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Winning a Knife Fight

How many times do we consider what we would do if someone introduced a knife into a fight in which we were already engaged? Do we have the ability to draw and fire? Can we create distance or even defend ourselves properly in order to survive the attack? These are questions rarely addressed.

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Photo: iStockphoto.comPhoto: iStockphoto.com

The dangers we expose ourselves to every time we go 10-8 are almost immeasurable. We know this the day we sign up and the academy certainly does a good job of hammering the point home. We understand there will come a day, or several days, when we have to put our lives on the line for the good of another. Sometimes that involves a scuffle while arresting a drunk and sometimes, although thankfully less often, that involves defending ourselves against someone hell-bent on killing us.

To tip the scales in our favor we train, we practice good officer safety, we put countless rounds of ammo down-range, and we beat and bruise each other in defensive tactics. Even though we do our best to prepare for every possible scenario, the one we experience in real life will inevitably be vastly different. For example, how many times have we trained to combat a knife attack? And I don't mean the classic deadly force scenario where the guy across the room presents a knife and we end up shooting him. I mean the kind of attack where the knife-wielding assailant has already advanced on us and the fight is on.

It is relatively easy for us to win the "knife to a gunfight" scenario. We recognize the threat, we order the subject to drop the knife, and at some point the danger becomes too close for comfort and we shoot the guy. But how many times do we consider what we would do if someone introduced a knife into a fight in which we were already engaged? Do we have the ability to draw and fire? Can we create distance or even defend ourselves properly in order to survive the attack? These are questions rarely addressed.

The reason we spend very little time on this subject likely has a lot to do with statistics. Let's face it; we are in a very reactionary line of work. We evolve our tactics and procedures based on past experiences. In the last several years only a couple of law enforcement officers were reported to have been killed with an edged weapon and those were in a correctional setting. But what about those assaulted and injured with one? That number has remained pretty consistent year after year and is generally around 1,000. That's significant considering it is about half as many as with firearms yet we rarely structure our training time around this very real threat. The key to winning this fight is knowing what to expect before it happens and how you're going to address it.

First, The Facts

To keep our statistics honest, let's define what constitutes an edged weapon. The image of a knife immediately comes to mind but edged weapons can include everything from a hacksaw to a hatchet, a pocket knife or a meat cleaver; basically anything with a sharp edge that can cut and kill us. Because these threats come in so many shapes and sizes it is easy for us on a "routine" call to fail to recognize them. How many times have we contacted someone with a pocket knife and either not known about it or disregarded it entirely? Or how many times have we conducted an investigation in a suspect's kitchen? Or garage? The first step toward minimizing our risk is recognizing the threat potential and taking these things out of play.

Now that we're dialed in on what the threats look like, let's talk about what they can do to us. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people out there who dedicate a lot of training time to fighting with knives. Most martial arts involve some variation of an edged weapon and there are countless books and videos that teach how best to fight with a knife. Those skilled in this art can be even more deadly than the average guy with a gun.

If we break it down into its simplest terms, traumatic death is caused one of a few ways. The quickest is through a major trauma to the central nervous system. Severe damage to the head and brain, either through blunt trauma or a gunshot wound, will kill someone almost instantly. The average pocket knife likely won't apply here but a hatchet, machete, or sword certainly might. The other obvious road to death is through blood loss. We need a minimum amount of blood circulating through our system in order to keep the engine running. If we lose enough blood our system will shut down and it's lights out. This is where the good, old knife works best.

Tactics and Tells

With any edged-weapon attack, the attacker must be relatively close in order to do us harm. We minimize this by maintaining a good "reactionary distance" from those we contact. The more warning we have, the higher rate of success we achieve if things go south.

We've all gone through Dennis Tueller's famous "21-foot drill" and seen firsthand how much distance is really needed for us to react to someone's actions. This isn't always realistic as we still have to treat people as people and interact with them on a personal level in order to do our jobs properly. Just because we have to give up our distance doesn't mean we sacrifice our awareness.

One of my first sergeants' famous sayings was, "Watch their hands!" He had been on the job longer than any of us on the squad had been alive, so we often dismissed him as he wasn't what we would consider "high speed." Now that I'm a little older and a lot wiser I agree with him completely. If there's danger on the horizon, it's likely going to be delivered by the hands.

A person's thoughts are often subconsciously displayed in the hands. Go ahead, try it. Start thinking about fighting and your hands will likely tense up and might even ball into a fist. Have your favorite song stuck in your head as you're driving to work? I'll bet you're tapping out the beat on the steering wheel. It's human nature and what poker players would call a "tell." It is up to us to pay attention to these "tells" and adjust our approach accordingly.

We're also taught to put people we deal with in a position of disadvantage; the degree of such disadvantage generally depends on the nature of our contact with them. This doesn't always mean they have to sit down with their legs out and feet crossed. How about simply putting a barrier in between us and them? Many times this can be done without the person you're dealing with noticing. If you're interviewing a husband and wife on a domestic violence call, their living room coffee table might work well. Anything that a person would have to negotiate if he or she decided to advance on you and do you harm might buy you that valuable fraction of a second and give you the upper hand.

And if you're truly that concerned and can articulate that concern, it never hurts to pat them down. You won't find every gun or knife even with the most thorough Terry frisk, but you'll likely get most of them. The way that person reacts to being frisked might also tell you a lot about their intentions. And the frisk itself may assure them you mean business and aren't going to let them get the upper hand.

Fight Through the Pain

Rolled into almost every minute of training we receive is a little bit about mindset. We win and lose fights with our minds more often than we do with our hands. If you go into a fight, be it a boxing match or a gun battle, believing you're going to lose, it's likely to result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We also need to understand that, unlike in the movies, fights are very dynamic and rarely do they involve a single, fatal blow. People can be shot, beaten, and stabbed numerous times and not only keep fighting, but survive to tell the tale. If everything we've done to prevent the fight fails we need to be prepared to be in one.

If you're attacked with a knife you're going to get cut, plain and simple. Fight through the pain and drive on. Understand the anatomy of the human body and try to minimize the damage. For example, if you have a choice between being stabbed in the abdomen and slashed in the forearm, I'd say to choose the latter. Put your arms up in a defensive posture, just like we do to defend against fist strikes, and take the hit. It isn't ideal but it is definitely survivable. A slice to your left arm might buy the right one just enough time to draw your pistol and end the fight.

The most important thing to remember during any fight, especially those involving deadly weapons, is that we never lose. No matter what, we go home at the end of our shift. Been shot? So what, we go home. Been stabbed? No big deal, we go home. It sounds a bit dramatic and something likely to be seen on a T-shirt but it's true. We need to believe that we will always win the fight.

A.J. George is a patrol sergeant with the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department who also serves as the SWAT team's crisis negotiation supervisor.

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