November 27, 2018

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Law Enforcement Officers and the 21-Foot Rule

Gordon Graham
Category: Law Enforcement

Gordon Graham here with Today’s Tip from Lexipol. Today’s tip is for custody and law enforcement professionals and it deals with our response to a suspect who is armed with an edged weapon.  

We must remember that the “21-foot rule” is not really a rule at all. 

You already know that a suspect with a knife or other edged weapon poses a serious threat. He or she can quickly turn any situation into a deadly encounter.  

Sometime early in my career, I heard of something called the 21-foot rule. The way I remember it, the 21-foot rule meant that a suspect could cover about 21 feet in the time it would take an officer to draw and fire a couple of rounds on target.  

I think it was a good way to help me understand some things about human movement and reaction time. I knew that I didn’t want to get too close to a person who was armed with a knife. I wanted to make sure that I had enough of a “reactionary gap.”  

But big problems have come from a  misunderstanding of the “21-foot rule.” We must remember that the “21foot rule is not really a rule at all.  

It does not mean that we must stay 21-feet away from anyone who might have a knife. In many circumstances, 21-feet might not be possible. And sometimes 21-feet might not actually be enough.  

It does not mean that you are automatically justified in shooting anyone with a knife who is less than 21 feet away. 

There are not really any simple bright-line rules for use of force or tactical decisions. But here are some helpful suggestions. Don’t rush in when there is no threat to human life. Summon additional resources when you can. Formulate a plan where possible. Approach the scene safely. Use appropriate tactics, including available cover and concealment. Avoid placing yourself unnecessarily in jeopardy. 

And please don’t write about a 21foot rule in your report and don’t expect that the “21-foot rule” will automatically justify your actions.  

That’s Today’s Tip from Lexipol. Gordon Graham, signing off.  

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