Blue Line


August 23, 2013  By Aaron White

699 words – MR

Responding to edged weapons
Time to visualize and animate the 21-foot rule

by Aaron White

The Yatim shooting in Toronto once again thrust police use of force and an officer’s response to the threat of edged weapons back into the spotlight.


As a use of force trainer I see every officer experience level in a variety of scenarios and hear every type of justification for the various responses to all levels of threat.

Officers watching news coverage of Yatim and other high profile use of force incidents worry about having similar scrutiny applied to them. This is worrisome in the sense that I would rather not have police officers running through their own trial by public opinion while on the streets in the moment. They need to be fully present to ensure their safety.

Most police who watch incident videos can name things they would do differently and critique actions. Sometimes they agree with the officers they view and other times they are shocked. It is never a universal response.

The reason for this, of course, is that we all have different experiences and internal dialogues. We don’t hear, smell and feel what that officer is experiencing so sometimes we immediately agree and other times we are skeptical.

Having watched and discussed one of the more recent high profile incidents in the bull pen with my coworkers I decided to conduct a quasi scientific poll/scenario. I had police officers of various levels of experience demonstrate their “comfort level” for edged weapons.

The experience of officers I polled varied from one year of service to about ten years, with varied tactical and investigative backgrounds. All could describe the “21 foot rule” in basic terms and generally placed the threat distance between 20 and 30 feet – but all agreed that at 20 feet an edged weapon in the hands of a motivated person presented a clear and present danger.

My point isn’t to rehash the 21 foot rule or its accuracy, nor to convert it to 6.4 metres for the generation raised on metric measurement. All law enforcement agencies can parrot the rule and its variants. The point of my experiment was to see what officers actually do, rather than say, when the rubber hits the road.

I had officers first stand, firearm holstered and explain the 21 foot rule to the best of their recollection. Afterwards I had them visually place an adversary with a knife at the closest distance they would be confident in dealing with them – where they believed they could draw and shoot before the threat could make contact. They didn’t have a measuring tape and so had to eyeball it.

All the officers gave the 21 foot rule in its basic sense, at least outlining the distance they had been taught in training within which an edged weapon would present a threat – the closest response was 20 feet. The real concern arose during the practical exercise. The average distance where officers placed the armed assailant was 16 feet. The closest was 11(!) feet and the farthest 17.

The officers could tell me the minimum distance they had been taught, but when asked to put it in practice, in the most extreme case, they halved the distance. Not one was able to draw and shoot the assailant before he could get the knife to them. All would have suffered grievous injuries.

Each officer was startled by the results, indicating they had been taught the rule of thumb but because they never had actually seen what the “reactionary gap” looked like, did not have a visual reference for the setup. In other words, their internal rule sets hadn’t actually seen 21 feet in practice.

Police trainers should ensure they provide visual experience rather than just a verbal explanation. During scenario training it may be beneficial to discuss and show actual distances to reinforce the visual land marking.

Of course it must be pointed out that a good portion of our interactions take place indoors and well within 21 feet. The 21 foot rule should be used to emphasize respect for the edged weapon rather than the hard and fast “rule” it has devolved into.

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