My Neighbor Drew a Knife

I’ve trained police in conflict resolution skills on four continents.  My first love is communities but the years of training brought me to care deeply about police officers as well.    

This week’s newspapers carry the story of a man shot and killed by police in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Mentally ill, he threatened family members, who called 911 for help.   When police arrived, the man ran out the door with a 12 inch knife towards an officer who shot and killed him .    

This story takes me back to my own years in Lancaster.  In 1989, just a few blocks from yesterday’s death, I too faced an angry man, my neighbor, threatening his wife and anyone trying to help with a knife.

* * * * * *

“Put the knife down, John!”  I stood at a careful distance of 15 feet,  calling forth the most convincing combination of firmness and kindness in my voice that I could muster.   

John was having none of it.     “You get any closer and I’ll kill you!”  

John was a little shorter than I but stronger and built like an ox.  Now he was in a drunken rage, and waving a 10 inch hunting knife at anyone who came near.  

I knew the history here – a depressed man, an on-again-off-again work history, alcoholic.  Nice guy when sober, vicious when drunk.  Then no one was safe, including his wife whose bruised arms and face betrayed a troubled partnership.

In this moment I wasn’t sure John even knew who I was.   I’d come out to the street because I heard screaming.  John was standing just outside their small house on the street yelling “I’ll kill you!” and waving a knife at Bev, who stood at the door shouting profanities.   There were two small children in that house, but it was 11pm and they were nowhere in sight.  I motioned Bev to close the door so I could engage John without her provocations.  

I considered calling the police.  John had a record and was on probation for previous scrapes, including drunk driving.   He’d been trying hard to stop drinking and been dry for several months.   He was holding down a job and the family had seemed to be stabilizing.  If he got arrested, he’d almost certainly go back to jail.  He’d be back in the soup again, and economically, the family as well.

Why not first try to defuse things on my own, I thought? There weren’t many people around at that hour.  Bev and the children were inside and the door was now locked.   The main danger was to me.   But I was a 36 old jogger, a former high school wrestler, and nimble on my feet.   John was strong but not fast.  And right now, he was drunk.  I felt confident that I could read danger signals fast enough to easily stay out of his reach.

Besides, I was a conflict resolution trainer, now with years of experience in community and organizational settings.  I taught and often used a repertoire of skills for interacting with angry people. 

“Hey John, how was your week?” I called.   He was sitting now on his doorstep, the knife by his side.   “Ah, those s.o.b.s!”  He launched into a tirade about his employer.   He just wanted to keep his job but they were treating him so disrespectfully that he was thinking of quitting, 

It really didn’t take much.  All I had to do was stand there, listen, and mumble supportive sounds.  Within a few minutes John was calm and treating me like his best friend.   He seemed  to have forgotten the quarrel with Bev.   After 15 minutes of commiseration I said, “John, how about if you give me the knife – I’ll give it back tomorrow.”   Without protest, he handed it to me. 

A giant rubber band seemed to relax in my gut  as I walked that blade to my house.    Half an hour later I went to bed, John still sitting on the stoop to his house.

* * * * * * 

Long hours of workshops and conversation have pushed me past deep stereotypes I once held of police.   Far more than I ever knew, police are vulnerable people.  The work is dangerous, the hours long, the pay low.  Family life is hard, almost non-existent for some, for the work is so demanding.   Many places in the world, people become police officers because they have few options for income.  

As I came to appreciate and sympathize with the human beings I worked with in police training, I also came to see that there is a huge gap in the way policing is done most places in the world.   Many situations in which police use violence could be dealt with nonviolently by someone who is trained and practiced in their skills.  

This is easier said than done. Non-violent de-escalation of an armed person requires an unusual blend of assertiveness and empathy, physical agility,  quick risk assessment, excellent listening, skill in verbal responses, and attention and support by supervisors. Training and practice are essential.

Patience and time flexibility are also required to give the dynamics of an interactional response opportunity to unfold.  All of these are in short supply in most police forces.

Still, we take it for granted that we have to invest in maintaining weapons readiness for officers.  Why don’t we adopt the same attitude towards readiness for non-violent responses to threat?  Police deliver – and as a society we get – the kind of policing responses that police are mandated to prepare for.

Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the number of police officers who agree with all the above.   Officers of integrity – and there are many – know that those who wield deadly force have a duty before God and humanity to resolve conflicts with the least violence possible.  They are eager to learn and master skills and strategies that will help them accomplish that goal safely.   They know that it is essential to build a policing culture that removes those who do not share this goal.  

But police forces are hierarchical, inward-looking, and resistant to change.  Pressure from above and from outside are essential to help the many “good apples” within the police to bring the changes they know are needed.

You may think that over-reliance on violent responses doesn’t affect you.   But if you have children or grandchildren, you could be tragically wrong.   Drug abuse and mental illness can come to any family.   It could be your son or daughter or grandchild who has an episode of mental illness or drug abuse and threatens others.   Wouldn’t you want the responder to be highly trained in defusing dangerous situations, rigorously trained in calibrated escalation of tactics, confident enough to deal with threatening behavior without quickly replying with deadly force, and backed up by the supervision and staffing required to give this crisis whatever time is needed to avoid violence? 

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3 thoughts on “My Neighbor Drew a Knife

  1. David B. Miller

    Ron, thanks for posting this story! So often we suffer from a lack of imagination to conceive of nonviolent alternatives. Through news reports, our entertainment, and the rhetoric of political campaigns the fight or flight impulses are reinforced and given more power over us.

    Education, role playing training, skill development are all vital to prepare us for alternate responses to violence. However, perhaps the most important starting place is a narrative reformng of our imaginations.

    Peace to you!

  2. Bruce Pappas

    Thanks, Ron, for this inspiring story. These de-escalation tactics are important in talking to anyone who is being triggered, by depression, PTSD, most things, even when not carrying a knife. It’s love you showed John. And non-judgment. You’re a good (and loving) man.

  3. Darnell Barkman

    Thanks for this Ron. Your perspective and stories from life experience are always so valuable to me. Thanks for continuing to teach.

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