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Does The 21-Foot Rule In Policing Endanger Individual Rights?


Police walk a thin line between protecting the public from danger, giving suspects a fair shake and the benefit of the doubt in a questionable situation, and getting themselves home in one piece after every shift. They undergo rigorous training in tactical awareness and defensive tactics that is aimed at achieving safe outcomes in all encounters—but some of that training has come under question of late.  One particularly dubious notion is  the 21-foot rule.

Understanding the 21-foot Rule 

A Salt Lake City officer conducted some informal research and concluded that an assailant could reach an officer before said officer could unholster a firearm if the two were within 21 feet of one another. Tueller had his conclusions developed into a training video that is now used across the country to prepare law enforcement for potentially dangerous encounters.

Why It’s a Problem 

Unfortunately, it is feared that the concept has been more deadly than necessary.  Officers have been told that 21 feet is the limit to exercising deadly force, and that notion exists subliminally, if not consciously. They’ve been led to understand that a suspect who is in possession of a knife, for example, could pose a deadly threat at that distance, and feel justified in using deadly force, even if it may not be necessary. 

The “Reactive Gap” 

Experts who question the 21-foot rule note that rather than teaching officers a concrete “rule” that lethal force is justified at 21 feet, it makes more sense to help them understand the reactive gap. For any given officer in any given scenario, the reaction time will be different.  It seems logical that officers who rely on perceptions, defensive tactics, and surrounding factors, rather than simply resorting to deadly force at the 21-foot line would save lives. 

Don’t Shoot! 

Instead of responding to threats with gunfire, are there other reasonable options? After all, primary response tactics are also taught in police academies countrywide.  Why not emphasize the need to evaluate key factors—the assailant, the threat, and the delivery system—in order to get a non-lethal outcome?  There are other tools-0-besides their sidearm– in an officers’ toolbox. In addition to tasers and mace, officers should utilize position and distance in threatening situations.  Situational awareness, communication skills, and other defensive tactics should be heavily relied upon rather than simply shooting because a suspect is within the 21-foot range.

When “Justice” isn’t Just 

The experienced Miami criminal defense attorneys at The Law Office of Julia Kefalinos understand the need for law enforcement to protect individual rights at all times. If the 21-foot rule led to the sacrifice of those rights for you, we can help. Schedule a confidential consultation in our office today.

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The Law Office of Julia Kefalinos, Attorney, P.A. is located in Miami, FL and serves clients in and around Miami, Key Biscayne, North Miami Beach, Opa Locka, Hallandale, Hollywood and Broward County.

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