After a Salt Lake City police officer asserted in the early 1980s 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 “21-foot rule” became dogma. The New York Times says it has been taught in police academies, accepted by courts and cited by officers to justify countless shootings. Now, amid the largest national debate over policing since the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, a 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 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, Ca. 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, he said.
Today, crime is at historic lows and most cities are safer than they have been in generations. This should be a moment of high confidence in the police, said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum. Instead, 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,” Wexler said. “We've lost the confidence of the American people.” The forum will meet with hundreds of police leaders to call for a new era of training, one that replaces truisms such as the 21-foot rule with lessons on defusing tense situations and avoiding violent confrontations. Some police unions and others have expressed skepticism, saying police are being unfairly criticized.