Police

Alternatives To Deadly Police Force

Law enforcement has room to make humane changes, without putting their lives in peril.

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police shooting
Max Herman/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The man in the Camden, New Jersey, police video is practically begging to be shot. After using a knife to menace a cashier and a customer in a fast-food restaurant, he strides down a street slashing at the air as police repeatedly order him to drop his weapon. The man keeps walking, defiantly waving the knife.

Several cops form a ring around him and move along at a safe distance, block after block. This goes on for several tense minutes, as the viewer waits for shots to ring out. But they never do. Eventually, the man drops the knife and is collared.

It's a reasonably happy outcome. Had the 2015 incident occurred a year earlier, before the department adopted new tactics, "we would more than likely have deployed deadly force and moved on," Chief J. Scott Thomson told The New York Times. Instead, the offender survived, and no cop had to deal with the trauma of killing him.

Camden is not alone in trying a different approach to such confrontations. In Chicago, where 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot to death in a similar encounter, the police department has proposed new guidelines on the use of force in the hope of avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. All 12,500 officers are being retrained.

The shift began as the U.S. Justice Department was conducting an investigation that found Chicago police have a "practice of using force, including deadly force, that is unreasonable, in violation of the Fourth Amendment." It also determined that Chicago officers lack "adequate guidance to understand how and when they may use force, or how to safely and effectively control and resolve encounters to reduce the need to use force."

Though reducing the need to use force sounds irreproachable, Attorney General Jeff Sessions takes a dim view of such efforts. He has ordered a review of agreements his department has reached with police departments to curb abuses. But Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson say they'll implement reforms regardless.

People with knives are a topic of particular importance, as University of California, Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring documented in his recent book When Police Kill. Police in America face a far higher risk of being killed on duty than police in Europe—because criminals here are far likelier to have guns. That difference accounts for the far higher rate of fatal shootings of police and by police in this country.

The risk an officer faces of being killed with a knife, by contrast, is the same on both sides of the Atlantic. In a typical year, the number of cops killed with knives in the United States matches the number killed in England and Wales: zero. Criminals kill more police with their hands and feet than with knives.

But people armed with nothing but knives get killed by cops all the time in the United States—as many as 165 times per year, or more than three per week. In England and Wales—where cutting instruments are no less available to criminals than they are here—there were only three fatal shootings of any kind by police from 2011 to 2015.

Police in those places don't kill people bearing knives—and they don't get killed by people bearing knives. They rely on tactics that minimize their use of deadly force without putting their lives in peril. And that is where American law enforcement agencies have room for humane changes.

In this country, a formula known as "the 21-foot rule" has shaped police responses. A 1983 article by a Salt Lake City police instructor said an attacker with a knife could close that distance before an officer could shoot. But the rule has little basis in actual experience. In six years of data, Zimring found no instance in which an assailant with a knife charged an officer and inflicted mortal wounds.

Body armor has made a big difference. But as the Camden episode shows, cops can also protect themselves by staying back, with guns or Tasers in hand, while imploring the person to surrender. A training guide published last year by the Police Executive Research Forum noted that with methods of this kind, police can buy time to build rapport with the subject and get other officers and equipment to the scene to effect a bloodless resolution.

The guide notes that officers sometimes ask how long they should let such encounters go on. The answer: "As long as it takes."

© Copyright 2017 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. ” Had the 2015 incident occurred a year earlier, before the department adopted new tactics, “we would more than likely have deployed deadly force and moved on,” Chief J. Scott Thomson told The New York Times.”””Why? Is your job not to protect? this guy hadn’t hurt anyone,he Was being a ass doesn’t mean you can just kill him. Some times its necessary to shoot but this i don’t get why it would have been different a year before to you

    1. Training was different. The police are saying that had that same situation happened prior to the new guidelines, they would have reacted very differently, probably killing the knife-wielder. It’s quite chilling, but also an admirable bit of self-assessment.

      1. No carving or whittling in public or summary execution. SOP.

        1. You are free to carve or whittle, just not on other humans.

            1. Thanks for the recent-history lesson! We need to brain-scan cops (for common sense, a bit of common decency, and self-restraint) before issuing them a badge, MeThinks…

  2. > “the [21-foot] rule has little basis in actual experience”

    Mythbusters proved that around 18 feet was a lethal range for a person with a knife vs holstered gun.

    > “where cutting instruments are no less available to criminals [in England and Wales]”

    The number of knife incidents is almost 5x higher in the US as in the UK. So just comparing the availability of knives is misleading.

    The reality is people will die or be hurt if the response to lethal aggression is not lethal force. Putting on the kid gloves will only lead to more knife attacks.

    1. Mythbusters proved that around 18 feet was a lethal range for a person with a knife vs holstered gun.

      That’s irrelevant. Nobody’s telling cops to keep their guns holstered when encountering someone with a knife, just not to automatically blast away.

    2. Mythbusters proved that around 18 feet was a lethal range for a person with a knife vs holstered gun.

      Just watched the episode and I noticed two flaws in their methodology. First, the shooter was obviously not trained for self-defense shooting. Second, and probably the most fatal flaw, was that he was carrying in condition 3 (magazine loaded, but no round chambered). That meant that he had to take extra time to chamber a round.

      If he had been carrying in condition 1 (“cocked and locked”) and trained to shoot from the hip, I suspect Mythbusters would have seen different results.

    3. The number of knife incidents is almost 5x higher in the US as in the UK.

      So is the population.

      1. I’m going to retract this. I can’t find any good statistics on knife crime in the US and UK. It looks like there could be more knife crime in the UK, which would point to trigger happy US police.

    4. Nobody is saying whether 21′ or 18′ or whatever is a lethal range; they are saying that it rarely happens. Very rarely.

  3. Honestly, if the cops had shot the knife wielding nutjob in the story, I wouldn’t be all that concerned. What DOES concern me is the way cops overreact to far less crazy situations, and create tragedies all on their own.

    Shoot a young teen because he’s playing with a highly realistic toy gun? Tragic, but understandable. Shoot a homeowner because you busted in his front door at 2 o’clock in the morning and he understandably concluded you were visigoths? THAT’S the situation I’d like to see addressed. Starting by jailing every single officer involved in any wrong-door dynamic entry raid down to the city spokes-quisling who inevitably intones that “all applicable guideline were followed”.

    1. Or even raids that are not wrong door. Shooting someone because you are worried that they might flush their stash down the toilet is not OK, even if they do turn out to have a stash.

      And backing up and waiting out a nutter is not a bad thing. If it is possible to do safely, we should always avoid shooting someone.

      And that is the real crux of the issue. The current mentality is “is it plausible that a deadly threat is posed? Then shoot”. Killing someone should be a last resort, not a first resort. In many of these cases it is the first resort.

      So I give full marks to the decision-makers who retrained the police in Camden. Their level is where the problem exists. So I’m glad to see it being addressed there.

    2. I do always think the media and activists always pick on the worst cases to use as examples. They are the just easiest to manipulate and be forced into a pre-determined narrative they’re looking for.

  4. Several cops form a ring around him and move along at a safe distance, block after block. This goes on for several tense minutes, as the viewer waits for shots to ring out. But they never do.

    If shots had been fired, it would have resulted in a dead perp and three dead cops. Then they could have pushed the War on Cops even harder. Missed opportunity, boys.

  5. If a guy charges you with a knife go ahead and shoot him. If he’s waving it menacingly, I think you can hold off and try to talk them down. So, good for them for the change. I don’t know if this department does it, but some will punish officers for using non lethal force when their guidelines suggest that situation called for it. And that kind of crap needs to go.

    1. And for me that is the key. By all means, take out your gun and point it at him. If he runs at you screaming, then shoot him. If he has a hostage and is waving the wife a foot from the hostage’s neck then shoot. But if he is just standing there acting menacingly then try to wait him out.

      1. Or use the taser. That’s what it’s for.

        1. just not continuously for 5 minutes

      2. Waving the wife? Hard to see how that was a slip of the fingers.

        1. If he’s waving his wife around like she weighs nothing he’s probably high on PCP, better to just end him right there, you’ll never get cuffs on him .

  6. lets face it not every police department has a dozen personnel available to surround every knife wielder nor is there always time to wait for back up. That said its nice when you can

  7. Cops shooting criminals with knives doesn’t bother me. Cops shooting non-criminals without knives is what bothers me.

  8. So we’re not going with the implicit assumption that cops were personally inclined to shoot people ex-ante? Because that’s just a rehashed version of the prog narrative.

    That standard was and still is that lethal force is used when the officers’ lives are in danger. The additional rules (ie shooting at vehicles coming towards the officer vs fleeing in chicago) do nothing more than placate the feelzy types. In particular, CPD still retained the original verbiage about bodily harm, so if you’re fleeing in vehicle from a cop A in the direction of a cop B, cop A will turn you into a strainer.

    1. *So we’re NOW going

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