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Knives a more serious threat than most people realize, law enforcement trainers say

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Nov. 7, 2011, at 7:41 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013, at 11:37 a.m.

"Seriously, I think tasing would have worked better than a hundred bullets." – Online comment on Kansas.com

We’ve been raised on television shows where the good guys shoot guns out of the outlaw’s hand, on movies where martial arts experts use their hands or feet to disarm a menacing bad guy.

That’s why local law enforcement officials who teach weapons tactics and self-defense were not surprised by the questions and criticisms posted by online commenters aimed at the three Wichita police officers who opened fire on DeJuan Colbert when he charged at them with a raised knife during a robbery of the Dollar General Store on south Pawnee on the night of Oct. 30.

Colbert, 27, was hit multiple times and was pronounced dead later that night at a local hospital.

"A knife is always lethal force," said Bruce Morton, an instructor at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Reno County, where law enforcement recruits and commissioned officers come for training or continuing education.

Officers are taught to respond to lethal force with lethal force, Morton said.

"People don’t realize how dangerous blades can be," he said. "When you’re talking about facing a lethal force option, a Taser is not what you want to put in your hands."

For a Taser to subdue someone, Morton said, both probes must attach to clothing or skin. If only one does, the current won’t be enough to slow the attacker down.

Repeated studies have shown that a knife-wielding person standing as much as 20 feet away can reach someone with a holstered gun in less than two seconds – less time than almost anyone can draw and fire a disabling shot, Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said.

"When you’re responding to a robbery, and you’re not sure what the (suspect’s) weapon is, it’s reasonable to have a gun out," he said.

"Is it reasonable to use a lethal level of force to counteract that lethal level of force?" he asked. "The Supreme Court says ‘yes.’ Common sense tells you ‘yes.’”

Pretty much everyone agrees that a gun is a lethal weapon, said Sedgwick County Deputy Narciso Narvais, a defensive tactics training coordinator for the sheriff’s office. But knives aren’t held in the same regard.

"Knives are indeed dangerous, but oftentimes they’re not seen that way," Narvais said. "A knife, it will never jam. It’s never unloaded. It will never run out of ammunition."

Even if a knife jab misses its intended target, Narvais said, it can still cause serious injury.

Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ken Snider died from a single stab wound to the shoulder on April 18, 1997, because the knife cut a descending artery, Morton said.

Snider was responding to a domestic violence call and was stabbed with a kitchen knife by Samuel Penn, who at 23 had already spent years in and out of jail, in mental hospitals and community programs for criminals.

Three officers were trying to subdue Penn in his kitchen when he grabbed a knife and stabbed Snider. Though Snider wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest, then-Sheriff Mike Hill said it likely would not have saved him anyway.

Law enforcement officers are taught not to try to engage in hand-to-hand combat with someone wielding a knife, Narvais said. Even an amateur can inflict a lethal wound.

If possible, Narvais said, officers facing someone with a knife try to place distance and/or a physical barrier between themselves and the suspect. That may buy time to defuse a situation.

But if the suspect is poised nearby with the knife raised – or begins to charge – lethal force is necessary, Morton and Narvais said.

Colbert ignored numerous commands to lower his knife before he charged, Police Chief Norman Williams said during a briefing about the incident last week. Witnesses in the store told investigators the officers had no choice but to shoot.

Even then, one shot isn’t likely to eliminate the threat, unless the bullet happens to hit the central nervous system, Narvais said.

"We’ve heard, ‘I shot this guy three or four times, and he kept coming,’” Narvais said.

When talking to recruits in the training academy, he said, instructors stress that even if they’re shot several times it doesn’t mean they’ll die. That’s important for officers to remember, so they can remain optimistic if they’re ever wounded in the line of duty.

Recruits grew up watching television shows or movies where "one bullet kills one person," Narvais said.

The truth, he said, is "You might get (hit with) two or three or four rounds, and your chances of survival are really, really good."

Conversely, it can take numerous shots to halt an imminent threat.

"I feel the cop could have put a stop to that by maybe shooting the knife out of his hand, shooting him in the leg(s), just stop him, I do not see why he needed to be killed."– Online comment on Kansas.com

No matter how easy the Lone Ranger may have made it look on television, law enforcement officers aren’t taught to aim for an assailant’s hand or knee.

They’re taught to shoot at someone’s torso “to stop the threat,” Hinshaw said.

“In a dynamic, deadly force situation there is a lot going on,” he said. “You and the suspect are moving, adrenaline is flooding your body, heart rate increases. And you have only moments to take a reasonable action to save your own life and possibly others’.

“To aim and hit such a small target with all that going on only works out well on TV and the movies.”

Stan Finger can be reached at 316-268-6437.

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