Chiefs call for reform of use of force, Police Executive Research Forum releases new critical report on training

The same research group that issued a blistering report last April on the fragmentation of St. Louis-area police departments has now issued an eye-opening report that calls for an overhaul of police training and culture.

That introspection has led to new thinking about issues such as officers’ mentality about their role; the generally unwritten, but widely accepted, 21-foot rule that purports to govern the legality of officers’ use of force in edged-weapon situations; and appropriate crisis intervention training and response.

PERF’s primary contribution consisted of creating a space for raising the issues. Comments from high-ranking police officials from across the country make up the bulk of the report and drive the conclusion that a systematic overhaul is needed.

“Some of what you will read in this report may be difficult to accept, because leading police chiefs are saying that our practices need to change dramatically,” PERF’s Executive Director, Chuck Wexler, wrote in the introduction.

Nowhere is that proposed change more evident than in police officials’ view that the profession must leave behind its warrior mentality. The role of officers should align more closely with that of guardian, the officials said.

The recruiting video for the Denison Police Department in Texas exemplifies the warrior mindset that infects the profession, the officials agreed. Set to pumping techno music and the sound of gunshots, the video portrays officers making what appears to be everyday use of sniper rifles, assault rifles and sidearms, often wearing camouflage and other military-style gear.

The video closes with the quote: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men and women stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Joseph Price, police chief in Leesburg, Virginia, responded: “We need to change that mindset, to teach officers that at times they may need to fight like a warrior, but most of the time they need to have the mindset of a guardian.”

Added Kenneth Miller, police chief in Greenville, South Carolina: “I think that in many respects this idea of police being ‘law enforcement’ boxes us in, causes us to work at cross-purposes within our departments, and serves to isolate us from the communities and people we serve.”

Rodney Moore, Police Chief in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, said: “We have to do a much tougher job of weeding out the candidates who think that that’s what policing is about.”

Besides adjusting the profession’s mindset, the mythologized 21-foot rule needs serious reframing, officials said.

That rule, developed by a Salt Lake City police officer in the 1980s, suggests that unless an individual with an edged weapon such as a knife maintains a distance of 21 feet or more away from an officer, the individual could charge at, attack and injure the officer before the officer has time to draw and fire.

A training video by Calibre Press, “Surviving Edged Weapons,” popularized the rule in 1988.

John Timoney, a former first deputy commissioner of police in New York City, said the NYPD changed the policy for emotionally disturbed persons. “We created the concept of a 20-foot ‘zone of safety,’” Timoney said. “The idea was that as the emotionally disturbed person is moving, you’re backing up or going parallel, to keep yourself 20 feet away and in a zone of safety.”

But he said “that idea got corrupted” and he started hearing about a “kill zone.”

“Somehow, the idea became that if you’re less than 21 feet away, you can shoot,” Timoney said. “How the hell did it become a ‘kill zone?’”

St. Louis city and county have had police killings of mentally unstable black men armed with knives since Michael Brown Jr.’s death: Kajieme Powell in the city and Thaddeus McCarroll in Jennings.

Cathy Lanier, chief of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, said that use-of-force incidents should be reviewed for the entirety of the encounter.

“The question is not that you can, it’s whether you absolutely had to,” Lanier said. “And the decisions leading up to the moment when you fired a shot ultimately determine whether you had to or not.”

PERF concluded: “The 21-foot rule should never be seen as a ‘green light to use deadly force’ or a ‘kill zone.’ Rather, officers should be given broader training in sound decision-making, de-escalation strategies, and tactics for creating time and distance, so they can better manage the incident without needing force.”

Providing officers with more and better crisis-intervention training may also reduce the incidence of the use of force, particularly against the mentally ill and homeless, according to PERF.

Another strategy that officers can employ to de-escalate a situation is age-old: retreat, a term that officials increasingly replace with “tactical repositioning.”

“I tell my officers that if the guy with a knife isn’t going to hurt anyone else except maybe you, there is no shame in tactically retreating and calling for backup,” said Robert Ferullo Jr., police chief in Woburn, Massachusetts. “This can apply to situations involving firearms as well.”

Additionally, officers need to know that they will be held accountable when they do use force, officials said.

Danielle Outlaw, deputy police chief in Oakland, California, said sergeants are no longer allowed to “take what officers said at face value, write it in their investigative report and push it up the chain.”

“It’s been made very clear that there are higher expectations, regarding investigative sufficiency of the sergeants, and they receive timely feedback regarding their investigations,” Outlaw said.

But implementing reforms may not be straightforward or easy. Local police unions could push back on proposals for reform. Kirk Primas, police chief in Las Vegas, Nevada, said it is crucial to include officers during policy development, as they did when revising use of force policy.

“We got vocal senior officers to come in and help develop the training and then train everybody else on use of force,” Primas said. “We also made the training relevant and exciting. And the results have shown that it’s successful.”

Read the full report at

Kevin Flannery is a St. Louis American intern and a student at the Washington University School of Law.