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Cops are Not Ninjas

It is ludicrous for people to think law enforcement officers should be expected to disarm knife-wielding attackers rather than shoot them.

July 16, 2015  |  by Mildred K. "Missy" O'Linn


Recent high-profile events involving law enforcement officers have created a climate of scrutiny and debate focused on use of force by officers and how officers are trained.

Serious concerns should resound about the implications of this politically charged dialog and the concepts that are being considered. It appears in some respects that the stage has already been set and a course charted and that we are being steered to an outcome by a discussion that is problematic and that places law enforcement officers, their agencies, and the communities they serve at great risk.

The theme of such discussions seems to be that American policing is bad. The conclusion is that the nation is plagued by bad cops who practice bad tactics because of bad training. While there is certainly room for improvement, this broad brush of condemnation of an entire profession is akin to the stereotyping that we purport to abhor in this country.

Some criticism has been directed at the teaching of the concept commonly known in law enforcement training circles as the "21-foot rule." The belief among the media and activists is that, as a result of officers being taught the 21-foot concept, those same officers are overreacting to edged-weapon assaults. The 21-foot safety zone is essentially a reactionary gap concept that has been taught to law enforcement personnel since the early 1980s.

But now based on somebody's bent perspective, there appears to be a proposal that American law enforcement officers must learn to step up and take on knife-wielding suspects like their counterparts do in the United Kingdom rather than shooting before the suspect can close with the knife and attack. There are so many things wrong with that idea that there is almost nothing to say in response. You can give almost anyone a magic marker or a training knife and very likely with little skill, knowledge, or training that person will easily demonstrate the danger of attempting empty hand disarming tactics against an edged-weapon assault.

In the media we hear almost zero support for officers and the overwhelming number of good cops that every day put themselves in harm's way. The media has focused on the bad cop syndrome and blanketed the airwaves with the "epidemic of police abuse." It appears some have validated that campaign with either silence or calls for dangerous compromises to officer safety in response to the supposed "epidemic" of officers using lethal force on people who represent no or little threat in the eyes of the public, the media, and the activists.

The truth is that officers are doing a great job, and the stats support that fact. Even the media's own behavior supports this fact, as "bad" cops and questionable incidents make the headlines. These incidents make the headlines because they are the unacceptable exceptions, which makes them news. Notice that reporters do not flock to scenes of the vast majority of American officers doing their jobs with professionalism and without controversy because that is the norm and it is not news.

Of course, the desire to avoid controversy does not mean we should be telling officers that to improve public relations we now expect them to wrest knives away from suspects or run backwards away from charging suspects because it worked out OK a time or two.

Of primary concern are the public's expectations. The facts are that officers in the United States do not receive training on edged-weapon defense and disarming that would make them even reasonably safe in attempting such maneuvers. Nationwide, officers on average receive limited or no hands-on physical skills training on an annual basis.

Law enforcement officer standards and training directors can attest to the challenges agencies face just providing mandated training and the core critical skills. The result is that hands-on physical combat training is marginalized in law enforcement training programs. Make no mistake: trained ninjas with Wyatt Earp gun-fighting skills that can talk their way out of anything and perform surgery in the streets would be great, but we all know that is not the reality for American law enforcement.

As an experienced law enforcement defensive tactics trainer, use-of-force expert, and trial lawyer with 29 years of experience representing law enforcement, I am very familiar with the issues at hand. I work closely with numerous agencies on such issues on a daily basis and train thousands of officers on use-of-force issues. What I know is that officers typically do a great job of doing their job. But they often have a difficult time explaining things like what went into their tactical decision-making and how they complied with policy and the law. We will not make that any easier for them by creating long-winded use-of-force policies that they will somehow be expected to internalize and articulate. We will not improve the public's confidence in our officers by creating expectations that contradict the laws our officers have been told apply to their actions.

Yes, officers should have a reverence for human life—the lives of all humans, including the lives of the community members they serve, the suspects they deal with, and their own lives as well. Telling officers we expect them to take unnecessary risks, risks the law does not require them to take, and risks that we have in no way trained them to overcome is irresponsible and inappropriate. Suggesting that we have failed in American law enforcement because we teach officers that a firearm is the appropriate response to an edged-weapon assault is preposterous.

Understand that the law throughout this country is that officers are permitted to use objectively reasonable force under the totality of the circumstances, and that means they do not have to use deadly force only if nothing else would work. They do not have to get stabbed trying to disarm a suspect. They are allowed to use reasonable force to stop that from potentially happening. And while officers are not required to retreat from a threat, they frequently do just that after making split-second decisions about whether allowing a suspect such latitude and opportunities will endanger not only the officer's life, but also the lives of others.

Certainly I am an advocate for distance and cover and slowing things down when we can. Additional officers and resources are wonderful options as well. However, we need to keep in mind that the policies, practices, and rules that we advocate and suggest be put in place are applied across the board to agencies of various sizes and resources and to officers of various and wide-ranging fitness and skill levels. That is why the Supreme Court and the other courts across this country issue guidelines and rules that encompass "the totality of the circumstances" and not absolutes.

Finally, I suggest not only do we need to remind the community and the media that American law enforcement officers are overwhelmingly doing a great job and that they want to protect and serve with honor and integrity. We also need to explain to them that officers need the members of the communities that they serve to help them. That help comes in the form of better understanding of the limitations that officers face and what the public has a right to expect. That understanding, however, does not and should not include that officers will be wresting knives away from individuals who are having a bad day.

Mildred K. "Missy" O'Linn is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester LLP where she represents law enforcement agencies and officers. A former officer, O'Linn is a certified law enforcement trainer.

Comments (14)

Displaying 1 - 14 of 14

Chuck Haggard @ 7/18/2015 9:48 PM

Well stated Missy.

I'll throw in a thought from one of the most experienced knife guys I ever met, one of my training gurus, Mike Inay, when I asked him how he would have handled a case that some local officers were involved in where they had a face-off with a knife armed suspect; "I'd have shot that guy".

Extremely well trained world class knife fighters know that empty hand defense against even untrained people with knives is in no way a sure thing.

Paul @ 7/19/2015 12:24 PM

Excellent article
Just one comment. UK cops are NOT expected to tackle knife welding criminals. They call for ARMED support and cops with guns show up who (if the bad guy hasn't run off by the time they arrive) will confront them with guns and they will if necessary shoot them.
The only reason unarmed UK cops take on guys with knives is the same reason all cops are cops - because they are the protectors of society. It is against protocol and tactics to allow unarmed officers to 'deal' with knife welding suspects.
So don't believe the hype that UK cops somehow 'cope' with bad guys with knives. They send for the cops with guns who point them at the bad guy just like in the USA.
Cops in the USA do a FANTASTIC job, thank you for your service!

Don Walker @ 7/26/2015 7:53 PM

I am reminded of Kilvinski's law from "The New Centurians". If he (suspect) uses his fist, use your stick, if he pulls a knife, use your gun and cancel his ticket."

132&Bush @ 7/28/2015 7:46 PM

But Ninjas would make awesome cops you have to admit.

Jan de Kock @ 7/30/2015 7:06 AM

I'm from 'South Africa and Americans don't know what they are complaining about when they say their police force is incompetent. We have police officers caught on camera sleeping in cars and police stations, harassing citizens and beating citizens for traffic violations. We are quite a civilized nation compared to any country in the world, not just African countries, even so I have dealt with officers on numerous occasions and still consider our police force doing a decent job. We have wide spread corruption (complete inventories of firearms "missing"), dockets lost on high profile cases is common knowledge... I think Americans just have a culture of jumping on the band wagon (I apologise for generalising, but it seems what's happens). There are bad apples in any job. Come to South Africa and see how much our officers have to contend with, overworked and underpaid, your officers are doing a bang up job, stop complaining and appreciate your officers.

WCol @ 7/31/2015 7:35 AM

I have no problem with police using lethal force when someone is attacking them with a weapon, but it seems like a non-sequitur to link an argument over that specific behavior, to recent high-profile cases of police threatening, injuring, and killing unarmed people.

In fact, I think by trying to link those incidents to this argument, you do a disservice to those saying an officer has complete discretion when a weapon is brandished at him or her.

Jon Retired LEO @ 8/1/2015 10:30 AM

The part about the news people not wanting to cover a story where a Police Officer does an arrest which ends peacefully is because that arrest won't sell soap in the news.

Jon Retired LEO @ 8/2/2015 6:56 PM

i would bet that if you asked Chuck Norris about disarming someone with a knife he would say not unless I had no other choice. While Chuck would be more qualified than most at this I would still bet that he would try to find some other way out.

Harvey Hedden-ILEETA @ 8/3/2015 9:14 AM

Thanks for an excellent article. It challenges us to bring a better understanding of this issue to not just to our officers, but to the public that perceive law enforcement based on the fictional accounts they see on television and biased/uniformed media reporting.

Zane @ 8/5/2015 5:38 PM

Law Enforcement agencies should learn more hand to hand combat like one would in the military. No LEO would be quick to draw a gun at the sight of a weapon.

Daniel Hunt @ 8/11/2015 4:22 AM

I am a ninja.
Actually not ninjitsu, but I am trained in Wing Chun, Sakura Kan Jiu Jitsu, and Seido Karate.
I have extensive training in open-hand defence against edged weapons.
You know what my first and favoured open-hand technique is if confronted with a knife?
Any sensei or sifu will tell you the same thing; attempting to disarm a person with a knife is a worst case scenario.
It is an option only undertaken if no avenue of escape/avoidance exists.
I do not envy US cops, and given the hostile environment they face every day, I think they largely do a remarkable job.

Pat @ 10/16/2015 3:18 PM

I am a little concerned with the strength of your logic in your recent editorial on attitudes towards cops. You begin your argument undermining the 20 ft rule, and rightfully so. You then call into question the opposing extremity, that there should not be an expectations that cops encounter and neutralize knife-wielding perps like their English counterparts. My first concern is the classic false dichotomy that you tacitly suggest. My overarching concern, however, is that you conflate the availability heuristic with respect to general attitudes of cops in the media as support for the dichotomous situation you have presented, namely that cops should assume disproportionate risks when encountering knifed suspects. You proceed to negate the inverse, a suspect rhetorical device, when you state that “of course, the desire to avoid controversy does not mean…” You also set up a pretty obvious straw hat fallacy with the wyatt earp comment. I don’t mean to say that these topics are unrelated.

cv @ 3/18/2016 1:13 PM

"Zane @ 8/5/2015 5:38 PM

Law Enforcement agencies should learn more hand to hand combat like one would in the military. No LEO would be quick to draw a gun at the sight of a weapon"

I am thinking you were neither in the military or a police officer, zane.

Joe @ 1/19/2017 1:16 AM

I can honestly from experience in mil law enforcement even getting more than just basic hands on skills you see a knife thats a deadly threat theres no "oh im going to disarm this guy" thougt process.

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