WASHINGTON — 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 high-profile 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 number 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.”
Mr. Wexler’s group will meet with hundreds of police leaders in Washington this week 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. While the Justice Department and chiefs of some major police departments are supportive, the effort has not been widely embraced, at least so far. Some police unions and others have expressed skepticism, saying officers are being unfairly criticized.
“All this chatter just increases the idea that these encounters are avoidable and law enforcement is at fault,” said Jeff Roorda of the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, who said officers already thought about ways to avoid confrontations.
The typical police cadet receives about 58 hours of training on how to use a gun and another 49 hours on defensive tactics, according to a recent survey by Mr. Wexler’s group. By comparison, cadets spend just eight hours learning to calm situations before force is needed, a technique called de-escalation.
“Everything now is: You get there, you see a guy with a knife, you resolve it,” said Mr. Wexler, a former senior Boston police officer. In many situations, he said, officers who find themselves 21 feet from a suspect can simply take a step backward to buy themselves time and safety.
Mr. Tueller’s article never proposed a bright line between a shooting that was justified and one that was not. In a telephone interview, Mr. Tueller, 63, said he had simply wanted to warn officers that they might be in danger far sooner than they realized. Twenty-one feet as a justification for shooting, he said, just became a “sticky idea” in policing.
The Dallas police chief, David O. Brown, said at a policing conference in February: “Sometimes it seems like our young officers want to get into an athletic event with people they want to arrest. They have a ‘don’t retreat’ mentality. They feel like they’re warriors and they can’t back down when someone is running from them, no matter how minor the underlying crime is.”
Those remarks came just weeks before a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder for shooting an unarmed man in the back. The officer had stopped the man, Walter L. Scott, because of a broken brake light. When Mr. Scott ran, the officer gave chase, even though he had Mr. Scott’s driver’s license.
“In most cases, time is on our side,” Chief Whent, of Oakland, said in an interview. “We’re chasing someone whose name we know, and we know where they live.”
Oakland, a city that is still working to repair its troubled history of police bias and abuse, now prohibits officers from chasing suspects alone into yards or alleys if they might be armed. All officers, new and current, receive training that emphasizes smart decision-making. After averaging about eight police shootings annually for many years, the city had none last year and cut in half the number of times officers drew their guns, Chief Whent said.
Whether a shooting is justified often hinges on the fraction of a second before the officer fires. In Cleveland in November, officers thought that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was wielding a pistol, not realizing he was playing with a replica. In Ferguson, Mo., an officer said he killed Michael Brown, 18, last summer because Mr. Brown had lunged at him after a scuffle through the window of his cruiser. In Seattle, the officer who shot the woodcarver said that the man had refused to drop the knife and that he had struck a “very confrontational posture.”
But earlier decisions can also be critical. In Cleveland, officers pulled their cars extremely close to Tamir, immediately increasing the possibility of a confrontation. In Ferguson, the officer, Darren Wilson, got out of his car after the tussle and pursued Mr. Brown alone. In Seattle, internal investigators chastised the officer, Ian Birk, for approaching the armed man and then using the 21-foot rule to justify shooting him.
“Officer Birk created the situation which he claims he had to use deadly force to get out of,” a police review board concluded. The officer resigned.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York announced a new training program for the Police Department in December as the city faced waves of protests over the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after a police chokehold. Seattle, which is under federal supervision after a Justice Department civil rights investigation, recently announced that its officers would also receive new training.
Mr. Tueller, the retired Salt Lake City instructor, said that he supported improving police training, but that officers were being unfairly blamed for the recent spate of fatal shootings. Most, if not all, would have been avoided if the suspects had obeyed orders, he said.
“We can’t get in people’s heads, and we can’t change behavior in many situations,” he said. “If they don’t comply, the officer has to have options. De-escalation is fine, to a point.”
Teaching officers to hesitate, Mr. Tueller said, could put them in danger.
That focus on officer safety has underpinned many of the United States’ police policies, but Mr. Wexler argues that it is a false choice. Officers in Britain, most of whom do not carry guns and typically face fewer suspects with firearms than some American police officers do, regularly confront suspects carrying knives, as do their counterparts here. British officers follow what is known as the National Decision Model, which emphasizes talking, patience and using no more force than necessary.
No police officer in England has died from a weapon attack during the past two years, according to the most recent published data, and none have been involved in fatal shootings during that period. (Officers with guns back up those who do not carry them.)
But Mr. Wexler acknowledged that changes in policing would be slow. “Not everybody’s going to accept it,” he said. “We’re asking them to rethink in a major way things they have done for 20 years.”