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Columns : The Federal Voice

Don’t Ban the “21-Foot Rule”

The Tueller Drill is an important reminder to officers that knife attacks can happen faster than they can draw their guns and fire.

May 04, 2016  |  by Jon Adler

Jon Adler, President, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association
Jon Adler, President, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association

On January 29 the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released a report titled, "Critical Issues in Policing Series, Use of Force: Taking Policing to a Higher Standard – 30 Guiding Principles." That report said, "Agencies should eliminate from their policies and training all references to the so-called "21-foot rule" regarding officers who are confronted with a subject armed with an edged weapon. "It also characterized the "21-foot rule" as an outdated concept.

The 21-foot rule originated 33 years ago in Salt Lake City as a reaction time experiment by Lt. Dennis Tueller, but it is entirely unjustifiable to dismiss it as an "outdated concept." The experiment that came to be known both as the "Tueller Drill" and the "21-foot rule" recognized an officer's inherent vulnerability when confronted by a subject with an edged weapon, and summarized a critical training point with a catchy phrase that is easy for officers to remember. I can invoke all the fancy trainer-speak to convince officers they are in danger if their weapons are holstered and they are confronted by an armed subject at close range, but what good is it if they don't remember or understand it? The reasonable discussion surrounding the 21-foot rule should relate to whether the distance should be expanded to ensure a more viable reactionary gap.

The news media consistently minimizes the threat posed by a noncompliant subject with an edged weapon. We expect that from them because we know they live in an imaginary world where knives don't represent a danger to an officer with a holstered gun. I expect better from PERF. We all understand the importance of distance and cover when it comes to our safety, but as all trainers know, it's quite a challenge to get sound training principles embedded in the minds of trainees. With the increase in attacks against law enforcement officers, now is not the time to remove a valuable mental pre-set from an officer's arsenal of self-defense.

I recently ran a series of defensive tactics refresher sessions for the criminal investigators in my district. My team is comprised of seasoned former cops, midstream investigators, and a couple of juniors. All of them are familiar with the 21-foot rule. To be clear, none of them believe it means automatically shooting a subject with a knife if that subject is within 21 feet. Instead, they all understood from training and/or experience that they are at a tactical disadvantage if holstered when confronted by a subject armed with an edged weapon in close distance.

To illustrate the present value of the 21-foot rule, I charged each investigator with a training knife, leaped into a less-than-impressive roll, and consistently slashed or stabbed each one of them. They knew what was coming, and yet the training principle held true. None of the participants came to training with broken arms or were slow on the draw. In fact, most of them had been in gun battles in the course of their careers. So why did I run this drill?

The answer is that I care about my teammates and don't want them to get hurt because of PERF's misguided report. When you plant the fear of liability in officers' minds, you aren't keeping them safe. You're failing them. If you explain the concept behind the 21-foot rule correctly, there is no room for ambiguity. If you demonstrate it correctly, there is no room for misunderstanding. If there is a misapplication in the field, deal with the variables surrounding the misapplication, but don't condemn or toss away a life-saving principle.

In the past year, we saw at least two highly publicized incidents in the news that depicted officer encounters with subjects armed with edged weapons. Once again, the biased news media immediately condemned the officers involved. Rather than recognize the limitations of video coverage, the media was quick to proclaim officers murdered innocent men armed only with a knife.

What we didn't see in the coverage of these incidents was how many times the application of the 21-foot rule has saved an officer's life. If we exposed all reporters to mandatory scenario-based interactive training, they might begin to understand that a doped up subject with mental illness, armed with a knife, is a real lethal threat. PERF should respect that and seek to promote principles that enhance officer safety, not jeopardize officers by reinforcing the media belief that knife-wielding subjects are not a danger to officers because officers have guns.

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Comments (7)

Displaying 1 - 7 of 7

Wayne Rausch @ 5/17/2016 8:51 AM

The 21 foot rule does not dictate any necessary justification of deadly force, but rather does remind officers of the danger they face with suspects armed with knives. As a law enforcement officer with over 32 years experience, the last 12 as the elected Sheriff, and a POST certified firearms instructor with over 25 years of experience, I still teach this and will continue to do so. This article is spot on.

tom @ 5/31/2016 11:40 AM

I have taught self defense to both POs and civilians for many years. The Tueller drill is something we taught, as an example of what could happen to an officer or armed citizen when attacked by a person with a knife. Very few people could get off a shot, before being stabbed. Even then, a shot from any handgun, will very rarely result in an immediate stop. This is a guideline not a hard fast rule. Learn from it, and pay attention to your surroundings. This is just simple survival skills 101.

DON F. PEYTON @ 5/31/2016 1:16 PM


Vern Rochon @ 5/31/2016 8:26 PM

Sidearm draw and fire in response to a fast-lunge, 21-foot attack by a hostile with a sharp force weapon takes TIME to execute and TIME to take effect. I'm sure you all know that hostiles don't just drop to the floor as soon as they're hit by a bullet as if someone threw a switch -- they can do a lot of damage between injury and incapacitation.

Consider this: direct, physical interception of an incoming hostile using a low-line kick to the knee or thigh as soon as he is within range. Sure, you *may* get stabbed in the leg but this tactic will certainly buy you more time and distance to draw and fire. If you don't, you will probably get stabbed anyway and perhaps not just in the leg.

Mike Doyle @ 6/3/2016 8:57 AM

The article is tactically correct. The only difference is that most of the shootings of suspects armed with edged weapons, the officers have their guns out and there were multiple officers shooting. I agree don't dismiss the rule.

Randy @ 6/3/2016 9:28 AM

I agree with continuing to teach the concept as Jon articulates. What I would like to see is a complete discontinuance of the phrase "21-foot rule" by trainers, officers, and PIOs. Case in point, this author used it 10 times in this short article. We need to stop repeating our own habits that cause us grief. Use of the term "Tueller Drill" is more functional because it preserves the concept and allows trainers to work with students at multiple distances rather than feeding the media a specific distance. Ideally would be calling the training concept something more appropriate like "Response Ranges" and run the scenario at distances from 10' to 35' so students have a broad understanding of what works under varying conditions.

Chad @ 6/3/2016 1:42 PM

The leader of PERF is a fraud! He had never been a cop but wants law enforcement officials to think he is an expert. He has taken this public position to be in good favor with the current administration so he can take in millions in grant money. Real cops blood spilled by a fraudster for his personal gain.

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