Ask police departments about their folding knife carry and training policies, and more times than not you'll either receive the audible equivalent of a blank stare or out and out laughter. One incredulous public information officer at a large Southern department answered the question with a question, "Why on Earth would we need to train our officers to use a pocket knife?"
The answer comes in a single word that strikes fear into the hearts of most people in the law enforcement community: "liability."
Is there a guarantee that training officers to handle their knives and enacting a knife policy will prevent lawsuits? Absolutely not. You can be sued for wearing the "wrong" color uniforms. But it could mean the difference between winning and losing, especially in a negligence case.
Consider the following: the average American police officer carries a variety of weapons and tools, including a pistol, a baton or ASP, pepper spray, a Taser, and a flashlight. No department would dare let said officer hit the street without training and instruction in policies governing the use of a pistol. Many PDs even have policies regarding the use of flashlights. But in most departments an edged weapon/cutting tool clipped to the pocket of the officer's duty pants flies under the radar.
Use-of-force expert and POLICE magazine Advisory Board member Ed Nowicki believes knife policy and training is not essential for law enforcement agencies, but it's a good idea. "Are we getting to the point in this country that we need a policy on how to lick a stamp or carry a ballpoint pen?" he asks. "No. But a knife is different because it can absolutely be considered a deadly use-of-force option. So I think you need some parameters."
Of course, most police never use their trusty tactical folder for anything more violent than opening a package, scraping a paint sample, or cutting seat belts to extract a car wreck victim. And it needs to be said up front that no source contacted for this story could recall a single incident of a police-involved stabbing.
However, just because a police knife is not used as a weapon doesn't prevent it from being a potential headache for an agency. "If they're carrying it, you know or should have known that they may use it," says Mildred K. O'Linn, an attorney and former police officer who represents officers and agencies in use-of-force suits. "Departments should just acknowledge that if they're going to allow officers to carry knives, then there's a reasonable probability they're going to use them in some fashion, which may include as a weapon. I would find it very difficult to convince a jury otherwise."
Knives are unlikely police weapons. However, if a thug grabs an officer’s gun, the officer’s clip knife may be his only chance. In the photo above, Cpl. Darryl Bolke (the “bad” guy) and Officer Keith Emerson of Ontario PD demonstrate how the department-issued Emerson
P-SARK could save an officer’s life.
No one is saying police officers shouldn't carry knives in the field. But departments need to realize that knives are potential liabilities and legally they are deadly weapons.
A few departments have decided to tackle the issue of knives. The Fountain Valley (Calif.) Police Department has drafted a knife usage policy that has yet to be approved, and the Ontario (Calif.) Police Department has not only enacted a policy, it has issued a specific knife to each of its 250 sworn officers.
The Ontario Experiment
Cpl. Darryl Bolke spearheaded the two-year effort to create a department knife policy for the Ontario PD. Bolke says there are three key benefits to the department's knife policy: it trains officers to use the tool in emergencies, it acknowledges that a knife is a weapon, and it assigns a knife to each officer in an attempt to block allegations that officers are throwing down knives to justify unwarranted police-involved shootings.
The folding knife issued by the Ontario PD is the Emerson P-SARK, a police version of the SARK, a rescue knife issued to U.S. Navy Search and Rescue teams that has a rounded tip and a hawkbill blade shape. "When I first saw the SARK, I said, 'Sharpen that thing all the way to the point, and it will be an outstanding police knife," Bolke says.
Bolke decided to approach Emerson Knives. And the company was very receptive. "[Ontario] said we have this situation, and we think you guys are the ones to address it because you're really keyed in to police usage and training," says Emerson Knives CEO Ernest Emerson.
One of the aspects of the Emerson P-SARK that made it the choice of the Ontario PD is the Wave feature. The Wave is a rounded hook on the blade that catches on the user’s pocket and deploys the blade the second it is drawn.
What Ontario wanted from Emerson was a knife that was both a utility tool and a defensive weapon, but in no way looked like something from a Rambo movie. "They needed something that was presentable and defensible in a civil lawsuit and something that the administration of the department could look at and say, 'Well, yeah. This is not a weapon-looking knife like a Bowie knife or a real aggressive-looking folding knife," says Emerson.
Emerson's P-SARK filled the bill. "It's the perfect police knife for a variety of reasons," Bolke says. "It has a blade that won't stab. Plus it's listed in a government contract [with the U.S. Navy] as a search and rescue knife. That makes it far more appropriate as a police knife than say the latest, greatest fighting knife."
And the P-SARK has already proven itself as a rescue knife with the Ontario PD. In a recent incident, Officer Keith Henderson was called to the scene of a very bad auto accident and was asked to assist firefighters in extracting a child from the back seat. "One of the firemen yelled out that he needed a knife because his seatbelt cutter couldn't cut the belt. So Henderson deployed his department-issued P-SARK, slipped the blade under the belt the way he was trained, and cut it with no effort," says Bolke.
Rescues aside, the Ontario PD's knife training program also includes defensive knife tactics. For example, officers are trained to use their folders to prevent the bad guys from taking their pistols. Bolke says although the P-SARK was designed as primarily a rescue knife, it's very suited to biomechanical cutting-the practice of cutting a person's hand to force him or her to open up and drop a weapon. Ontario officers receive training in this technique.
Many departments allow officers to carry knives because they can be extremely useful in cutting injured motorists out of their seatbelts. The Emerson P-SARK shown in use above was designed specifically as a rescue knife.
"Training outweighs restrictive policy when it comes to liability," says Bolke. "A perfect example is that our officers are allowed to hit people with their flashlights. Our department policy treats flashlights as impact weapons, and our officers are trained to use them. So we also wanted to train our officers to use their knives as weapons when a situation gets horrible enough that they have to do it."
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Ontario PD policy is the conscious attention to concerns that police carrying knives may be tempted to plant them on suspects. The P-SARKs issued by Ontario PD are engraved with "Ontario PD" and an identification number. In addition, officers are subject to knife inspections and are not allowed to carry knives that are not registered with the department.
The Fountain Valley Policy
In contrast to the Ontario program, Fountain Valley PD's yet-to-be-enacted policy is considerably less ambitious, as it doesn't require the department to buy and issue knives. But it is comprehensive on issues of when a knife can be used and how.
Sgt. Kevin Thomas, a hand-to-hand and self-defense instructor, volunteered to draft a knife policy for the department after the subject was raised at a staff meeting. The pending Fountain Valley PD policy states in no uncertain terms that officers are permitted to carry folding knives. "We could have prohibited them," says Thomas. "But since they are already out there, and they are useful tools, we decided that we should have guidelines for use."