Is a Suspect Charging with a Knife a Deadly Threat?

Shepherd v. City of Shreveport, 920 F.3d 278 (7th Cir. 2019)

An officer responded to a fire department assist call at William Shepherd’s residence. Dispatch broadcast there was a potentially violent male who had possibly suffered a stroke and a female caller feared the male might hurt her. A second caller erroneously reported shots had been fired. Before the officer arrived, medics entered Shepherd’s home and encountered him with a knife in hand. The medics tactically and quickly retreated, taking cover behind a fire engine. Shepherd followed them into the front yard but stopped at the sidewalk.

The officer arrived and approached the medics. They pointed to Shepherd and told the officer there was still a female in the residence. The officer repeatedly commanded Shepherd to “get down” and “lay down,” but Shepherd did not comply and repeatedly responded with “$#!@ you.”

When Shepherd began moving toward the house (and the woman inside), the officer told Shepherd to “come to me now.” Instead, Shepherd walked toward the house, entering the garage. The officer followed at a distance, trying to keep sight of Shepherd. Shepherd turned back and advanced toward the officer. As the officer backpedaled, he shouted for Shepherd to get back.

Shepherd continued advancing toward the officer, so the officer shot Shepherd with a shotgun. Shepherd died and his mother subsequently sued. The trial court granted qualified immunity to the officer, ruling the officer reasonably believed Shepherd posed a threat of serious harm at the time the officer fired. Shepherd’s mother appealed.

The trial court granted qualified immunity to the officer, ruling the officer reasonably believed Shepherd posed a threat of serious harm at the time the officer fired.

Shepherd was approximately 10 feet from the officer when the officer fired his shotgun. Though Shepherd’s mother claimed Shepherd was “stumbling” toward the officer, the video recording clearly showed Shepherd advanced toward the officer at “a relatively quick speed.” The video recording did not, however, clearly show whether Shepherd was holding the knife at his side or in an upraised position.

Shepherd’s mother also made several arguments that bear careful attention. First, she claimed a knife cannot be a deadly threat at 10 feet. The court held the plaintiff utterly failed to offer any facts supporting this bold (and patently false) claim. Second, she asserted the video recording did not clearly show the knife was raised overhead, and that Shepherd could not have reasonably posed a threat if the knife was by his side. The court rejected this claim, too: “Even if we were to accept that Shepherd still had the knife at his side at the moment when he was shot, there is ample reason to conclude that he posed a real threat of serious bodily harm to the officer.”

Ever since Lt. Dennis Tueller first articulated the “21-foot principle” (never calling it a “rule”) in 1983, use of force experts have discussed the threat posed by various edged weapons at particular distances. In late 2018, 35 years after Lt. Tueller first published “How Close is Too Close?” he and I produced a police training video titled “The 21-foot Principle Clarified.” The video is an excellent training and discussion presentation; watch here.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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