Reading this report from a local news source, a cold shiver ran down my spine. Read on, and see if you understand why.
“A man was shot by a sheriff’s deputy Thursday evening after he severely injured another deputy with a Samurai sword, according to the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies were called to a home on Quail Roost Drive in Navarre [Florida] about 5:40 p.m. for a report of a man with a knife trying to break in a door, according to Sheriff’s Capt. Bob Johnson.
When they arrived, they found a man armed with what was described as a Samurai sword and tried to use non-lethal force to subdue him, Johnson said . . .
But the man swung the sword and cut Deputy Matthew Ray [apparently several times]. Ray was severely injured and was taken to Baptist Hospital in Pensacola. As of 8:45 p.m., he was in surgery and his condition was unknown, Johnson said.
Another deputy [Sgt. Brian Miller] then shot the assailant ‘several times,’ Johnson said.
The man also was taken to an area hospital. His name and medical condition had not been released as of 8:45 p.m.
9:50 a.m. UPDATE: Deputy Matthew Ray is doing well after he was severely injured Thursday evening by a suspect wielding a samurai sword, according to the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office.”
Good grief. I am absolutely dumbstruck. Other news accounts identify the suspect as 22 year-old Gordon Talmage Kimbrell Jr. Some new accounts suggest Kimbrell was off his medication, had been drinking, and threatened family members with knives, causing them to call for help.
I’m dumbstruck because a Japanese sword—commonly known as a katana—is among the most deadly weapons ever devised. Anyone holding such a weapon and demonstrating the intention to use it, is a deadly threat at distances of as much as 30 feet/ten yards, and perhaps more depending on their skill level.
Genuine katanas are very expensive, but even a cheap knock off, commonly available for only a few hundred dollars, is nearly as deadly, though not nearly as durable in the long term. Such weapons can easily, and with a single cut, amputate limbs or heads, or with a single cut virtually anywhere on the body, cause maiming, crippling, even death. In many ways, being cut by a Katana is more debilitating and potentially deadly than being shot. An effective cut can and will sever not only flesh and muscle, but tendons, ligaments and even bone, penetrating to and severing internal organs. A thrust by a Katana can be more damaging or deadly than being shot.
Even idiots with no formal training in swordsmanship can easily mutilate or kill others with a single, poorly executed cut. Those that are trained and practiced are fully as deadly, perhaps even more so, than a well-trained handgun shooter within the engagement range of the sword, which again, is easily within 30 feet.
How does a police officer—or anyone—recognize that a person wielding a katana poses an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death? The mere sight of someone carrying a sheathed katana should be sufficient to cause an escalation beyond code yellow, but when their hand touches the grip of the weapon–just as with someone gripping a handgun–any officer should immediately draw their handgun and at the very least go to ready (weapon pointed in the direction of the threat, muzzle pointed downward, somewhat below the sightline). “Ready” is important, particularly at close range, because holding one’s handgun up so the sights are in use makes it difficult or impossible to see anything below that weapon. Drawing the weapon—drawing any sword—from its sheath/scabbard should immediately invoke an escalation to code red, and the slightest movement toward the officer must cause him to immediately shoot to stop the threat.
This is particularly important if the swordsman is skilled. Movie fencing has little to do with reality. In the movies, katanas are flung about in wild arcs and with aggressive abandon, edge against edge in noisy, spark producing cacophony. This may look impressive, but in reality, edge to edge contact is avoided; it will destroy a very valuable sword. Those with genuine skill draw, cut, flick blood from the blade, and return the weapon to the sheath. Their movements are economical, precise, and very smooth. As with shooting, smooth is fast.
It should never be forgotten that a sword can be thrown as well, and that due to its long, razor-sharp edge and its inherent weight, it is a particularly dangerous missile, capable of producing massively ugly wounds even if its point does not enter the body of the intended target.
How can one tell if a swordsman is skilled? Few police officers or citizens have that knowledge, so all must act as though anyone with a sword represents a deadly danger.
To those well trained in Japanese swordsmanship, skill is easily recognized. It’s not only a matter of body language, stance and attitude, but the way that the swordsman uses distance and timing, the two vital variables in fencing and in all physical combat. There are other visual clues as well. One does not quickly jerk a sword from the scabbard, but uses a subtle squeeze of the off hand to first break the friction between sword and scabbard (Considering the audience, I am not using the correct terminology for the parts of the Katana and scabbard), making possible a smooth draw. The strong hand guides the weapon from the scabbard, aided by movement of the off hand on the scabbard. This must be done with great care and skill because a katana can easily cut through a scabbard and the swordsman’s hand. A katana is not gripped like a baseball bat or axe, but in a very specific manner, and the wrists are not rigid, but flexible and poised.
There are specific stances and attitudes of the blade that may indicate the swordsman’s preferred means of defense or attack, or may be a way of concealing those means from an opponent. Such matters as the placement of the feet and the way the swordsman shifts his balance and center of gravity may also be important cues, but much of this is subtle and most people, police officer or citizen, would be oblivious to it, thus the necessity of treating such things as a deadly threat.
The fact that both officers survived, though one was seriously injured, suggests that the suspect was not a skilled swordsman, likely that he had no real training at all. A skilled fencer in range of two officers foolishly trying to use non-deadly means to disarm and subdue him could easily have killed both and escaped unharmed.
There is a bizarre 1997 incident in Seattle that is illustrative of the issues. A man named Tony Allison, wielding what was obviously a cheap katana, held police at bay for eleven hours. A video of the incident is available here, and a good, contemporary account is available here.
Officers were alerted to the man when he was threatening passersby on a downtown street. They wisely kept their distance and called for backup, and for the next ten hours or so, kept substantial distance between him and them, and kept vehicles and other cover between them. As a major city police force, they had all the manpower they needed. They tried, repeatedly, to disarm the man by firing beanbag and baton rounds, and even enveloped him in clouds of pepper spray. All had little or no apparent effect. They finally subdued him with a torrent of water from fire hoses, and by pinning him and his sword to the ground with an aluminum extension ladder and a long pole. He was disarmed, taken into custody and no one was injured.
What is most important to understand is the police had the luxury of a favorable situation. The man was trapped and could not escape or threaten or harm innocents. The officers had more than sufficient manpower, and were able to position themselves to keep more than enough distance, primarily by placing substantial cover between Allison and themselves. Most importantly, he was continually covered by officers with firearms. While he often adopted threatening postures, he was never in range to actually attack, and did not press an actual attack. If he did, he would have been instantly shot by multiple officers, and almost certainly knew that. The police could have, entirely legitimately, shot and killed him at many points during the confrontation, but they had virtually every tactical factor in their favor, and the suspect did not push them into killing him.
There is not sufficient detail in the accounts I’ve been able to find of the two deputies to analyze it definitively. Considering that they chose to try to deal with the suspect by non-deadly means, and considering the outcome, it seems self-evident that they did not fully appreciate the danger the suspect represented.
It’s possible that because Kimbrell was a family member of the people calling the police, the deputies acted out of a misplaced sense of deference and kindness in trying to deal with Kimbrell by less than lethal means. One news account suggested they tried to use bean bag rounds, and if so, they were obviously as ineffective as they were on Tony Allison in 1997. Another account suggested only that Kimbrell attacked one officer and was shot by another, but explained in no greater detail.
Officers—and citizens—must treat any such situation as a deadly threat. Trying to use a shotgun firing bean bag rounds may not be an inherently inappropriate tactic, but in this case, it seems the officers did not have adequate cover, could not maintain adequate distance, probably didn’t have enough officers present, and may not even have been covering Kimbrell with firearms as the bean bag rounds were being employed and apparently failed rather spectacularly.
This is often a problem for sheriff’s deputies. Due to the realities of time, staffing and distance, there may be very few of them available to handle such situations, and that factor alone may force them to use tactics that they might be able to avoid with adequate manpower. However, in such situations, where time is of the essence, and deadly force is obviously legitimately reasonable, they should tend to use such force rather than lesser force.
While I am hardly a master/ high-ranking swordsman with the Katana, I have studied Kendo and Iaido for many years, and would recognize in an opponent their relative level of skill, or lack thereof. Even so, I would not willingly duel with anyone with a katana or any serious sword. I would, instead, if necessary and lawful, shoot them from a safe distance. When one fights with edged weapons, particularly swords, everyone gets cut. The Hollywood convention of a swordsman so skilled that he may kill at will and no one can touch him is, for the most part, fiction.
In any case, the primary lesson of this situation is clear, and should be taken to heart by citizen and police officer alike: within their engagement range, swords are absolutely deadly weapons.
Mike’s Home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor.