At 9:56 a.m. Monday, Ohio State University’s emergency management account tweeted a terrifying warning: “Buckeye Alert: Active Shooter on campus. Run Hide Fight. Watts Hall. 19th and College.” As the morning progressed and more reports rolled in, it turned out that the attacker — 18-year-old Abdul Razak Ali Artan — had driven his car into a crowd, jumped out and started trying to cut people. In all, 11 people ended up in the hospital with injuries (their severity unclear). Artan was shot three times and killed by police officer Alan Horujko after Artan refused to heed the officer’s orders, according to CNN.
The aftermath of the attack followed a familiar script: Investigators scoured his social media feed for signs of his motive. The media blared reports about the Islamic State taking credit for the attack. (Of course Islamic State would take credit, since it gets them free press.) Officials issued calming remarks to keep Ohioans from coming to unhelpful conclusions about the town’s large, peaceful Somali community. Members of the Somali community, though, were still scared of blowback: “The timing is not good,” Omar Hassan, a Somali immigrant, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. Donald Trump, of course, validated their fears by tweeting, “ISIS is taking credit for the terrible stabbing attack at Ohio State University by a Somali refugee who should not have been in our country.”
What everyone seems to publicly agree on is that the officer’s actions were necessary and saved lives. “We owe him a debt of gratitude,” Monica Moll, director of Ohio State public safety, told CNN. “He did a fabulous job today.”
Reports indicate that the officer most likely acted in accordance with his training, may have saved lives and didn’t shoot until others were out of range. Still, other countries’ experiences suggest it’s worth looking at whether there are other ways to disarm people who are carrying knives (not guns).
Even if it was necessary in this case, not questioning whether shooting the attacker dead was the only option perpetuates a culture that might encourage officers to do that in situations where there are other options. There have been incidents where a person holding a knife in the midst of a mental breakdown has led to the use of lethal force (in this case the attack appears premeditated, students described him as calm, according to CNN), when they could potentially have been talked down.
And shooting into a crowd is not the best idea. In this case, reports indicate that the officer waited until others were out of range. It doesn’t look like anyone besides Artan was injured by the officer’s bullets. But that’s not always the case. In 2012, New York police officers injured nine people by the Empire State Building as they took down a gunman who had just shot a former co-worker.
Famously, in Britain, where most patrol officers don’t carry guns, there have been a few high-profile cases where police managed to disarm knife-wielding suspects. Andy Campbell at the Huffington Post described one incident in 2015:
In video released on Twitter, the knife-wielding suspect can be seen lunging toward a man standing near two officers; the victim pushes him off. The officers, pointing stun guns at the suspect, appear to show restraint even after he moves toward them. They don’t discharge their weapons until after they’ve notified him several times that they’re about to do so.
Officers managed to apprehend him using a stun gun.
The Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank devoted to reforming U.S. policing, has looked at how England and Scotland de-escalate encounters before they become fatal, particularly with knife-wielding suspects. In a 2015 report, PERF recommended reforms based on discussions with British law enforcement. The organization also sent representatives to Scotland to “observe their training firsthand.”
“I want to mention that some of what you will read in this report may be difficult to accept, because leading police chiefs are saying that our practices need to change dramatically,” PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler wrote. He goes on to argue that concrete reforms are needed in training protocols and in police department culture. For example, putting far more stress on the idea that every life matters, not just officers’ lives or those of potential victims (and yes, presumably even the life of a Somali 18-year-old experiencing whatever mental breakdown that made him do what he did).
In the report, Wexler acknowledges that there are limits to what American departments can glean from their British counterparts, due to a big difference between the two countries: the loosely regulated American gun industry, which stirs up valid fears cops have of being shot. But there’s one thing the two countries do have in common. “All countries have mentally ill persons with knives,” Wexler wrote in the report. “So I believe we can compare our experience to other nations’ experience with respect to certain situations that occur quite frequently, and which result in a disproportionate number of the most troublesome uses of force.”
Wexler then described a conversation he had with two British law enforcement officials.
I asked Chief Inspector Pell, “Aren’t your officers afraid that they could get killed if they’re within 21 feet of the man with a knife?”
Chief Pell responded that his officers don’t see it that way. “The reality is that we’ve never carried guns, so we’ve always had to train differently,” he said. “Culturally, it’s different.”
Wexler explains the British system of de-escalation.
To a large extent, Pell and Higgins said at our conference, their training is based on a practical tool called the National Decision Model (NDM), which is a system that helps officers to respond effectively to all sorts of situations and problems. Under the NDM, officers are trained to constantly ask themselves questions about the nature of the situation they are facing, the threats and risks they are facing, their powers and authorities to act, their various options for acting, how their actions played out, and whether they need to begin the process again, based on new information.
This type of organized, systematic thinking via the National Decision Model results in a more effective response by officers.
For example, in our example of a mentally ill person wielding a knife, I asked Inspector Pell whether officers are trained not to “bark orders” at a mentally ill person, because a mentally ill person may not be able to process or respond properly to what the officer is saying.
Inspector Pell explained that I was oversimplifying it. He told us, “It’s not just about ‘stop barking commands.’ It’s about communicating and trying to establish a connection, trying to engage, to break through whatever it is, to start some kind of negotiations.”
So police in Greater Manchester aren’t just “checking the de-escalation box” when they encounter a mentally ill person with a knife. The officers in Manchester don’t have the fall-back option of shooting the mentally ill person, because they don’t carry firearms. So they learn the importance of making a genuine effort to learn as much as they can about the person, to engage him in conversation, and to look for an opening, a way to demonstrate empathy, to calm the person down, and to get him to give up the knife without any use of force, so that everyone can go home safely. This approach may also involve bringing in additional resources, such as use of Electronic Control Weapons or calling in officers who are specially outfitted with heavy shields, or the special squad of officers who do carry firearms. […]
As in Manchester, police in Scotland are trained to slow situations down — to “contain and negotiate,” Chief Constable Higgins told us. He described the overall “theme” of their approach as: “What’s the hurry? Don’t feel you have to resolve every situation in a minute. By rushing it and escalating it, you’re creating a situation where you are increasing the risk to the subject, you’re increasing the risk to the community, and you’re increasing the risk to the police officers involved.”
As law enforcement officials in favor of reform point out, no cop wants to be responsible for taking a life. It can be traumatic and lead to years of legal trouble. So it’s in everyone’s best interest to put in place training protocols that make it far less likely.