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Choking Dobermans, alligators in the sewer and the 21-Foot Rule

By Dave Smith, Street Survival Seminar Instructor

One of the toughest scenarios in law enforcement is when a subject with a knife is within 21 feet of an officer. Calibre Press pioneered the development of the 21-Foot Rule and it is a concept that we address in the Street Survival Seminar. The 21-Foot Rule applies to every officer and is perhaps one of the most demonstrated and effective officer survival teaching points in academies everywhere. An assailant is placed seven yards, or 21 feet, from a cadet with a holstered training weapon. The trainer charges the student with a training knife, and the trainees watching are always amazed that the assailant usually gets to the cadet before the weapon can even be drawn, much less rounds fired!

During the past several years an urban legend has grown that Calibre Press and the Street Survival Seminar teach officers to shoot any subject with a knife within 21 feet. We are not sure how this legend developed, but it has been something I have heard for seven years as general manager and more recently as lead instructor for Calibre. Perhaps it comes from the expert-witness work we have conducted defending officers in cases where they ended up using deadly force or a lack of understanding of the rule. It is almost needless to say, but we don't teach officers to draw and shoot anyone with a knife within 21 feet ... that would make every lunch you have at a restaurant a bloodbath.

I'll bet 99 percent of the academies in America show the 21-Foot Rule in officer survival training. The lesson is: Don't stand there with your hands at your side facing an edged weapon; put an obstacle between you and it, and draw your weapon, because this is a deadly threat and you must reduce your reaction time!

For me, this rule usually comes up when a reporter calls and complains that a local officer just shot an emotionally disturbed person who was charging him with a knife. It goes something like this: The reporter says the EDP was eight feet away when the officer shot and certainly could have "just run away or shot him in the leg, or shot the knife out of his hand" or some other weird solution that reporters provide for what law enforcement officers should do.

I then try and explain that the knife is a deadly weapon, and that as police officers, we can't just run away from the incident. I also point out that shooting to wound is not an option, since it probably won't work because we might miss and hit innocents. Legally when we employ our firearms, we are lawfully attempting to cause death or serious bodily injury to the subject. We are shooting to stop the threat and center mass is where that is done — period.

Frankly, at this point, we don't care whether the subject lives or dies, we are stopping a threat to ourselves and others. We don't shoot to wound or kill we shoot to stop! Actually, I tell the reporters that it is the individual attacking the officer who decides whether they get shot or not!

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