers is 15 feet but the ideal range is closer to 7 feet. That puts you well inside the danger zone of someone with a knife. Tasers also require both prongs to penetrate clothing and skin in order to administer an effective shock. The prongs must also be at least a couple of feet apart to be effective. They must also hit an area of the body with lots of big muscles (between the torso and thighs) in order to completely incapacitate a suspect. If both prongs hit an arm, or both prongs hit a leg it may slow a suspect some but it won’t incapacitate them. Thick clothing like a winter coat can often prevent the prongs from penetrating and someone like Laquan McDonald who is on PCP can often times shrug it off even if the Taser connects. In short, the Taser (a less lethal weapon) is not the appropriate tool to use on someone with a knife (a lethal weapon). The same is true of pepper spray, baton, etc. Sometimes bean bag guns or pepperball guns are effective, but officers don’t always have the luxury of waiting for that equipment to arrive, and those tools aren’t always effective either (which was the case with Mario Woods).
So to the armchair quarterbacks that want to criticize police for how they handle people holding a knife, I challenge you to try a little experiment for yourself. Go to the store a buy the biggest red marker you can find (make sure it’s a permanent marker). Take the cap off and hand it to a friend and then put on your most expensive set of clothes and see if you can wrestle the marker away from him before he can ruin your clothes with it. Scared just thinking about it aren’t ya?