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On the Cutting Edge

Officers carry knives with a nod from their agencies, no training, and no policy coverting their use. Is there a problem here?

October 01, 2002  |  by - Also by this author

At a Southern California martial arts studio, law enforcement officers and civilians work out in a knife defense program offered by Emerson Knives.

Under the proposed policy, the Fountain Valley PD will collect information on officers' knives, including manufacturer, model, and description. The knives will also be subject to inspection. The obvious intent is to prevent allegations of planting knives on suspects.

Also, like the Ontario guidelines, the Fountain Valley policy does not shy away from the possibility that a police knife may, in extreme circumstances, be used as a weapon. Thomas gives the example of an officer being attacked near a pool. The officer's gun has fallen in the water, and the assailant who is considerably larger than the officer is dragging him into the water and drowning him. Under the proposed policy, the drowning officer would be within department guidelines if he drew his knife and stabbed the assailant.

Because the Fountain Valley policy takes into account that knives are weapons and not just tools, Thomas envisions that the department's officers will receive training in defensive knife tactics. "We want them to accept the responsibility for the possibility that they might have to [defend themselves with a knife]," he says. "So we plan to include knife defense as an area of ongoing training. We want to teach them how to use the knife, what targets to strike, and what they can expect from the experience."

Deadly Force

O'Linn says that, speaking from experience as a use-of-force trainer and a partner at the legal firm Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez LLP, she believes it's a good idea for departments to acknowledge the potential use of knives as weapons. Although O'Linn cannot recall an incident of a police-involved stabbing, she says it's important for officers to have the freedom to use their discretion, including resorting to the use of a knife, when there are lives in the balance.

During use-of-force training sessions at police departments, O'Linn likes to show a video of an incident that happened in Pine Bluffs, Ark. In the video, officers cope with a mentally ill man who has carried an infant into a deep and nasty swamp. The officers paddle out into the swamp in a rowboat. As they approach, the man immerses the baby in the filthy water. The baby is drowning, and the man is standing in collar bone-deep water.

As the classroom exercise progresses, the attending officers discuss the inherent risks of the various force options available in this scenario. O'Linn says that some officers are concerned about the risks of shooting the man in the head or chest because of fear that the rounds could pass through the man or ricochet and strike the baby. So the attendees come up with a variety of ways to rescue the baby. They then watch as the officers on the scene hit the man with the boat's oar, spray him with OC, shoot him in the shoulder, choke him with a baton, and poke fingers into his eyes, eventually securing the baby's release.

At this point O'Linn turns off the video and asks if deadly force is appropriate in this instance. "Every single officer who has been in my class and who has seen this tape says it is a deadly force situation, and I have to agree with them," she says.

Having established that the "baby in the swamp" scenario calls for deadly force, O'Linn goes on to shock her students. She asks them how they would respond, and after receiving a variety of answers, she offers, "What if I reach down and pull out my handy-dandy clip knife and cut this guy's throat?"

The reaction from the students is disbelief. But O'Linn says deadly force is deadly force in the eyes of the law. "In that situation if I can get a Chevy into the swamp and hit him with it to save the baby, that would be OK under the law. Using a knife wouldn't look pretty on the six o'clock news. But guess what? That's an option in this case. Shooting the guy is potentially a real risk to the baby, and the knife is another deadly force option."

Up Close and Personal

O'Linn's comment that a police officer using a knife on a suspect will be sensationalized on the 6 o'clock news cuts to the heart of the matter.

The public is going to react with a sense of revulsion from a police-involved stabbing, even in cases where it wouldn't be outraged at a police-involved shooting. In the public's point of view, guns are "clean" weapons and knives are brutal.

Emerson is sometimes perplexed by the double standard that holds guns as somehow more humane than knives. "It's funny; police officers carry a deadly weapon on their sides, yet knives for some reason carry a heavier connotation with the public as far as being nasty and not acceptable on duty," he muses.

There are two reasons why the public believes guns are "cleaner" than knives. First, they are generally thought of as stand-off weapons in contrast to the up close and personal touch of blades. Second, most of the people who hold the opinion that guns are more humane than knives, get that impression from TV and movies and not from the real-life effects of a hollow-point round on human flesh.

Use-of-force specialists say departments who have acknowledged that officers may have to defend themselves with their "pocket knives" have taken a critical step toward a realistic knife policy that gives officers some limited coverage should they ever have to use a knife in a fight. But much work remains. And as seen in the examples of Ontario and Fountain Valley, smaller departments are much more likely to draft knife policies than larger departments.

But all departments should look at this issue. Because there are some givens in this equation. Officers are carrying knives, knives are deadly weapons, and eventually an officer may need to use a knife for defense. Another given is that if things get so bad in the field that an officer needs to use a knife, any hesitation will likely result in tragedy.

"Officers get a half-second to make that kind of decision," says O'Linn. "The last thing I want them to be worried about is whether they are out of policy. Policy should be decided before officers have to make those decisions. They should be able to say, 'I know that I'm going to be OK with this.'"


Emerson's P-SARK folding knife is the police version of an Emerson knife that was designed for the U.S. Navy's Search and Rescue teams, the SARK, or Search and Rescue Knife.

The SARK has a distinctive, rounded tip hawkbill blade designed to permit rescuers to slide the 3.6-inch blade under seatbelts and cut them with its serrated edge without stabbing the crash victim. Emerson modified the knife for police use by bringing the blade to a point, but still giving the blade's tip a curve that makes it a poor stabbing weapon but well suited to rescue duties.

Cpl. Darryl Bolke of the Ontario PD says his department chose the P-SARK because "It's not a fighting knife. It's got a government contract as a search and rescue knife."

Another aspect of the P-SARK that makes it particularly suited to police applications is the "Wave." Emerson's Wave is a rounded hook at the back of the blade that catches on the user's pants and opens and locks the blade as the knife is drawn. It is a legal alternative to an automatic knife.

The Gunting

In addition to the Emerson P-SARK tactical folding knife, the Ontario (Calif.) Police Department is considering the adoption of an unusual tool called "The Gunting."

Designed by martial artist and edged weapon expert Bram Frank and manufactured and marketed by Spyderco, the Gunting was inspired by the Filipino martial arts and is both an impact weapon and a knife. "The one thing I knew about most edged tools is as soon as you pull them out, the only thing they are designed for is to cut someone," says Frank. "What I wanted was a tool that an officer could pull out and use closed."

According to Frank, the Gunting is intended to allow an officer to move up the entire use-of-force ladder with just one tool. The Gunting can be used as a push and pull control tool such as a kubaton, an impact weapon, and a knife. It also has a very hard handle that makes short work of car windows in a rescue, and its "ramp" feature lets officers open suspects' pockets without risking needle pricks.

Frank's Gunting comes in three versions: a practice model, the "drone," a bladeless yawara or kubaton version called the "CRIMPT," and a street carry design that includes a 2 7/8-inch blade.

"The bladeless version (the CRIMPT) is ideal for the booking and corrections environment," says Cpl. Darryl Bolke of the Ontario PD. "You really need training to make it a good weapon. So if a criminal gets a hold of it, he won't be able to do much. But once you have the training, you can really slam and jam with it. The effects of any martial art can be enhanced by the Gunting."

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