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November 10, 2007
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Jim Glennon Surviving the Streets
with Jim Glennon

Training outside the box to win lethal confrontations

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)

Dave Smith, the Senior Instructor for Calibre Press, and one of the most prolific law enforcement writers and tacticians in the business, recently wrote an article that attempted to dismiss a myth that has been perpetuated by many over the years. That myth deals with the venerable “21-Foot Rule.” Recognized by nearly everyone in the law enforcement profession, the rule, as Dave pointed out, has been widely misinterpreted. 


(AP Photo/Mike Derer)
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the rule, it addresses defeating a knife attack, and it accurately points out the following important fact:  An average subject armed with a knife and charging at an average police officer can cover a distance of 21 feet in less time than it takes that officer to recognize the threat, draw his/her firearm, locate center mass, and fire rounds at the target.

The myth is that the rule advocates that when a subject wielding an edged weapon is positioned at any distance less than 21 feet from an officer, that officer can justifiably shoot the person with the knife. 

Hopefully the vast majority of officers recognize that this myth is exactly that — a myth. The 21-Foot Rule never was intended to convey that message. Dave Smith, in his article, pointed out this fact. He clarified that, without further variables such as: charging, verbal/nonverbal indications of intent to attack, the ability to carry out the threat, etc., then deadly force is most certainly not justified.

In addition to Dave Smith’s efforts, the Force Science Research Center (FSRC) at Minnesota State University-Mankato headed by Director Dr. Bill Lewinski reexamined the 21-Foot Rule in 2005.  They examined the rule from multiple perspectives.  As always the research was exceptional and their findings are a must read for everyone in law enforcement. Among many other aspects of knife attacks the FSRC measured action and reaction times of live subjects. They tested how long it took the average officer to draw from a snapped Level II holster and fire one, two, and three rounds at center mass. The fastest officer required 1.31 seconds to draw and get off one round.  The slowest officer tested required 2.25 seconds to do the same. 

Their tests also revealed that “the average suspect with an edged weapon raised in the traditional "ice-pick" position can go from a dead stop to 21 feet on a level, unobstructed surface offering good traction in 1.5-1.7 seconds.”

What does this all mean?  Simple: a committed offender with an intention to stab a police officer has a distinct advantage when in a position that is closer than 21 feet. Their will to kill, as well as their lack of conscience, morals, and ethics, enables their predatory behavior to emerge making for a very dangerous individual. 

So how is it that you prepare, as a police officer, to deal with such a person and perilous event? 

In the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar, one of the twelve blocks of instruction deals with surviving edged weapons attacks. As an instructor, I usually ask one of the rookies in the audience this question: “What would you do if a subject wielding a knife charges you with the intent to inflict bodily harm?” 

The answer from the young officers is almost always the same: “I’d shoot him.”

The follow-up question offered to the entire audience is: “Is that the correct answer?”  A majority of the audience, almost in unison, shouts out, “Yes!”  And they, as we point out, are correct — well, at least partly correct.

What is the problem with the answer and the accompanying thought process, that when attacked by someone with a knife you can, and should, use your firearm?  I don’t ask that from a legal standpoint.We all understand the multiple variables that tie in with any use of force decision. No, the question is meant to be from a more tactical and practical perspective.

If the predetermined tactical response in the brain of a police officer is:  knife attack = firearm; then that officer may be setting him/herself up for a fatal failure. And this is where the 21-Foot Rule, as well as instinctive personal protective behavior, comes into play.

As researched by many (in particular the latest studies by the FSRC), in the best circumstances, a police officer seeing a person, recognizing that the subject has a knife, analyzing whether there is an overt threat or not, then drawing, pointing, and firing takes between 1.31-2.25 seconds.  An average suspect remember, according to the FSRC, “can go from a dead stop to 21 feet on a level, unobstructed surface offering good traction in 1.5-1.7 seconds (FSRC study).”  So it is simple math.  If your only thought in an edged weapon situation is, "They display knife = I pull my gun," then you will probably lose. This explains why the audience response is only partly correct.

Consider the natural human response to attack. The most common are backing up or freezing in place. Neither, I think we can agree, is conducive to winning when faced with a charging miscreant who is wielding a knife. 

So how, as officers, do we begin to plan for winning knife assaults?

First, accept that your instinctive response may be disabling. So plan for what it is you must do, not what you unconsciously will do. Retrain the brain. Pre-load and visualize your tactical response.  Most experts advocate that as the attacker closes in a step ninety degrees from the line of that attacker (lateral movement) will force him to slow as he reassesses and makes a physical correction in mid-attack. 

Second: practice! How often do any of us practice moving, drawing, and firing our handguns? Not often. In fact I know range officers who are scared to death to let anyone move out of the “range booth” with an un-holstered firearm; loaded or unloaded. Moving and shooting? Out of the question!

But in real life that is exactly what should and will happen. Recognize the threat, draw, find the target, move, shoot, find cover or totally engage your attacker and win. The alternative, reinforced in training is:  Stand still right in front of your assailant/target, attempt to draw, aim and fire. Whether facing a knife or a gun, this type of behavior will almost assuredly get a police officer killed. 

So think outside that proverbial box and visualize and practice for winning lethal confrontations. In the Street Survival Seminars we, unfortunately, show video after video of officers getting killed for responding exactly the way they have been trained:  stand on the seven-yard line, draw, aim, and shoot. It is up to each officer to understand the true reality of facing a subject with a knife who is intent on doing them harm. For no matter what happens in the video game version of such events, in real life, you and your family get but one chance to get it right. 

About the author

Lt. Jim Glennon, the third generation in a family of law enforcement officers, was with the Lombard, Ill. Police Department since 1980. Finishing his career as a Commander Jim held positions as a patrol officer, detective, sergeant, and Commander of the Investigations Unit. In 1998 he was selected as the first Commander of Investigations for the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes (Homicide) Task Force. Jim instructs various courses for both law enforcement and private industry. He specializes in teaching courses in two fields: Communication (Arresting Communication), and Leadership (Finding the Leader in You: The More Courageous Path).

He is the author of the book: ARRESTING COMMUNICATION: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement published by PoliceOne and Calibre Press, and available for purchase from PoliceOne Books.

Contact Jim Glennon


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