Commentary: Should Police Rethink When to Use Force?

Baltimore Riot Police/ Wire Photo
Baltimore Riot Police/ Wire Photo

It is a key question that increasingly we have to address. The case of Walter Scott in South Carolina clearly illustrates a scenario where there is no justification for a use of force by the police – the suspect, unarmed is retreating.

There may be more question in the Ferguson case where the police officer, by most accounts, had a confrontation with Michael Brown, but even there Mr. Brown may have been 150 feet from the squad car when he was fatally shot. For the Grand Jury and the Justice Department, there was not enough to charge the officer with a crime, but could the death have been prevented?

That is one question that arises out of a report in the New York Times (Police Rethink Long Tradition on Using Force). They discuss the “21-foot rule” which arose more than 30 years ago when 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?”

The Times notes that Dennis Tueller, an instructor in a training course in the fall of 1982, “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.” He would publish his findings.

The Times writes, “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…”

However, “Now, amid the largest national debate over policing since the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, a small but 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.”

The question that many police departments are now looking at is when should officers pursue people or draw their guns, and when are they better off either backing away or trying to defuse the situation.

We have already had some discussion on this as the Davis Police Department, as articulated by Assistant Chief Darren Pytel, has talked about the importance of slowing things down and waiting rather than performing dynamic entries. Now police are questioning other situations as well.

“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, as reported in the Times article. That city is notorious for police abuse and misconduct, but has seen sharp declines in the use of force with policy changes and a new approach.

The Times writes, “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.”

The New York Times reports this: “The typical police cadet receives about 58 hours of training on how to use a gun and 49 hours on defensive tactics… By comparison, cadets spend just eight hours learning to calm situations before force is needed, a technique called de-escalation.”

Mr. Wexler, for instance, suggests that there are alternative ways to resolve issues. For instance, “officers who find themselves 21 feet from a suspect can simply take a step backward to buy themselves time and safety.”

In fact, Mr. Tueller’s 21-foot rule “even proposed a bright line between a shooting that was justified and one that was not.” Now 63, he told the Times “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 Times quoted Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who 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.”

Chief Whent of Oakland made a similar point to what we have made on the Vanguard: “In most cases, time is on our side. We’re chasing someone whose name we know, and we know where they live.”

In November of 2011, the community and nation watched in horror as the UC Davis Police pepper-sprayed seated protesters on the UC Davis Quad. Three months later, the protesters shut down the US Bank in the Memorial Union but, instead of confronting the protesters with police and arrest, the officers simply documented their offenses, forwarded them to the DA’s office, who issued summons notices. The arrestees were prosecuted without public incident.

In many cases where the perpetrator is resisting but does not represent a danger to the public or officer, the police could deescalate the situation by confronting them later.

The Times noted that Oakland’s efforts have worked: “All officers 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.”

The Times also notes, “Whether a shooting is justified often hinges on the fraction of a second before the officer fires.” They cite the case in Cleveland where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was wielding what turned out to be a toy gun.

Writes the Times, “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, 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…. 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.

The question I think we have to ask is whether we are training police officers correctly when they receive over 100 hours in tactical training, but less than 10 in training on how to de-escalate the situation. Almost all of the highly publicized officer-involved fatalities might have been preventable.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts


  1. hpierce

    David, if I were you (and, frankly I’m not) I’d have added that the “stop” would normally have resulted in a “fix-it ticket”.  The SC example is orders of magnitude more egregious than Ferguson or Trayvon/Zimmerman, (and, to a lesser extent Baltimore) situations, where degrees of culpability are arguably in play.  The SC situation is, thus far, unfathomable.

  2. Napoleon Pig IV

    Good observations, especially about priorities in training. I don’t think we need to provide less tactical training given the serious skill and physical competence needed to do the job of a police officer in those unpredictable situations that are potentially life-threatening to the officer. However, far more training on deescalation is certainly called for.

    Also called for is serious elimination of the use of police forces as a source of revenue to the government – whether through officially sanctioned crimes like civil forfeiture or enforcement of laws conveniently tied to fines. While we are at it, police should not be expected to enforce laws based on bankrupt paternalism and misguided pseudo-morality – like smoking the leaves of a native plant or providing said leaves to another for purposes of ingestion and recreation.

    However, we also must resist the temptation to conclude that a few bad cops are representative of the majority or that police work is easy, safe and completely predictable. Similar to the basis for 21-foot rule, this study is surprising and quite interesting – not really based on analysis of easily “deescalated” situations:


  3. sisterhood

    I wish the operation vigilence task force really thought through the excessive force they used when I did not answer my front door fast enough at 6:55 a.m as they were screaming
    “we’re going to kick it down”. I was getting dressed. I abondoned my work clothes and answered my door in a very sheer long cotton nightshirt and they handcuffed me immediately. I tell myself today that they were complimenting my physique, all those heavily armed officers were scared an unarmed 53 year old, slightly overweight, woman in a sheer cotton long tee shirt could take them down.

  4. Biddlin

    I am appalled by the demeanor and vocabulary of many police officers in their “normal” pursuit of duty. It often(usually) seems to inflame rather than defuse potentially hostile encounters. I was frankly amused at the body armour wearing task force officer Sacpd sent to threaten me for not playing nice, after being told that the police do not respond to home vandalism calls, unless the perpetrator(s) are still on scene, but I could call Monday through friday during normal business hours to make a report. I told the dispatcher, “No problem, I’ll take care of it myself.” while no officers were available to come out for my vandalism call, a jack-booted storm trooper showed up to intimidate me in a matter of a few minutes. Fire ’em all and contract out to private security services.


  5. TrueBlueDevil

    I think there are cases where negotiation and different tactics may be reasonable. I can think of a shooting of man with mental illness outside of the Metreon theaters in San Francisco years ago, surrounded by officers in the street, as one example. Certainly the case of the gentle giant on Staten Island deserves a lot of focus. Reasonable measures are welcome.

    But the Left continues to come to the defense of utterly poor examples like violent, dangerous felon Michael Brown which is as poor as making policy decisions based upon Twana Brawley. Yes, roughly 400 men may die in confrontations with police officers every year, just as 100 police officers die in the line of duty every year. The vast majority of these officer-involved killings are understandable, like the two terrorists who were stopped in Texas by one beat cop with a side arm. But officers being shot is not defensible.

    All of these cases exist in a large nation of over 300 million with a massive illegal drug trade and gangs galore, so I don’t think it is realistic that we will ever have a perfect or Utopian police force. Race is a subtext and a pretext to this discussion, but what is rarely discussed are the 300,000 – 400,000 black men who have died at the hands of other black men the past 30 – 40 years. That’s 10,000 black men a year killed, but liberal journalists want to focus on a minuscule subset of that.

    When a 300-pound man high on drugs decides to reach into your police car, take your gun, and try to kill you, I think all normal analogies and analysis are off the table. The vast majority of police officers never even discharge their gun once in their whole career!

    As the Black Men in America special on CSPAN discussed this past weekend, we should also look at the devastating effect of millions of young boys growing up without Fathers, and with surrogate male role models who carry a great deal of anger.

    Oakland is an incomplete city for comparison as it is vastly understaffed by police, and it lagged behind New York and others considerably in violent crime reduction. In 2013 its homicide total of 92 was proportionately much, much higher than New York City.

    Baltimore is a city which has been run by Democrats for over 70 years, yet it is a disaster. The dropout rate is high, the truancy rate hovers around 50 percent, and 200 businesses were just wiped out in a few nights. On a national level, our first black president has failed to create jobs and get the economy moving, and many believe his rhetoric helped to stir the pot in big cities with chronic problems.

    1. Miwok

      Good points TBD.
      From the article above:

      the suspect, unarmed is retreating.

      NewSpeak for “escaping”. Twice.

      What no one addresses is that most cops are on the street alone, with little faith a friend is near. Warrant squads, maybe a little different, but the person they are after is known to them, and they usually have to go to the home several times and “ask” if they are home, to which a granny or mother says “he ain’t here, you #$%^&.”.

      The realization many of our local and state cops may be corrupt or overzealous is becoming a great concern to me, and maybe others. I don’t like it, and may account for the under-reporting of certain jurisdictions, and the fear of cops many express. But people keep electing the same guys to be in charge, and expect them to do something different?

      Voters, get a clue.

      1. Napoleon Pig IV

        Good points, but this observation is easier to make than to take action in follow up:
        “But people keep electing the same guys to be in charge, and expect them to do something different?  Voters, get a clue.”
        Unfortunately, voters have very, very few real choices. For a long time now, it’s pretty much been “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. . .” What real difference is there between the average democrat politician and the average republican politician? Nothing except rhetoric. The insincere promises and outright lies are virtually indistinguishable. Oink!



      2. Davis Progressive

        “people keep electing the same guys to be in charge, and expect them to do something different?”

        for a long time, anyone who raised the issue questioning the police would have their political careers ended.  in fact, look no further than this website, it was founded because the wife of the founder criticized the police and paid politically.

      3. TrueBlueDevil

        Miwok, I wonder if it’s possible if the Sargent or officer who drove the van in Baltimore were beneficiaries of affirmative action? i.e., instead of getting the applicants with the top physical and test scores, is it possible that one or both of these officers were just average candidates?

        1. Miwok

          I would not know, TBD, but I do know a Davis PD officer who is/was Parking Enforcement, with a badge and uniform. I don’t think she gets to play on the SWAT team, nor is authorized to do much more than Parking. So maybe the driver of the van was sworn, but not armed? Many volunteers the Sheriff advertises for are required to do some training, but not carry weapons. Funny how Animal Control carries them though.

          As the Texas story illustrates, one officer was LE and the other a “security guard” (read parking or mall cop?).

          At the point of the attack, the two suspects apparently drove up and opened fire upon an unarmed security guard who was accompanied by a 60-year-old Garland police officer


        2. Barack Palin

          Funny how Animal Control carries them though.

          I’ve always wondered that too.  A few years ago an armed animal control officer who was hiding in the bushes came running out at me while I was jogging with my leashed dog.  It startled me and he goes, “oh, your dog’s on a leash”.  I was thinking how bad did he want to catch someone and give them a no leash ticket?

    2. Davis Progressive

      true blue:


      i don’t think anyone questions that there are times when officers need to use force.  the question is when.


      you argue that the defense of michael brown is a mistake – i don’t agree.  the officer did struggle with brown, at the time brown was shut, the officer made the decision to pursue him and made the decision to fire the kill shot when he was not in immediate jeopardy.  those are exactly the circumstances that we should question the use of force and wonder if mr. wilson had had more training, if he would have been able to diffuse the conflict.  that’s the question being asked now and it’s the right question.

      1. TrueBlueDevil

        Why don’t we question why a young man is high as a kite in the middle of the day, and question him throwing around an Indian shop keeper like a rag doll (felony assault?).

        Do we know his educational level? Did he ever have a job? Was his father active in his life, or was he merely a “sperm donor” (copyright Dr. Laura). Did he have a criminal past, and if so, was he given a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th chance (to no good)?

        Why don’t we question a young man who physically attacks a police officer who made a simple request of him? Why not question the effects of marijuana on his mental reasoning (“higher level”) brain functions? Why don’t we question the residents who lied through their teeth to defend the criminal behavior?

        At least keep it balanced.

        1. Davis Progressive

          for one thing – for the 50th time – we don’t know that he was high as a kite, we only know he had marijuana in his system and we have no way to pin-point when it got there or whether he was intoxicated at the time, i’m beginning to believe its fruitless to discuss things with you, you simply ignore what you don’t want to believe.

        2. Frankly

          i’m beginning to believe its fruitless to discuss things with you, you simply ignore what you don’t want to believe.

          LOL.  TBD could have written the same thing about you DP.  You heels are dug in firmly to the narrative you have adopted.

      2. zaqzaq

        I think the officer was obligated to pursue Brown.  You may disagree.  When and what type of pursuits are appropriate are policy decisions that police departments and city governments should look at.  These are legitimate discussions.  My concern is that if pursuits are curtailed it will only be matter of time before the criminals figure it out further incentivizing flight.

        Your claim that the officer was not in immediate jeopardy when he fired the “kill shot” is just plain wrong.  Brown already had struggled with Officer Wilson in the patrol vehicle resulting in at least one discharge of Wilson’s firearm which injured Brown’s thumb.  The physical evidence clearly showed Brown advancing towards Wilson when he was shot.

        I am still waiting for David to do an article attacking the overzealous charging of Officer Nero and Miller by the Baltimore DA with recent reports the the Baltimore Police Department task force investigating the Gray death determining that the knife was in fact illegal.  Now a judge will get to determine the legality of the knife.  At a minimum if the Baltimore Police Department is taking the position that the knife is illegal then the officers clearly had a good faith belief that the knife was illegal when they arrested Gray.  It would be interesting to see how many people were arrested for similar knives and what the DA charging decisions were and what the outcomes were in court.  If her office has charged just one person with illegal possession of a knife like the one Gray possessed she will look really stupid.  She should have remained focused on the manslaughter charges instead of overreaching.  Those two officers should put her under citizen’s arrest for false imprisonment and assault for the charging them with those crimes and see how she feels.

    3. sisterhood

      “The vast majority of police officers never even discharge their gun once in their whole career!”

      Agreed. My own father worked in Boston and never discharged his weapon. He used it once in a tiny town in MA, on the city force, when he had to shoot an aggressive dog that was foaming at the mouth. He felt really bad about the dog, too.

      I wish the media would report more stories like the NYC cop who gave socks to the homeless. In the town where I live now, there is a program called coffee with a cop. There is another program where officers go Christmas shopping with a low income kid. I try to remember all the kind acts my dad did when I am really really pissed off at the few jerk macho idiots out there who ruin the reputation of the nice ones.

      1. hpierce

        Amen, sister.  Dad was a medic in WWII in the Pacific.  Medics had side-arms (handguns), often not rifles.  Because medics weren’t even expected to hit the ‘broadside of a barn’ when shooting, he was put in charge of a few Japanese prisoners while the “real” soldiers were faced with a pitched battle.  Afterwards, before he was relieved, a few Marines came by, and wanted to torture/kill the Japanese prisoners.  Dad (who was issued a rifle for this task), aimed it towards the Marines, and said something to the effect of “not on my watch”.  He sold his “bluff”, the Marines went away cursing him for his being a “wimp”.  Dad said he had no clue if he could have fired on ‘his buddies’, had they not bought his bluff.  I love poker.

        Sorry Tia, Dad wasn’t an absolute pacifist, and neither am I. He is a part of who I am, and I’d probably done the exact same thing as he did. But I am pretty damn sure, had my bluff not worked, I would have pulled the trigger.

        1. sisterhood

          My dad also served in WWII, on a Navy sub. He was the oldest one on there. Maybe that’s why he was a reasonable cop? He was in his mid 30’s when he rec’d his acceptance letter from the academy. He said it was one of the happiest days of his life.

  6. sisterhood

    Maybe cops should not be allowed to work overtime and maybe they need to have mandatory stress counseling weekly. Maybe the bad cops are just stressed out, sleep deprived humans who are dangerous and no longer effective. I don’t know.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      Maybe we should have parenting and budgeting classes for those on welfare, and I’m with Tia on long-tern birth control. Maybe we should blow up the system when 50% of children are truant, or when the illegitimacy rate reaches 80, 85, 90 percent … a proven recipe for disaster.

      Maybe Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia should try some bold free market systems and ideas to get their economies moving. Being under Democrat control for 50-plus years sure hasn’t helped.

      1. sisterhood

        W.I.C. offers a variety of classes. You are correct, there are many low income absent/abusive/neglectful parents. There are also middle and high income folks in those categories. Women need reliable birth control and the self confidence to say no or, “wait, please put on a condom” to their hookups/boyfriends/husbands when they know they don’t want to get pregnant. It’s not an easy thing to teach.

        Do you really think the Republicans will solve the problem of low income families giving birth to kids they cannot afford? Really? The Republicans are the ones who did not want to provide health insurance to those same families.

        1. TrueBlueDevil

          We know conclusively that Reganomics blows the doors off of Obamanomics, and that African Americans did much better under Reagan.

          We also know that 20-30-40 million illegal immigrants have pushed African Americans to the back of the bus in some regards.

          A job trumps a handout in numerous ways.

    2. hpierce

      My experience has been that police officers fall into three categories… folk who really want to serve their community out of a sense of duty, caring for people, who consider themselves ‘peace officers’; bullies, on power trips, who managed to pass the psych screens; and everyone in between those two extremes.  Gee, kinda like everyone else on the planet…

      1. Frankly

        You mean that cops are just people too?

        I agree.

        The difference between cops and other people is that cops have a job dealing with the messiest part of humanity so the rest of us are not harmed by it… while also enduring perpetual criticism for performing their job to ensure the rest of us are not harmed by it.

        1. hpierce

          You may have missed my other post, ~ 8:01.   Dad was in WWII.  The Japanese were not nice to prisoners, even when they bothered to take them.  Marines knew this.  Read my previous post.  Dad was a damn good medic, and might have made a great police officer.  BTW, Marines don’t have medics.  Medics, assigned to the Marines, are usually Navy.  Dad was.

    3. Miwok

      This is a good point, Sisterhood.

      When I worked shifts work, there were lots of “sleeping people” on duty in a variety of professions. The Police are no different, and the families are probably frustrated that the officer or even Chief is constantly bombarded to keep up with training, reports, new learning, and now community relations, when all they want to do is go home to their family.

      Taking some kid shopping with them is more imposition on their time and family.

      And a grateful nation, just like it treats its veterans, continues to cut back on people, equipment, and time to keep these people thoroughly professional, and the public also suffers.

  7. sisterhood

    “A job trumps a handout in numerous ways.”

    Agreed.  A job that allows parents to pick up & drop off their child at a nice daycare, and stay home with their kid when she is sick.  A job that does not fire a man for filing a workers’ comp claim. A job that allows a woman to take time off for her kids for well baby visits, IZ, her own pap, mamogram and birth control rx renewal. A job that pays enough for parents to pay for their medical deductibles and still put healthy food on the table and rent in a relatively safe neighborhood, with relatively good schools.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for