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‘He’s Got a Knife—Kill Him!’

Not everything that makes police dangerous comes from culture. Some comes from the law—and the way cops train to operate within it.
February 14, 2023
‘He’s Got a Knife—Kill Him!’
Rickiesha (cq) Branch, of Los Angeles, girlfriend of Anthony Lowe, along with family demands answers about Huntington Park police shooting of double amputee, Anthony Lowe, hold a press conference in front of the Huntington Park Police Department on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023 in Huntington Park, CA. On Jan. 26, Huntington Park police officers shot and killed Anthony Lowe, 36, whose lower legs were amputated last year. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Anthony Lowe was clearly trying to get away; there was no chance, really, that he would succeed.

The 36-year-old California man can be seen on cell phone video leaving his wheelchair behind and hobbling along on the stumps that constituted, as one news account put it, “what remained of his legs.” He can be seen waving a large knife, pursued by police with guns drawn. As other video seems to show, he had just used the knife to stab another man from behind.

Lowe, a black man, was a double amputee, having lost both legs below the knees last year. I use the past tense “was” because two of the officers, in a part of the videotaped encounter that was obscured from view by a parked vehicle, shot him 11 times in the torso, killing him.

This happened in Huntington Park, a city in Los Angeles County, on January 26, one day before the anticipated release of what was accurately described as “horrific” video of police in Memphis delivering a fatal beating to Tyre Nichols.

Yet while Nichols’s killing drew worldwide outrage and protests, Lowe’s death went largely unnoticed, as have three other police killings in California in recent weeks. The five officers in the Nichols beating were fired from their jobs and charged with second-degree murder and other offenses, seven others were disciplined, and three fire department employees lost their jobs for failing to provide aid on the scene. The officers involved in Lowe’s death have been placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.

From the perspective of Lowe’s family, the officers who killed him are as blameworthy as those who killed Nichols. “They murdered my son, in a wheelchair with no legs,” Lowe’s mother, Dorothy Lowe, said through tears at a news conference. Shouted Lowe’s cousin, Ellakenyada Gorum, “How coldhearted could they be?” The family says Lowe was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Perhaps we can all agree: This was a killing that did not need to happen, one that could and should have been avoided.

“Here we see an individual that, by definition, appears to be physically incapable of resisting officers,” Ed Obayashi, a national policing expert specializing in use-of-force investigations, told NBC News. “Even if he is armed with a knife, his mobility is severely restricted. He’s an amputee. He appears to be at a distinct physical disadvantage, lessening the apparent threat to officers.”

Yet the officers who deployed deadly force against Lowe have two things going in their favor. First, the law, at least arguably, allows them to do what they did. Second, they quite likely did what they did because they were trained to do it.

These two things together go a long way toward explaining why police in the United States kill about 1,000 people a year and are almost never criminally charged, much less convicted.

In California, law enforcement officers are allowed to use lethal force “only when they reasonably believe, based on the totality of circumstances, that such force is necessary in defense of human life.” The factors that may be taken into consideration here, as for police throughout the country, are established by a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor.

That ruling says the use of deadly force must be “objectively reasonable” based on a non-exhaustive list of factors “including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.”

Severity of the crime? Check. Lowe had apparently just used a knife to attack another man, a complete stranger, causing serious injury. Attempting to evade arrest? Check. Lowe was definitely trying to get away from the cops, however futilely. Immediate threat? That one is debatable.

As the Guardian reported, “The video does not show any civilians near Lowe as he tries to hobble away, and he also appears to be at a distance from the officers.” The Huntington Park ​​Police Department said in a statement released four days after the killing that Lowe “ignored the officer’s verbal commands and threatened to advance or throw the knife at the officers.” He was tased twice but “continued to threaten officers with the butcher knife,” until he was shot. None of this was captured on the cell phone video. Huntington Park police do not wear body cameras. Surveillance video from a nearby vantage point captured the final confrontation; that footage appears to show Lowe fleeing while gesturing back at the pursuing officers with his knife before being shot.

The Los Angeles sheriff’s department, which is investigating the matter, initially claimed in a statement that Lowe attempted to “throw the knife at the officers,” but later clarified that he “did not throw the knife ultimately, but he made the motion multiple times over his head like he was going to throw the knife.”

To some, this is simply not justification enough for the use of deadly force.

“There was absolutely no reason to shoot a double amputee . . . 11 times, who was hobbling away from officers,” said Annee Della Donna, an attorney representing several members of Lowe’s family, at a news conference. “Both the officers and the public were not at threat. He was a handicapped person suffering from a mental crisis.”

But in fact, officers throughout the country are routinely taught that they should respond to a possible knife threat with deadly force. There’s even a name for it. It’s called the “21-foot rule.”

The rule holds that an individual with a knife is posing an immediate threat to officers if he is within 21 feet. That purportedly is how far a person armed with a knife or blunt instrument can travel before an officer can unholster his weapon, aim, and fire, according to a 1983 SWAT magazine article titled “How Close Is Too Close?,” by Dennis Tueller, a retired lieutenant and firearms instructor with the Salt Lake City Police Department.

Now, one might quibble with the application of this rule to a situation in which the person holding a knife has legs that end just below the knees. One might also note that the officers involved in Lowe’s death clearly had their guns drawn well before he allegedly began making motions over his head. But the 21-foot rule is deeply hardwired into cops’ heads through their training.

A 2015 article in Mother Jones quotes former cop and forensic criminologist Ron Martinelli lamenting that this rule established by Tueller’s article “spread throughout the law enforcement community almost like a virus,” to where it “would eventually become a police doctrine that is taught and testified to hundreds of times a year.”

While it has not been formally tested or studied (except during one episode of the show MythBusters) and is not usually part of the required training at police academies, the 21-foot rule, Mother Jones said, “remains widely cited and taught as part of informal training seminars.” Former cop Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said the rule “remains one of the persistent and frustrating urban myths of law enforcement training.”

I’ve seen it myself.

In May 2007, I was invited by the police department in Madison, Wisconsin, to join a group of media reps and city council members at a police training facility just outside the city limits. We all got to fire a Glock 9 and a Glock 40. We were shown, through various exercises and simulations, how police are trained to respond to various situations.

One officer present, Jason Freedman, explained how police must factor in the “reactionary gap” between when something happens and when an officer can take effective action in response. Police are trained to beat this curve by acting quickly and making the best call they can given the circumstances presented.

“Police are not required to make the right choice,” Freedman, now a captain with the Madison Police Department, told the group, citing Graham v. Connor. Rather, they must make an “objectively reasonable” decision based on the officer’s perception “at the time.”

A few years before that, I had attended a demonstration on how Tasers fit into the use-of-force continuum. There I learned, as I later wrote:

Police are trained to always take an encounter to the next level to protect themselves and gain control of a situation. If a suspect raises his fists, you pull your club. If he has a knife, you draw your gun. If he points a weapon, you don’t wait around wondering if he’s serious; you fire to take him down.

Police are often asked, Why didn’t you shoot him in the leg? The answer is that they are trained not to do so. Here’s what former Madison Police Chief David Couper had to say about police training under Graham v. Connor in a 2015 article for The Progressive.

They are taught that a person armed with an edged weapon and within a twenty-one-foot distance can kill them before they can discharge their firearm. And police, when confronted with situations they believe merit the use of deadly force, are taught to shoot and keep shooting multiple times at a person’s “center mass”—the chest and heart.

Couper was Madison’s top cop from 1972 to 1993 and he remains a national voice for police reform in his post-chief role as an Episcopal priest. He’s urged on his blog for police to “design and train on the use of less-than-deadly methods of using force” and for the public to “demand that police do this and develop these non-deadly methods to contain emotionally disturbed people who are brandishing knives or blunt objects without taking their lives.”

Last year, police in the United States shot 1,096 people, a record since the Washington Post’s police shootings database began keeping track in 2015. Of this group, 897 were said to be armed, 27 with a blunt object and an astonishing 184 with knives. That means 201 of the fatal shootings—18 percent of the total, almost one in five—involve a person armed with a blunt object or knife.

In fact, of the 6,675 people the database has tallied as having been shot to death by police while armed from 2015 through 2022, nearly 1,600 of them, or 24 percent, were armed with just a blunt object or knife. And, of these, more than 500 involved people showing signs of having a mental illness crisis.

Knives are dangerous, sometimes deadly. On New Year’s Eve, three New York city police officers were injured when a man with a machete attacked two of them. But can we agree that knives and blunt objects are significantly less lethal than guns, and perhaps a bit less deserving of being met with lethal force?

Data maintained by Officer Down Memorial Page, a national nonprofit devoted to honoring fallen cops, shows that 2,225 officers died in the line of duty from all causes, including auto crashes and COVID, between 2015 and 2022. Of these, 440 were fatally shot, and six were fatally stabbed. Six in eight years. There were no line-of-duty deaths attributed specifically to blunt objects, although 27 officers are listed as having died from assaults.

The fatal shooting of Anthony Lowe is not necessarily the product of bad police morality or even bad police culture, except in an overarching sense. It is the product of prevailing legal standards and the way that police are trained to work within them. The cops very well may have done exactly as they were taught. They can be taught to do things differently.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.