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."
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.
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.
"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."[PAGEBREAK]
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."
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.
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."