Police services are overwriting an influential 1983 article that suggested a knife could be faster than a gun within that distance.
The title of an article published in 1983 in SWAT magazine asked a simple question: “How close is too close?”
When a police officer has an encounter with a person with a knife, distance is only one factor to consider when determining what to do next, and whether to use deadly force.
Nonetheless, the article was to become a kind of seminal text within policing circles, establishing the so-called — and to some, infamous — “21-foot rule.”
The rule is also referred to the “Tueller Drill,” after Dennis Tueller, the article’s author and a former firearms instructor with the police force in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In an effort to determine who is more likely to come out on top in a fight between a gun and an edged weapon, Tueller ran tests, showing that in the time it took for the officer to unholster a gun and shoot (about two seconds) a person with a knife can cover about 21 feet, or roughly six metres.
The take-away — that a knife may pose a more deadly threat than a gun within that 21-foot distance — was soon a doctrine incorporated into police curriculum throughout the U.S., and influenced police training culture in Canada. It is frequently referenced in court cases and coroner’s inquests, including the 2014 inquest into the shooting deaths of three mentally ill people by Toronto police officers.
The “21-foot rule” is not formally taught at any police service in Canada, according to Terry Coleman, a former Moose Jaw police chief who spent nearly three decades with the Calgary police and is now a public safety researcher and consultant.
But he said Canadian officers sometimes attend use-of-force training in the U.S., where the concept is still taught. (When his own officers asked Coleman about attending these sessions during his time as chief in Moose Jaw, he said he told them: “Not on your life.”)
“It’s a well-known concept in policing, and the danger of it is that there’s no science behind it,” he said.
The consequence is that officers may focus more on distance than anything else, and skip trying other tactics — such as attempting to talk the person down — and go straight for their gun once the person comes within a certain distance.
“The risk runs that no other option will be tried.”
Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash said the 21-foot rule is not taught at the Toronto police college, and that officers are instructed to treat each encounter “on its own unique facts” using six principles.
The six (6) principles are:
- time (try to buy it, often through communication),
- distance (try to get it, even if it means backing up),
- cover (try to take it),
- containment (try to keep the situation from spreading),
- communication (focusing on verbal de-escalation with the subject),
- teamwork (working with fellow officers).
That teaching is in line with 30 new guiding principles just released by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, DC-based police policy and research organization. The aim is to reduce police use of force against people who are not armed with firearms, such as those with knives.
The guidelines were based on years of work with hundreds of police officials, including national conferences and field work in Scotland, New York and Northern Ireland.
One of the guidelines explicitly calls for an end to the “outdated concept” of the 21-foot rule, replacing it instead with an emphasis on the principles of using distance, cover, and time.
In many situations where a suspect has a knife, officers should, whenever possible, try to get more time and develop a plan to deal with the situation without use of force.
“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,” the report states.