Instinct and Knife Attack Defense

It is ridiculous to think that an officer could take a single defensive tactics course that teaches specific techniques for knife defense and then be prepared for a knife attack.

Photo: Officer Adam Baker, Aledo (Ill.) PDPhoto: Officer Adam Baker, Aledo (Ill.) PD

It is ridiculous to think that an officer could take a single defensive tactics course that teaches specific techniques for knife defense and then be prepared for a knife attack. In fact, learning specific techniques for specific knife attacks from specific directions such as angle 1, angle 2, angle 3, and so on—with the exception of setting the context for the training—is useless unless the officer has the opportunity to hone these techniques continually.

A number of studies have examined how many repetitions are required to create muscle memory and an automatic response. Opinions vary on the subject. Some experts say muscle memory can be achieved in 150 repetitions; others say as many as 10,000 repetitions are required to achieve such fine-tuning. Other experts quantify the requirements for achieving muscle memory in hours, recommending as few as 10 to as many as hundreds of hours of training. The truth is that there is no set number of repetitions or hours of training that will achieve the desired result.

Each student is different. And the training of each student is affected by many variables. These include: the realism of the training, the complexity of the task, the experience of the student, the level of stress the student will face in a real-life situation, and the particular circumstances of the real-life situation. Therefore, after officers are exposed to some specific techniques, I recommend that training be geared toward the instincts of the particular officer.

How much continual training do officers receive in control-and-arrest tactics? The obvious answer is not much, let alone specific training for knife defense. Indeed, academy training in knife defense will likely be the last knife defense training an officer will ever receive.

Consequently, training for specific attacks takes too many reps and requires continual training in those techniques for it to be practical for the vast majority of officers. And such training may not be applicable to a real assault. Knife attacks are so dynamic that the chances of a specific approach by the assailant matching the training of an exact technique are minimal. It's also important to remember that unlike in training, officers in the field often don't know they are about to be attacked with a blade until the last second. Attacks occur quickly, and the officer will be under an enormous amount of stress, and it makes sense to train an officer in concepts (not techniques) that are the most natural for that individual officer.

Police officers are far better off learning concepts as opposed to techniques given the intermittency of their training.

The concepts of instinctual response to knife attacks are simple:

  • Avoid the attack and get to your handgun
  • And/or control the attacker's weapon and get to your handgun.

Through dynamic training, you will learn what comes naturally to you. Which concept you use depends on your natural reaction and on the specific situation.

Avoiding the Attack

Some basic concepts or movements are important to know for keeping away from the weapon. You should not think of this as a technique, but simply as a movement.

Sweep the attacking hand away and create distance between the assailant and yourself. If your first reaction is to naturally stay away from the threat, then practice using the assailant's momentum to make him or her miss and pass by you.

Practicing getting away from the attacker will build confidence in your ability to avoid being cut. If your natural inclination is to get away from the threat, practice gaining distance after the threat has been passed.

Again, this is not a technique per se; this is a concept: Get as far away from the threat as possible. Once distance has been created, retrieve your handgun.

Control the Weapon and Counterattack

Some officers more instinctively try to control the attacking hand/arm. If that is your natural response, then you need to practice trapping the attacker's arm and counterattacking. During drills, you must maintain control of the attacker's knife hand and either practice natural attacks to disable the attacker or disengage and gain time to draw your handgun.

In a best case scenario, you will be able to take the attacker into custody without using deadly force. But if you face continued deadly threat from your edged weapon-wielding attacker, you may have to react decisively with lethal force.

You can discover how you will naturally react to a sudden knife attack through basic dynamic training. Simple drills involving one "attacker" and one officer are very useful for determining what move you will instinctually take.

Once you know how you will react to a knife attack, you should practice repeatedly that move and how you will follow up on it to seize the advantage from your attacker.

Situational Awareness

Knife attacks happen suddenly, but usually not without some prior indications. Noticing these indicators can help you prevent the attack or gain time to respond.

Make it a habit to stay focused on what is happening around you. Keep your hands up, weapon side back, and maintain a safe distance. Remember, distance buys you time. The greater the distance between you and a potential threat, the more time you will have to react.

Be attentive to the suspect's words and actions. The best defense against an attack is to be aware that an attack is coming.

There are both verbal and physical clues that indicate someone is about to attack you. Your safety depends on your awareness of these "tells." The problem is that since you are not attacked frequently, it's easy for you to begin to think that each person is either going to comply or possibly resist.

Some phrases said by a suspect may be obvious indicators that you are about to be attacked. These include such classic criminal declarations as "I'm not going to jail," "I'm going to kick your ass," or "You can't take me."

However, I'm sure you are aware that some arrestees getting ready to attack will not be so blatant. They may even say nothing at all. Therefore, trust your instincts.

Experienced officers know that saying nothing is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than those arrestees verbally threatening us.

It is important to be attentive to all the body movements of the suspect or arrestee. The arrestee will often telegraph what he or she is about to do. There are many movements to watch for and be concerned about. Examples include suspects rolling up their sleeves, stepping one leg back, and clenching their fists. It is important to watch the suspect's entire body peripherally, while looking him or her in the eye.

Suspects' eyes tell us much. If they are looking around, they may be looking for an escape route or for witnesses before they attack. If they look at your handgun, they may be preparing to attempt to disarm you. If they are looking at your legs, they may be preparing to initiate a takedown. If they are clenching their fists while looking at your face, they may be preparing to punch you.

Regardless of whether you recognize these things happening, trust your instincts. Address whatever behavior makes you think the arrestee is preparing to attack or run. And most importantly, watch his or her hands. It is the suspect's hands or items in the suspect's hands that are most likely to injure you.

Summing up, I want to say there is nothing wrong with training officers in techniques on the various angles of attack that an assailant with an edged weapon might use. However, each individual officer should train to use his or her strengths and natural responses to mitigate the effects of such an attack and respond. The more instinctual the response to an attack, the more quickly the officer will be able to execute that response.

In reality, the majority of officers spend an insufficient amount of time practicing control tactics, let alone knife defense techniques. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that officers find out how they are most likely to react to a knife attack based on their own individual instincts. Officers can then rely on these instincts and a survival mindset in the worst case scenario. They can also practice techniques that incorporate their instinctual responses into their reactions as well as their counterattack or arrest-and-control techniques.

Dr. Michael Schlosser is a retired lieutenant with the Rantoul (Ill.) Police Department, director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute, and the Institute's lead control and arrest tactics instructor.

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