U.S. Police Departments to Begin Reconsidering Longstanding Rules on Using Force

Lt. Sekou Millington of the Oakland Police Department trained with a video simulation. He used his Taser to respond to a scenario where a woman stepped away from a man who was holding a large knife. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Lt. Sekou Millington of the Oakland Police Department trained with a video simulation. He used his Taser to respond to a scenario where a woman stepped away from a man who was holding a large knife. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

During a training course on defending against knife attacks, a young Salt Lake City police officer asked a question: “How close can somebody get to me before I’m justified in using deadly force?”

Dennis Tueller, the instructor in that class more than three decades ago, decided to find out. In the fall of 1982, he performed a rudimentary series of tests and concluded that an armed attacker who bolted toward an officer could clear 21 feet in the time it took most officers to draw, aim and fire their weapon.

The next spring, Mr. Tueller published his findings in SWAT magazine and transformed police training in the United States. The “21-foot rule” became dogma. It has been taught in police academies around the country, accepted by courts and cited by officers to justify countless shootings, including recent episodes involving a homeless woodcarver in Seattle and a schizophrenic woman in San Francisco.

Now, amid the largest national debate over policing since the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, a small but vocal set of law enforcement officials are calling for a rethinking of the 21-foot rule and other axioms that have emphasized how to use force, not how to avoid it. Several big-city police departments are already re-examining when officers should chase people or draw their guns and when they should back away, wait or try to defuse the situation.

“In a democratic society, people have a say in how they are policed, and people are saying that they are not satisfied with how things are going,” said Sean Whent, the police chief in Oakland, Calif. The city has a troubled history of police abuse and misconduct, but some policy changes and a new approach to training have led to sharp declines in the use of force, Chief Whent added.

Like the 21-foot rule, many current police practices were adopted when officers faced violent street gangs. Crime rates soared, as did the number of officers killed. Today, crime is at historic lows and most cities are safer than they have been in generations, for residents and officers alike. This should be a moment of high confidence in the police, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group. Instead, he said, policing is in crisis.

“People aren’t buying our brand. If it was a product, we’d take it out of the marketplace and re-engineer it,” Mr. Wexler said. “We’ve lost the confidence of the American people.”

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Source: The New York Times | 

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