The Myth of the 21 Foot Rule
We have been burdened by the 21-foot rule for too long. It's time for it to go away.
Rethinking the 21-Foot Rule for Church Safety Ministries
When I was a rookie cop, just a few weeks off of training, I was sent to a family disturbance. When I arrived, a man stepped out onto the porch of the home holding a large butcher knife and yelled out, "KILL ME!" He jumped from the porch and started running at me with the butcher knife held high over his head in a striking position. I was on the sidewalk and started backpedaling into the street while drawing my handgun, a Sig Sauer P226. I was creating distance to give myself more time and for him to stop his advance.
Back up to a few months before when I was in the police academy. I was taught a myth called "The 21 foot rule." That "rule" had come out just 6 years before I started and was all the rage with police trainers. I was taught that this rule "allowed" me to shoot someone with a knife within 21 feet since they could easily kill me. If they were farther than 21 feet, I would not be allowed to shoot them. Seriously, I'm not kidding. When you are a young recruit, you take what is taught to you by your instructors like it is God's word brought down to you from the mountain by Moses.
Back to rookie me staring down at a man running full bore at me with a butcher knife ready to slash me. I actually tried to calculate where 21 feet would be as I was backpedaling. I lost valuable time trying to calculate where 21 feet was so I wouldn't get in trouble. I stopped, stood my ground and found my mark. I aimed at his chest, put my finger on the trigger, and started to take up slack on the trigger. The man stopped right at that mark I picked and gave up. He was a drug user that I dealt with for the rest of my career, but that was our first ever encounter with each other. We talked often about that day and he said he wasn't going to stab me, he was just trying to get attention from a girl inside. I would tell him every time we talked that he was lucky I was a dumb rookie with bad training because if that was veteran me, he would be dead today. I'm lucky that he didn't stab me and I didn't die. I went back and measured the point I felt was 21 feet. It was actually 12 feet from me. I still can't believe how lucky I was that day (and the perp who is now clean and trying to live a good life). I often told him that God had interceded in our encounter and he should be going to church and worshiping him every single day.
The fallacy of the 21-foot rule has kept up momentum and has now crept into church safety team ministries. I hear it often from our cohorts and they cannot believe it is a myth when I talk to them about it. Let's break it down.
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Origins and Misconceptions of the 21-Foot Rule | How Close is Too Close?
The "21-Foot Rule" originated from Sergeant Dennis Tueller of the Salt Lake City Police Department. His study revealed that an average person could cover 21 feet in 1.5 seconds - the same time it takes for someone to draw and fire a firearm. However, this has been mistakenly solidified into a rigid rule. For church security personnel, this misinterpretation can lead to either an overestimation or underestimation of a potential threat, especially regarding individuals within or beyond this 21-foot threshold.
Making the decision to use lethal force against a person wielding a knife involves a complex array of considerations. It's not just a matter of proximity; one must also assess the individual's proficiency with the weapon, any physical barriers in the environment, the potential time it would take for them to incapacitate following a gunshot, and whether they are under the influence of substances that might dull their response to being shot. With so many variables at play, the 21-foot rule alone cannot sufficiently guide such a critical decision.
Insights from the Tueller Drill
The Tueller Drill was not designed as a steadfast rule but as a training exercise to highlight the reaction times in confrontational situations. It’s crucial for church security teams to understand the essence of this drill: the balance between action and reaction. This understanding aids in developing strategies for various scenarios, including those involving an individual with an edged weapon.
I have done this drill with recruits and seasoned SWAT officers. I'll use either Simunition or air soft guns and, of course, proper safety equipment. I'll arm one person with a rubber knife and then have them charge a student who is standing, facing the role player, with his gun holstered. They will have to draw and fire on the role player before they are stabbed. This, of course, does not take into account a subject high on drugs, determined to commit a violent act, or the time it takes a suspect to bleed out. This is merely a drill to show how easy it is to be stabbed from various distances.
In a controlled training environment, reaction times can be measured and anticipated. However, real-life situations in a church setting bring additional variables: stress, the presence of a congregation, and the unpredictability of an assailant's actions. These factors can significantly alter the time needed to effectively respond to a threat.
Beyond the Measure of 21 Feet
The 21-foot measurement is a guideline, not a definitive rule for action. Church security personnel must assess each situation individually, considering that threats can emerge from various distances. It's important to understand that not every potential threat within this distance is immediate, and caution is needed to avoid overreacting.
Church security teams should undergo comprehensive training that goes beyond the basics of firearm handling. This training should include understanding the dynamics of movement, the importance of seeking cover, and the use of non-lethal options. Emphasizing these aspects in training prepares the team for diverse scenarios, promoting a safer environment for congregants.
Decisions regarding the use of force in a church environment should always consider the totality of the circumstances. Factors like the physical layout of the church, the nature of the perceived threat, and the presence of the congregation are critical. Understanding the principles behind the "21-Foot Rule" can assist church security teams in making informed decisions under pressure.
Embracing a Balanced Approach in Church Security Training
Understanding and applying the principles behind the "21-Foot Rule" in church security contexts requires a balanced approach. It's not just about distances but also about assessing situations, understanding potential threats, and training for a variety of scenarios. Church security teams play a vital role in ensuring the safety of congregations, and their preparation should reflect the complexities of real-life encounters.
We invite you to share your thoughts and experiences on this topic. Your insights are invaluable in enriching our understanding and approach to church security. Please leave your comments below.