Disability and Policing: Knives and the Myth of the 21 Foot Rule

Reminder for Chicagoans: Tonight at 5 at Truman College – testify about police killings of people with disabilities. Stephon Watts; Laquan McDonald; so many more. Facebook event page here.


NOTE: Post below has been edited for tone and clarity (9:30 7/12)

Police killed a man armed with a knife in Sacramento on Monday. It’s the kind of daily killing of a person with a disability that I’ve been tracking for years now. On average, there’s one or two nationwide every day. Sometimes, probably mostly, the officers perform admirably but still have to use lethal force. Sometimes the officers perform poorly but legally and use lethal force. Sometimes the officers perform poorly and illegally – though they may not be held accountable – and use lethal force. I do not know the details of this case, yet.

Here’s the story. I want to just focus on our language around knives.

William Portanova, a Sacramento defense attorney and former state and federal prosecutor, said officers confronted with deadly force such as a knife are “immediately authorized” to use deadly force.

Someone with a knife even 20 feet away can quickly close that gap, he said, while less-lethal alternatives like a nightstick or Taser only work at such close range.

“Both require being closer than might be safe and neither one of them is guaranteed to stop the threat,” said Portanova, who has previously represented officers involved in shootings. “The choices that an officer has to make in this situation are made in fraction of a second and examined, potentially, for years.”

[EditedThis statement that the presence of a knife within 20 feet automatically justifies the use of lethal force emerges from the “21-foot rule.” It turns out that according to many experts in use of force, it’s not a rule at all.

Developed in the 80s, the 21-foot rule proposes that a person with a knife  can travel 21 feet and stab an officer before they can draw their gun and fire.

[edited] Although certainly true in specific cases, it’s not a rule. What it is,  according to numerous police experts, is it’s a mytha myth, and a myth. Sometimes you need more than 21 feet to be safe. Sometimes, you need no distance at all to be safe. It’s all situational. Moreover, I’ve been seeing the 21-foot “rule” applied to other weapons too: a camera, handcuffs, a radio, a flashlight, pen-knives, a screwdriver, and so forth.

Quotes from the above articles (all from law enforcement writers):

From PoliceMag:

Actually, there are no forensically proven facts that I am aware of that specifically verify or conclusively establish that a suspect armed with an edged weapon will more likely than not be able to seriously injure or kill an officer armed with a sidearm on all occasions and circumstances. The truth is that the 21-Foot Rule should not be considered to be an absolute rule at all because there are too many variables involved at this point to call it a “rule.” Let’s discuss them.

From Cop in the Hood: (CW: Ableist language)

Here’s the thing: most people police face with knifes are not well trained in “edged-weapon combat.” They are A) crazy or B) cutting up their loved one. Sometimes both. But police rarely if ever face a trained evil ninja out to assassinate a police officer caught unaware (honestly, there are far easier ways to assassinate a police officer, if you so choose). So basically you have this whole police paranoia based on a situation thatnever happens.

I checked Officer Down and, since 2000, could find just four officers on patrol killed by an assailant with a bladed weapon: one domestic, one EP (aka: EDP or mental case), and two fatal fights after a foot pursuit. As you might guess, not one of these assailants was an a trained stealth ninja.

From PoliceOne:

The 21-Foot Rule was formulated by timing subjects beginning their headlong run from a dead stop on a flat surface offering good traction and officers standing stationary on the same plane, sidearm holstered and snapped in. The FSRC has extensively measured action and reaction times under these same conditions. Among other things, the Center has documented the time it takes officers to make 20 different actions that are common in deadly force encounters. Here are some of the relevant findings that the FSRC applied in reevaluating the 21-Foot Rule:

Note – this last piece emphasizes that sometimes you need MORE than 21-feet. It’s a very pro-cop site helping cops learn how to justify the use of lethal force. But even it debunks this myth.

The presence of a knife, on its own, cannot justify the use of lethal force. It’s one of the most common ways in which people with disabilities are killed, rather than stunned, disarmed, talked down, given space and time to calm down, or otherwise engaged in a non-lethal way.

The 21-foot rule is a myth that gets disabled people killed.

Leave a Reply