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Re-Thinking the 21-Foot Rule
Written by George Williams
Officers have consistently underestimated the ability of suspects armed with cutting weapons to cause harm. It was not uncommon in the past for officers facing a knife wielding subject to be told by a sergeant to simply “Get in there and grab his knife hand.” As late as the 1980’s, there were still baton trainers advocating the use of the baton against someone with a knife!
One of the reasons for this late arrival of tactical common sense was the development and the near universal presentation of the Tueller Drill to officers nationwide. This training drill was designed to give a realistic understanding of the distance, and therefore the time that it takes for an officer to react by drawing and firing two rounds when a suspect charges him with a knife.
At the time it was introduced, this drill was a radical concept to many. Prior to this drill, officers commonly felt little hesitation in allowing a suspect to approach within a few steps of them while armed with a knife. The Tueller Drill dramatically opened their eyes. Since the late 1980’s, nearly every police officer has been trained in some version of the Tueller Drill.
And this is where the problem lies. Instead of utilizing the drill as a simple teaching device intended to illustrate reaction time and the distance needed to respond to a deadly charging attack, it has been grossly misunderstood, and now is often promulgated as the 21-Foot Rule. As taught, the rule suggests that anyone within 21-feet armed with a knife is a deadly threat.
Some trainers have advocated that the presence alone of a suspect armed with a knife within 21-feet qualifies as an imminent threat and is therefore shootable! Some have twisted it so far as to say that any suspect allowed to approach an officer, or an officer approaching within the imaginary 21- foot perimeter, is a violation of the rule. Conversely, a suspect who is 22- feet away cannot be an imminent threat and is not shootable. In fact, shooting a subject beyond 21-feet from the officer is considered excessive force!
All of these interpretations are factually false. There simply is no universal rule. While a person within 21- feet may be a threat, it is the context of that proximity to the officer that really matters. Additionally, a person who is 35-yards away may be an imminent threat and might be shootable under certain conditions per Graham v Connor.
The various permutations of the socalled 21-Foot Rule should be dropped because they misstate the intended purpose of the Tueller Drill; these misunderstandings (and sometimes intentional misrepresentations) should be eliminated from law enforcement training and tactics.
The intended purpose of the Tueller Drill was to alert the officers to the dangers of being in proximity to a knife-wielding suspect. Prior to its introduction, it was not uncommon for officers to hold armed suspects at gunpoint while standing only feet away. The thinking was, “If he moves, I’ll shoot and stop him.”
However, this thinking disregarded the realities of reaction time, the effects of gunshot wounds, stopping time, and a host of other practical, real-world issues. It was almost as if officers believed Hollywood versions of shootings where an officer reacts instantly and shoots the bad guy, causing the bad guy to instantly drop dead.
The Tueller Drill explains the concept of trading distance for time. It was introduced to demonstrate the time, and therefore the distance, needed to simply react to a charging attack. In reality, it could be an attack with any type of hand-delivered deadly weapon.
The drill demonstrated one thing, and one thing only: it takes the average human adult male 1.5 seconds to cross a distance of 21 feet and make contact with the officer. This 1.5 seconds is a generally accepted time that it takes an officer, with handgun holstered and who is aware of the threatening suspect, to observe the charge, orient to the threat, decide to shoot, and then fire two rounds before the suspect touches him.
The drill does NOT address the situation where an officer is unaware of the armed status or even of the hostile presence of the offender, and then is surprised when the suspect charges. In this case, it will likely take a considerably longer period of time to orient to the fact that the officer is, first, under attack, and second, that the suspect poses a deadly threat. In this case, it may take not 21-feet, but 20 or more yards before the officer can favorably react.
Additionally, the drill does not deal with the reality of officers typically hitting with only three bullets out of ten fired in a police shooting. This means that both rounds the officer fires may miss the suspect altogether. It also does not address the fact that the suspect may be fatally wounded yet still able to operate in a life-threatening manner for seconds or even minutes.
Unlike shooting at paper targets, officers typically do not see bullet strikes on suspects. Their first indication of hitting the offender is that offender falling—the officer won’t know the suspect was hit unless he falls, is taken into custody, or later reports to the emergency room for treatment of a gunshot wound. All of these factors must be folded into the realistic response of an officer to this type of assault.
The only value in the Tueller Drill, then, is to illustrate to officers (and jurors) how fast an individual can cover a short distance and make contact with an officer. Any other interpretation regarding the reasonableness of the officer’s deadly force against a subject at distance, the reasonableness or negligence of an officer’s tactics in how or where the officer placed himself (or allowed the suspect to approach), or any permutation of the drill is a misinterpretation or an outright misuse of the drill.
If there is no standard distance, then how can an officer’s force and/or tactics be evaluated? After all, how can 21-feet be an imminent danger while 22-feet be safe? The standard should always be the reasonable officer standard as described and demanded by Graham. Reasonableness is based on the officer’s ability to explain and justify his actions based on the totality of the objective facts reasonably perceived and known to him at the time of the force response.
It is also based on the officer’s training and experience. Therefore, how the officer reasonably perceived the suspect’s actions given the situation is the basis for evaluation, not some arbitrarily derived rule or distance. Consider the examples.
First, officers respond to a report of a home invasion of an apartment by a suspect armed with a knife. The elderly resident flees to waiting officers, but is so shaken that she cannot give information regarding the possible presence of other residents. Officers make exigent entry and confront the suspect who screams and yells at them, but retreats to a couch, and sits while holding a knife. He is apparently tweaking on meth. The officers take up positions in the small hallway 10-feet away from him, holding him at gunpoint until an officer with a Taser can arrive.
Second, an officer responds to a domestic violence call and finds a man on his front porch, bleeding from a knife wound to the abdomen. He states, “My wife cut me, but she didn’t mean it.” The officer looks up, and suddenly finds her crying, just 15-feet away, holding the knife.
While not responsive, she is not presently threatening, even though sheis still holding the knife. Alcohol is definitely a factor. The officer draws his weapon but holds it behind his leg, and places himself between the victim and the suspect. As he calls for emergency cover, he pushes gently but insistently, guiding the injured man toward the front door. He begins talking quietly to the woman, asking her repeatedly to drop the knife and talk with him.
Third, officers respond to a high school football field regarding a call of an unknown disturbance involving a possible fight, and screaming and shouting. As officers approach from one end of the field, the suspect is on the 50-yard line. He has a machete, and is apparently cutting himself in the arm with it while screaming unintelligibly. It is plain that he is covered in blood.
From the edge of the end zone, one of the officers shouts, “Police.” The suspect spins suddenly to face the officers, and screams, “I’m going to kill you!” Without further warning, he sprints at the officers, screaming like a warrior of old charging across a battlefield. Both officers fire before he crosses the 35-yard line (with 45 yards left to go to the officers).
In each of the above cases, the involved-officers violated the socalled rule. In each of the above cases, however, the officers’ actions were reasonable and tactics sound given the situation presented to them at the time. Reasonableness is based on the officer’s ability to explain why he employed force based on the totality of the facts known at the time. It is not based upon a training drill that has no relevance to the real-world other than illustrating time-distance relationships.
Knowing the Distance
Another problem with the concept of the drill being a rule is the requirement for an officer to be able to accurately determine a specific linear measurement while under potential or actual life-threatening circumstances. Even though officers are trained observers, few have been trained to accurately estimate exact distances. It is not unusual in a classroom setting to have estimates of 21-feet by officers to range from 14 to 26-feet in a nonthreatening environment.
When a situation is compounded by an imminent threat, it is likely that the officer’s ability to accurately estimate the distance between him and a suspect will be faulty. Given the well-known effects of a stress reaction to threat, especially the perceptual changes that human beings undergo, it is not surprising that the ability of officers to accurately relate exact, or even accurate estimates of distance (or time) involved in the assault are inexact.
The problem of “tunnel vision” illustrates this point. Upon the realization of a deadly threat, the vision focuses upon that threat to the exclusion of all other visual data. As a reaction to adrenal hormones, literally 60% of visual neural pathways are shut down, resulting in an extreme loss of peripheral vision.
For example, an officer abruptly realizes that a previously unnoticed subject is suddenly in a howling charge with an upraised knife. Realizing he is under attack, adrenaline dumps into his bloodstream. Just as suddenly, he is slightly confused by the fact that all he can see is the subject’s knife hand and arm. Later, at the Officer-Involved Shooting interview (and civil deposition and civil trial), when asked how far away the subject was when he fired, the officer will naturally be hardpressed to answer.
This officer wasn’t attempting to determine the distance at the time he shot—rather, he was trying to survive against an unexpected deadly attack. This is the reality of this type of situation, and should be the only basis of evaluation. Distance as determined by forensics and witness statements is an important but small component of most of these shootings.
Instead, the officer’s reasonable perception of the imminent danger projected by the suspect, based upon the totality of the facts known to the officer at the time, is the most important aspect of the officer’s force response.
The 21-foot drill, or the Tueller Drill, was intended to teach officers about the dangers of underestimating the realities of reaction time and the short time it takes for an armed subject to cross a relatively close distance. If the average adult male takes 1.5 seconds to cross 21-feet, and the average officer requires 1.5 seconds to draw and fire two rounds from the holster, then 21-feet is the minimum distance an officer needs to respond effectively to this attack.
An “effective response” is often assumed to be enough to protect the officer from harm. This assumption requires, 1) the officer is aware of the suspect’s armed status, 2) the officer is aware that he is being attacked, 3) the officer’s rounds actually strike the subject, 4) the bullet hitting the suspect strikes a vital skeletal structure or central nervous system and 5) the suspect is incapacitated by either or both bullets before being able to stab or strike the officer.
It is highly likely that none of the bullets in the Tueller Drill’s will strike the suspect and render him instantaneously incapacitated. Therefore, 21- feet is not sufficient, or even practical, as a hard and fast limit to a threat. It is the minimum, not the maximum distance at which a suspect is a danger to the officer.
In the real-world where officers arethreatened and attacked by armed subjects, the misinterpretation of the 21-Foot Drill is a grave error. There is no rule regarding the response to an armed assault except the 4th Amendment as interpreted by the US Supreme Court in Graham.
Objectively reasonable conduct in the face of an armed attack on an officer, regardless of the distance, is the only rule. Answering the question, “Would another officer, given the same or similar training and experience, presented with the same facts, circumstances, and situation do the same thing or react in the same way?” is the only inquiry into an officer’s response to armed assault. The distance at which the officer began firing is simply one component in that evaluation.
The distance of 21-feet is not magic. It is not a rule. It means nothing in the real-world of responding to dangerous calls and assaults on officers other than as a teaching point within a greater context. It was, and remains, simply a method of describing to officers the amount of time (or distance) needed to respond with effective force to a charging assault.
It is the minimum distance for response, not the maximum, and assumes a dramatic effect upon the suspect’s ability to continue his attack from each bullet fired. It is time to clean up the misunderstandings and answer the deliberate distortions with the facts. The only rule is to use objectively reasonable means to stay alive and take offenders into custody.
George T. Williams is a professional police training specialist, a certified police master trainer, and is currently director of training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, WA. He also serves as an expert witness in police force response cases throughout the nation. Mr. Williams may be contacted at gtwilliams@cuttingedgetraining. com.
Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2005
Rating : 9.5
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