On a recent Friday before dawn, Sacramento police confronted a man in the middle of K Street who was swinging a metal cane at passing cars.
Kevon Lipscomb, 59, was “incoherent” and yelling at officers, according to police spokesman Bryce Heinlein. Police told him to drop the cane, but he didn’t. More units responded.
Lipscomb, a black man, finally ditched the cane but pulled out a “large butcher knife that he had in the waistband of his pants,” pointing it at officers and advancing toward them, said Heinlein.
Despite the threat, officers kept talking, and Lipscomb discarded the knife and ran. Police caught him nearby and subdued him without undue force. He was booked into county jail on drug and weapons charges.
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The Lipscomb incident bears similarities to that of Joseph Mann, a black man who brandished a knife and failed to follow police commands during a July incident in North Sacramento. Though Mann was initially thought to have a gun based on 911 calls, he told officers he did not have a gun, and officers never reported seeing one, repeatedly telling him to put down the knife.
Police encounters with knife-wielding suspects have uncertain outcomes. Five of the eight people shot and killed by police in Sacramento County this year, including Mann, allegedly had knives, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis.
The inconsistency in how officers treat “edged weapons” has sparked a polarizing debate around a single question: Just how dangerous is a knife?
“Extremely dangerous,” said Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force consultant to law enforcement agencies and a deputy sheriff and legal adviser for the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office. “You have to take that default position ... A knife by its very nature is a deadly weapon.”
The 1989 Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor gave police significant latitude to determine in the moment just how deadly a situation is, without the need to worry about Monday-morning quarterbacking. The case is the backbone for many use-of-force policies in U.S. law enforcement.
“The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight,” wrote the court. “The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation. The test of reasonableness is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application.”
But what law enforcement considers reasonable is increasingly being questioned by the public.
As police use-of-force episodes roil communities across the country, including the shooting of an unarmed black man in El Cajon last week, some are challenging the long-standing belief that knives are justification for lethal force, said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Claudia Center.
“A knife should not be treated the way it’s being treated by the typical police officer,” said Center, who tracks use-of-force issues. “You should not be assuming that just because a knife is in the picture that lethal force is automatically required or appropriate.”
Center said knives are especially common among homeless people, who often carry them for daily use.
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There “is a huge disconnect between the reality ... of how often people have knives on the street and the way police deal with them,” she said.
In the six-year span from 2008 to 2013, two police officers in the United States were killed by suspects with knives, according to a study by UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring. During that period, there were 265 “intentional deaths” of law enforcement personnel caused by altercations with suspects. The majority of fatalities were due to guns.
Both of the knife deaths involved concealed weapons at close quarters, Zimring said.
“The reason the cop was vulnerable is he didn’t know the knife was there,” Zimring said.
A second study by the U.S. Department of Justice released shortly after the shooting deaths of five officers in Dallas this year examined 684 law enforcement deaths from 2010 to 2014. That number included incidents that did not involve altercations, such as traffic accidents and health issues.
The study found that of 91 officers killed while responding to a 911 call, only one was stabbed. Eighty-eight were shot, one was pushed and fell to his death, and one was intentionally struck by a car, according to the report.
In a preliminary examination of officer fatalities in 2015, the same study found that of 123 law enforcement officers who lost their lives in the line of duty that year, none was killed in an attack with an edged weapon or knife.
“Basically, whenever there is any kind of distance between the officer and the person in crisis with the knife, there is literally no case where the officer has been killed or seriously injured,” said Center.
In 2013, Zimring found about 52,000 instances of nonfatal assaults on police officers. Of those, 122 involved knives, according to self-reported data collected from police by the FBI and analyzed by Zimring.
“Officers are taught to have this huge fear of a knife ... even though it’s not empirically based,” said Center.
Zimring said much of the fear comes from the “21-foot rule,” an axiom in police training that says an assailant armed with an edged weapon could cover 21 feet and successfully attack in the time it takes an officer to recognize the threat, draw a gun and fire two rounds.
The rule originated with a Salt Lake City police trainer who timed volunteers in a 1983 experiment. He determined an attacker with a knife could cover 21 feet in 1.5 seconds, according to an article he wrote for SWAT Magazine at the time of the test.
While the theory has largely been relegated to advice rather than doctrine, it remains a part of police lore and is still cited by many in law enforcement. Heinlein said it is “mentioned” in Sacramento’s police academy training but “isn’t taught as a line in the sand.”
“Everybody has heard of it, and it serves as a reminder that an armed subject can close on you quickly,” said Heinlein.
Center said many officers across the country believe a knife-wielding suspect within 21 feet can justifiably be shot. Mann was about 27 feet from police when they began firing, according to Bee measurements based on video of the event.
Ron Martinelli, a retired San Jose police officer who trains law enforcement across the world and the author of “The Truth Behind the Black Lives Matter Movement and the War on Police,” said the “21-foot rule” is not a reliable guide for when officers should use force against a suspect wielding a knife.
Such decisions, he said, cannot be reduced to hard-and-fast rules. In some cases, a suspect beyond 21 feet might be a danger.
“We can’t look at the 21-foot rule as being dogma,” Martinelli said.
Officers must consider the behavior of the suspect – how he is holding the knife, whether he is agitated or making threats – before deciding whether to use deadly force. Those determinations are at least as important as the space between the officer and suspect, Martinelli said.
“Officers have to think about statutory law. They have to think about the department’s use-of-force policy,” said Martinelli, who said he has worked with Sacramento police in the past. “It’s all about the circumstances, moment by moment.”
Heinlein points out that knives also represent a real threat to the public. Knife homicides in Sacramento County are common, but much less so than homicides involving guns, based on federal data analyzed by The Bee.
About 185 people were killed with knives in Sacramento County from 1999 through 2014, according to mortality tables from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s about 13 percent of homicides during that period. By comparison, roughly 930 people were killed with guns in Sacramento County from 1999 through 2014. That’s about two-thirds of homicides during that period.
Heinlein said that with so many guns on American streets, officers often don’t have time to determine exactly what type of weapon a suspect has. They are required to make quick decisions in which delaying could mean losing the advantage – and the ability to protect their own lives and those of civilians. In the recent El Cajon incident, the suspect allegedly pointed a vaping pen at officers.
Heinlein said any weapon – baseball bats, screwdrivers, knives – concerns police.
“Put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” said Heinlein. “The biggest fear I have is getting knocked unconscious and then (suspects) have access to my gun. Whether it’s narcotics or a mental condition, it doesn’t matter. My life is much more important in protecting the community then having that split second.”
Despite those real fears, Center argues “part of the job has to be to take those two seconds or three seconds to evaluate the situation, and that can be in a way that is protective of officer safety ... I don’t buy that you can’t figure out what it is before you shoot someone dead.”
The courts are also re-examining when officers should use lethal force, especially when dealing with mentally ill individuals. Center and Obayashi both pointed to a recent case out of San Francisco, City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan.
That U.S. Supreme Court case reversed a lower court ruling and found that police acted in a reasonable fashion when they shot and injured a mentally ill woman holding a knife. But the court opened the door for scrutiny of an officer’s actions prior to the moment of the shooting.
Based on Sheehan, “we are trying to tell officers to be careful about provocation,” said Obayashi. “The courts will really scrutinize whether the officer provoked the situation.”
Political leaders across the country are also wading into the issue by adding civilian oversight of police and establishing guidelines for police departments. New rules often include tighter parameters for when police can use lethal force and requirements for clear reporting and transparency around shootings, including the release of video.
In Sacramento, City Councilman Larry Carr last week introduced one such measure. Similar to ordinances elsewhere, it stresses the “sanctity of life” and authorizes lethal force only when there’s an immediate threat and shooting is “unavoidable to protect life.”
If adopted and successfully implemented by the department, it could push police to exhaust nonlethal alternatives and have greater crisis intervention training.
Obayashi called such ordinances “offensive” to law enforcement, who don’t need to be reminded about the value of life. He said there is currently “an unrealistic bar of what should be expected of officers” and that, as harsh as it sounds, a certain number of officer-involved killings of suspects is “the cost of doing business.”
Center said clear use-of-force policies are needed to both protect citizens and law enforcement.
“These are really, really deep and hard questions ... but generally speaking, trying to slow everything down is shown to be safer for officers and civilians,” she said. “It can ruin an officer’s life to shoot someone. It’s terrible.”
Knife-wielding suspects killed by Sacramento County law enforcement in 2016
Five of the eight people shot and killed by police in Sacramento County this year, including Joseph Mann, allegedly were wielding knives, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis.
Feb. 2: Justin Prescott, 30. Prescott allegedly pulled a sharp-edged weapon on security officers who confronted him, saying he would rather kill himself than be arrested. Later he refused Rancho Cordova police officers’ commands to drop the knife.
April 8: Dazion Flenaugh, 40. Flenaugh allegedly armed himself with knives and charged at Sacramento police officers before he was fatally wounded.
May 19,: Jaime Ide, 35. Ide allegedly threatened Citrus Heights police officers with a knife in a narrow corridor. Police said an officer, fearing for his safety, shot Ide around 10 p.m..
July 11: Joseph Mann, 50. Sacramento police officers repeatedly ordered Mann to drop a knife with a 4-inch blade, but he did not drop it.
Aug. 18: Chad Irwin, 40. Irwin allegedly confronted Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies on the street with an “edged” weapon. One deputy fired his gun, striking Irwin, who collapsed.