The Corner

Politics & Policy

Three Thoughts about Knife Fights

Investigators work at the scene where a fatal shooting by a police officer occurred in Columbus, Ohio, April 20, 2021. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)

As Philip Klein noted yesterday, there’s a weird idea going around on the left that knife attacks are no big deal or at least no reason for the police to shoot someone. Three basic thoughts about that:

First, about a tenth of all murders in this country are accomplished with knives, roughly 1,500 a year.

Second, while you should choose being stabbed over being shot if you get to pick, knife wounds do pose a very real risk of death or serious injury, which is the legal cutoff for justified lethal force. (I never thought I’d have to explain why getting stabbed is bad, but here we are.) We track fatalities much better than we track nonfatal injuries, but there are a few hard data points available: A study of victims brought to trauma centers in Philadelphia found that 8 percent of those with stab wounds died. A different study put the mortality rate of torso stab wounds treated at trauma centers at about 4 percent. (Of course, these don’t include folks who never went to a trauma center.) These numbers are far from 100 percent, but for someone getting stabbed, they are also far from 0 percent — and a stabbing injury is horrific even if you survive. Incidentally, most gunshot wounds are non-fatal too.

Third, standard police training, correctly, in my view, teaches cops to use a firearm if needed to stop an immediate knife attack. The Columbus Dispatch has some useful quotes from experts in this regard:

Although such shootings inevitably generate questions from the public about why an officer didn’t use de-escalation techniques, or deploy a Taser or shoot the person in the leg, none of those options was available to the officer, both experts agreed.

“I don’t know what the officer could have done differently,” [Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University professor] said. “Based on what I saw, there was no opportunity for the officer to de-escalate.”

[James Scanlon, a retired Columbus Division of Police SWAT officer] said use of a Taser isn’t an appropriate response “to a lethal-force situation,” and police are trained to target only one thing when they shoot to protect themselves or others — “center mass” of the person they’re trying to stop.

Officers are trained “to shoot until the threat is neutralized,” he said. . . .

[Stinson:] “In this situation, inaction by the officer, I believe, would likely have resulted in serious bodily injury or death to one or more persons.”

There’s a reasonable discussion to be had about whether the training should be a little more flexible, to at least give officers the option of shooting lower on the body in certain specific situations. But if someone’s stabbing me and a cop has a chance to stop it with a bullet, I hope he takes the shot.