"21 Foot Rule" helps officers make quick decisions - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

"21 Foot Rule" helps officers make quick decisions

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -

Their mission is to protect and serve.

Their role is to enforce the law.

Their lives are on the line every day.

Police officers.

With a number of high-profile, officer-involved incidents over the last few years, scrutiny has increased over officers use of force.

When should they use it?

And in what manner?

One of the police training techniques that helps shape that decision is called the 21-foot rule.

"It seems rude when we're saying you want to step back a little bit? We're not. We're just being professional," said Waterloo Police officer Chris Gergen.

Chris Gergen and Greg Erie are training officers with the Waterloo Police Department.

They showed us some of the techniques they use in training recently.

But they say the key indicator is a person's demeanor.

"If you see certain things, it should throw up a red flag and say something is not right and that would give them more time to handle the situation or make a proper judgement on what use of force they may have to use," said Gergen.

Here's an example:

Officer Gergen shoots paint pellets at a stationary target 21 feet away.

He's accurate.

Then, he's on the move.

And it's not as accurate with one miss and one hit.

Then, Erie plays the role of suspect and runs at the officer with a knife.

Again, the distance is 21 feet.

It happens quickly.

Bullets would have hit the suspect's leg and mid-section.

However, it does not stop the suspect's progress.

"People see what's on TV or in movies and ask why didn't they just shoot the gun out of his hand? Or do a flying spin kick and knock the knife out of his hand? That's fantasy and, unfortunately, it's making our job that much more difficult," said Gergen.

"If it's a lethal threat, you have to make space, get away, get cover, decide what you're going to do next but it all happens in a matter of seconds," said Erie.

Photographer Sean O'Neal straps a GoPro camera to reporter Bob Waters.

Bob gets a toy gun and some instruction.

Gergen advises Bob, "React. Whenever he comes charging at you, you've got to pull that out and just point out one round."

In the first round, the "suspect" runs at Bob, who gets off one shot, but the suspect continues on.

So what did Bob do wrong?

Bob didn't move.

In round two, Bob moves -- and that is effective.

Part of an officer's safety includes keeping distance from a person.

If not, a situation could turn dangerous quickly.

"Lethal force demands lethal force. A knife is not something you want to be, 'I'll use my taser and hope it works' because if it doesn't, you have to have time to throw it away and get your firearm. It takes time and they're not stopping," said Erie.

This is training all Waterloo officers must take, because they'll never know when they'll have to use it.

"How much wrestling practice do they have before they go to one wrestling match? It is muscle memory. And that's why when we train, we try to train the most important things and hopefully when the time comes, that muscle memory will take over and it has been working that way for a while now," said Erie.

"We're the ones who are standing there to protect and sometimes violence is ugly. Sometimes we have to use violence," said Gergen.

They say after an arrest, the key is to recognize when a suspect is subdued.

They say even in handcuffs, a suspect can be a danger.

Another example is someone in handcuffs but still resisting.

"What are we going to do? Are we going to sit here and dance and say, 'please, please, please.' He's under arrest. Now would be a time to be using some force," said Gergen.

"Somebody in handcuffs can still hurt you. They can head-butt you, they can kick you, they can slip their cuffs off. This happens a lot, believe it or not," said Erie.

"If we don't have to do it, we don't want to do it, OK? But we will if we need to. And if it's justified, reasonably necessary, then use whatever force you have to use -- but if we don't have to, we'd rather not," said Gergen.

Waterloo Police undergo 96 hours of training every year.

That includes CPR classes, body mechanics, and firearm qualifications as well as safety training.

Any officer-involved shooting or investigation into excessive use of force is investigated independently by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

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