Thinking About “Less-Than-Deadly” Force

UnknownI have to admit that I am having trouble understanding why police today seem unwilling to discuss the possibility of using “less-than-deadly” force when confront suspects armed with a blunt or edged weapon.

During my years teaching police defensive tactics, the response to a suspect who had an edged weapon was to use your baton — not firearm. I’m sorry, but that’s how we trained during the tumultuous 1960s. I remember few shootings in these circumstances.

Since that time, a lot has changed in both training and attitude.

I will reserve discussing situations involving suspects with firearms. I think it is generally understood (and even accepted) that a person threatening police officers with a firearm may lose his or her life.

But let’s get back to these “standoffs” where police are called to situations in which a person is either mentally ill or severely emotionally disturbed, has a weapon that is not a firearm, and refuses to comply with police orders to “drop the weapon and get down on the ground!”

Too often, police seem to be trained to immediately go to multiple shots to the “center-mass” of the subject — a most fatal action.

In modern 21st century policing, I suggest that police try to use less-than-deadly responses to these encounters. Why? Because it does not seem right to take a person’s life in these situations without trying something less deadly.

But this means police will have to be re-trained, and re-trained well, in order to meet one of the primary recommendations of chiefs who are members of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in their January, 2016 document, “30 Guiding Principles for Use of Force;” namely that “The sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does.”

What this means is frankly this: Police must develop less-than-lethal policies, tactics, and responses to many of these standoff situations where a firearm is not present.

Some instrumentality, and their requisite training, to consider:

  • 60″-72″ wooden batons (see bo staff) to strike and disarm knife-wielders.
  • Plastic see-through shields to protect officers with batons who are approaching suspects with knives. 
  • Electronic control devices (ECDs) like TASERS.
  • Traumatic pistol rounds that stun but do not penetrate the body.
  • Stun guns that fire bean bags for a stunning, not killing, effect.
  • Japanese “fishnet” guns.
  • Shooting suspects other than center-mass (less-than-deadly firearm use as some European agencies do; I know this is very controversial here in the U.S; however, if other methods are used to contain these incidents, firearms will not have to come into play).

Here are some other posts I have written about less-than-deadly police responses (quite frankly, I am an advocate of the bo staff. A team of two officers working together can easily be trained to disable a person threatening with a knife — see the bo staff link above).

The point I am trying to make is that taking a life in these situations seems not to be acceptable in our communities; therefore, we need to develop new tactics and strategies if we are to rebuild trust and legitimacy. Officer safety does not have to be compromised either.

Now is the time for police leaders and tactical training staff to develop effective methods of containing persons with edged or blunt weapons without having to take their lives.


  1. I agree that human life is precious, but the reality is that we are forced to prioritize. The lives of innocent citizens come first, the officers’ lives second, and the person creating hazard last. Those are moral judgments, but very similar to mass casualty triage. Medical professionals do not unnecessarily hazard themselves because disease and injury would be compounded by an absence of trained medical care.

    I recommend viewing a video of an officer involved shooting of a person armed with a knife.

    There are a number of disturbing aspects in this event. The officer reacts to an unexpected and close range threat by shooting the person once. That one shot does not immediately incapacitate the person. The officer backs away from the person, who continues toward the officer. The officer backs into the traffic way of a busy interstate highway. He was likely unaware of how safely he could do that and is fortunate that motorists on the highway that day were vigilant. Others on the highway that day, that officer and his family deserve more than good fortune.

    Handguns are not particularly effective personal defense weapons. With well designed projectiles and use of multiple hits to center mass they can be more effective at stopping threats.

    I agree that we should expand the number and effectiveness of less lethal options for officers. We will also have to expand significantly the manpower available to make those options both readily available and to increase competent use of those options. 21st Century policing will be very expensive. Public budgeting is the appropriation of public values. Does the public that demands better policing want to pay for that policing? Police leaders must help the public confront the brutal realities of what these changes will cost.


    1. Again, Mark, you make some very good points. I was pretty uneasy watching that video (of course I came out of the baton era and felt quite comfortable using it and some well placed foot techniques). And I certainly do agree that improving the quality of policing will be an expensive venture that may cause more controversy as policing seems to be outside the experience of most of us who are called white. Policing has always been class-oriented and only the automobile and drugs made it somewhat more shared.


  2. Very important issue. The difference between reckless homicide and justifiable homicide is basically one of “imperfect self defense.” This is applied by prosecutors all the time, but the use of force training given to most policer officer does not deal with it. Maximum force is essentially allowed to bypass the impfert self defense standard.”



  3. Cops do not want to be trained any differently. At the same time the government doesn’t want them trained differently. Modern government is all about controlling the people. The police are just their strong arms to do so. It’s no longer about protecting or serving the people. It’s about generating revenue for corrupt politicians.


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