Don’t Ban the “21-Foot Rule”

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 Dennis Tueller, but it is entirely unjustifiable to dismiss it as an "outdated concept."

Jon Adler, President, Federal Law Enforcement Officers AssociationJon 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 "It also characterized the "21-foot rule" as an outdated concept.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 Dennis Tueller, but it is entirely unjustifiable to dismiss it as an "outdated concept."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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