Reactionary gap: A new look at an old concept

Could arms-length positioning be safer than the traditionally-accepted six-to eight-foot reactionary gap that’s been used in police training for decades?


Whether you make a consensual contact, conduct a traffic stop, or respond to a call for service, you will most likely end up talking to someone face to face. To conduct this interview, you learned a basic principle in the academy called the reactionary gap.

Just so we are on the same page, the reactionary gap is the distance between you and an “unarmed” — or not visibly armed — subject during the interview process. Most defensive tactics systems teach that you should be between six and eight feet from the subject with your hands up in a good bladed stance. The purpose of the gap is to allow you the time to react if the subject becomes violent and attacks. This appears to make sense on the surface. 

An Unfortunate Contradiction
Most defensive tactics instructors teach basically the same concepts for the reactionary gap. The officer should have their hands up in at least a ready position or even a higher defensive position if they’re not writing. This is to protect against an attack. The instructors also tell students to maintain their reactionary gap so they can respond when attacked.

The question: Why do we need the distance to react to an attack if our hands are up and we are being aware? The answer: officers do not keep their hands up as instructed. You can watch any number of YouTube videos of police officer fights, and many of them start with the officer having their hands down, then getting hit.

Teaching officers to have hands up to counter an attack, and teaching to be six to eight feet away from the subject to counter an attack is a contradiction. It confuses students and lulls them into a fall sense of security. The students believe that if they are at the appropriate distance, then the subject can’t hurt them. That’s why they put their hands down. This is the first problem with teaching the “traditional” reactionary gap.

The second potential problem comes from the mindset that it creates. Since the officer is so far from the subject, the officer will retreat when the subject makes an aggressive move. When the subject attempts to strike or reaches for a weapon, the officer will usually step backward.

An Attempted Experiment
In an attempt to test a theory, I have conducted hundreds of scenarios using Airsoft guns where the officer approaches a suspicious person. The only direction the officer is given is that they are investigating a suspicious incident.

As the officer begins the contact, the subject becomes verbally hostile, making threats to harm the officer. During the scenario, 95 percent of the officers stand six to eight feet away, or greater, in a traditional reactionary gap. When the subject reaches for a weapon in the front of his waistband, all of those officers step back, while reaching for their firearms.

All of the officers in these scenarios get shot either as they were drawing or before they could draw their firearms. Some of the officers did draw their firearms and get a shot or two off, but were still shot by the subject. Many of the officers’ shots hit the ground or missed the suspect. Even if the officers’ shots hit the suspect it resulted in mutual injuries. Hopefully the vest will save the officer, but I don’t put much faith in hope.

None of the officers won this encounter outright.  The only officers that did win the scenario approached the suspect and stopped about one arm’s length arm. As the suspect reached for the weapon, the officers advanced and grabbed the suspect’s reaching hand. While grabbing the suspect, some of the officers drew their firearms, some tackled the suspect and some pushed the suspect backward while they drew their firearms and got off line. The bottom line was these officers did not get shot and put themselves in a position of advantage to deal with the suspect.

FBI LEOKA Statistics
The above scenario started after examining the FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted statistics. Their researched shows the following for a 10 year period from 1996 to 2006, in which there were 562 officers killed. 

Officers’ Weapon Use

Officers fired their weapons 124
Attempted to use their weapons* 86
Officers did not use or attempt to use their weapons 275

* unsnapped, unholstered, or drew their weapons but did not fire

Distance Between Officer and Offender

Officers killed by gunfire 521
0-5 feet  263
6-10 feet  96
11-20 feet  60
21-50 feet 42
Over 50 feet  39
Not Reported 21

 

Disposition of Known Assailants 1995 to 2004
Number of Assailants 699
Killed by victim officer 26

I believe that there are two major training factors that contribute to the above statistics. The first is the traditional reactionary gap. Of the 532 officers killed, 370 were killed within zero to 10 feet. I believe many of these deaths resulted from officers backing away while trying to our draw a gun that is being drawn.

We all understand the reaction time principles, and as a result, there is no way an officer can out draw a gun that is being drawn. As further illustrated, 368 officers where either unable to draw their firearms or if they did draw, they were unable to fire at the suspect. Now, the numbers are not broken down into the distances the officers where at in the Use of weapons graph. Many officers outside the 10 foot mark may be in the 368 number. I do know that when I run the scenario almost all of the officers react the same.  

Another very discouraging statistic is the last table. Of the 662 offenders that murdered 532 officers, only 26 of the officers were able to kill their murderer. Again the FBI charts do not detail which officer killed their assailant or at what distances.

I believe the second major factor in the above numbers is the concept of disengagement or lack of aggression. Now, I am not trying to say that you should stay in a fight or a confrontation without transitioning to your tools if you are losing or if that is the best option. But what I see is students being taught to disengage and transition to tools as soon as the subject resists. What happens when the subject’s resistance is reaching for a weapon? In the table above, 270 officers were murdered from zero to five feet.

This is usually the space when an officer is making an arrest. I have seen on numerous occasions when an officer attempts to arrest a subject, the officer grabs hold, the subject starts to resist, the officer then let’s go and reaches for their tools. If those subjects were reaching for a weapon, they may be able to out draw and kill or seriously injure the officer. Instead of simply disengaging, the officer needs to change the subject’s mind. The officer can do this by striking, distracting or taking the balance of the resisting subject.

I feel that if we make two changes in our philosophies we would be able to reduce the above numbers.  These changes will not be easy, and there will be great rebuttal, but it needs to be done. As evidence, the above numbers are close in any given decade.

My question here: How long have we been teaching the six- to eight-foot reactionary gap? I would venture to say for several decades. I know it has being taught in Florida for more than twenty years. If it is such a good tactic, then why are officers still being killed?

Please don’t misconstrue my statements — I’m not blaming the officers or the trainers. I just think the tactic needs to be reexamined.

Some Changes to Consider
The first change is to decrease the reactionary gap to one arm’s length. By being closer, the officer would be able to move forward and stop the subject from drawing their weapon or generating power in a punch.

You may be saying, “If I stand closer, the subject may punch me.”

That’s only a valid argument if your hands are down. If you keep your hands up, then the subject probably will not punch at you. Even if they do throw a punch, you will be able to deal with it effectively. Also, by being closer, if the subject that does punch at you, he will not be able to get his hips behind the punch. By not using his hips, the punch will be much weaker. It also makes it much harder to be tackled if you are close. 

I have put this theory to work on the street. I have noticed that if I, or my squad members, stand closer to the subject, the subject starts reacting to us. I can see in their eyes and their body language that they’re thinking “Why is this guy so close to me.” Being closer throws the reaction time principles to your favor. They are reacting to you.

The second change is to teach officers to be more assertive. If we can train officers to disengage and escalate to weapons, then we can teach them to be assertive and engage.  Now many of you are saying “this newer generation has never been in a fight before.” I hear that all the time from the trainers I teach. I will deal with teaching to the newer generation in a later article, but for now my answer to that statement is so what? If your boss hires them, and you’re a trainer, it’s your job to train them.

Don’t complain about what they don’t know. Here’s a Yogi Berra statement which fits in this circumstance: “None of us knew anything before we learned it.”

Your younger students are just be behind the curve. Put them in training scenarios that are safe but stressful — make them learn how to defend themselves.

By teaching more assertive strategies, our officers will understand that they are better prepared to take control sooner and safer. As I said earlier, it will take stressful training to get your officers to accept these concepts. Their natural tendency will be to keep distance. But if you demonstrate that the suspect can draw a weapon and there is nothing they can do about it, they will start to understand why being closer could be safer. Also by throwing “sucker” punches at them when they are at distance. They will realize that the punches are much harder to stop when the suspect gets their hips behind the punch.

I know the above theories may be a radical departure from the norm, but I don’t think the norm is doing the job. When 532 officers are murdered, only 126 are able to fire at the person who murdered them, and only 26 offenders were killed by the victim officer, a change may be needed.

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