The 21-foot Rule

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Roanoke (WSLS 10) -- New guidelines are putting pressure on police to adhere to a tougher standard when it comes to the use of force.  Issued by the Police Executive Research Forum on January 29, 2016, the standards call for a more "proportional" reaction from police to any given threat.  Even if the threat comes from someone armed with a knife.

For more than 30 years, the distance between a man with a knife and an officer with his gun in his holster has been considered "safe" at 21 feet.

Twenty one feet is closer than you think.

In a demonstration at the Roanoke Police Academy, we watched as a police training officer with a rubber knife repeatedly covered the 21 feet to another officer before the second officer could draw his gun and defend himself.

We asked the officer with the gun if he felt safe.

"Within 20 feet, no sir I did not," said officer Tim Knicely.

Like most police training centers around the nation, since the 1980's, police here teach something called "the 21 foot rule."

"It's just an estimate, there's no tape on the floor every day. But you get used to the distances that we communicate with people and the way we got to talk to people," said Sgt. Shannon Dillon, as he explained how officers are trained to know what is safe and what isn't.

"The 21 foot rule is essentially a training guide," explained Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall.

For good measure we also watched multiple demonstrations -- one in the middle of the training center gym.  You can see it play out, as a recruit from this year's class easily covers the 21 feet before the officer could draw and shoot him.  As in many of the cases it appears both men would be hurt in the encounter.

Police explain that reaction takes longer than action.  Something they call the "reaction gap."

We timed the video and it took just over 1.5 seconds for the guy with the knife to cover the distance.  In some cases, the officer draws and gets the shot off,  but he also gets stabbed.  Remember the bullet won't stop the man with the knife dead in his tracks.

We asked Hall, if the rule is 21 feet, why not shoot the man with the knife in order to protect the officer.

"Well that's not trying to do," he said.

There was a time when it was thought to be the preferred action in many parts of the country, but not necessarily in Roanoke County.

"Inside of 21-foot was the green light to go to your firearm,"  said Dillon. "And that's not the way we teach it. It's not the way it was actually meant to be."

"Our deadly force policy is that an officer can only use deadly force if there is an imminent threat of serious injury or death to the officer or to another person," said Hall.

That's a stricter guideline than some departments, and in line with the recommendations by PERF -- the Police Executive Research Forum... Which wants to close the gap between what is strictly legal for police and what the public expects of them.  In part because of public reaction to a number of police shootings in recent years.

The new policies say: New PERF Policies

"Agency use-of-force ... should go beyond the legal standard of ‘objective reasonableness'...  prosecutors and grand juries often find that a fatal shooting by an officer is not a crime, even though they may not consider the use of force proportional or necessary.

"Proportional" is the key word.  Policy three explains:

"In assessing whether a response is proportional, officers must ask themselves, ‘How would the general public view the action we took?  Would they think it was appropriate to the entire situation and to the severity of the threat posed to me or to the public?'"

Policy 16 even refers to the 21-foot rule as an "outdated concept" that "agencies should eliminate from their policies and training."

Hall attended the conference where the new policies were unveiled, and points out that as accredited departments, both Roanoke County and Roanoke were already doing much of what was recommended.

Often says Hall, it's as simple as the officer with the gun slowing things down.

So in our instance, the officer can simply back up -- giving himself more than 21 feet.  He can put something like a table or a car or even a wall between himself and the man...  Anything to prevent imminent danger to himself or an innocent bystander.

"The idea is that everybody involved in an instant goes home safely; the officer, the victim, witnesses and the subject," said Hall.

None of this changes the fact that legally if there's a man with a knife -- inside the so called safety zone of 21 feet, an officer may have only two seconds to make a decision.

About the Author:

John Carlin co-anchors the 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts on WSLS 10.