Bal­ti­more’s 21-foot rule nec­es­sary to pro­tect po­lice

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By David A. Plymyer David A. Plymyer re­tired as Anne Arun­del county at­tor­ney in 2014 and also served for five years as an as­sis­tant state’s at­tor­ney for Anne Arun­del County. His email is dplymyer@com­cast.net; Twit­ter: @dplymyer.

Lodge No. 3 of the Fraternal Or­der of Po­lice, which rep­re­sents rank-and­file of­fi­cers of the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment, re­cently re­leased its rec­om­men­da­tions in re­sponse to find­ings by the United States Depart­ment of Jus­tice that the BPD en­gaged in a pat­tern or prac­tice of un­con­sti­tu­tional con­duct. The rec­om­men­da­tions in­clude the adop­tion of a “safe op­er­a­tional space” rule re­quir­ing on­look­ers to re­main at least 21 feet away from “of­fi­cers fo­cused on a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sus­pect.”

In re­sponse, Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union at­tor­ney David Rocah blasted the FOP rec­om­men­da­tion as “sick­en­ing and dis­heart­en­ing” and as treat­ing ev­ery­one in the city “as in­her­ently the equiv­a­lent of some­one charg­ing at an of­fi­cer with a knife.”

To the con­trary, the rec­om­men­da­tion is a rea­son­able mea­sure in­tended to pro­tect the safety of both of­fi­cers and on­look­ers in light of the harsh re­al­ity that Bal­ti­more has some of the most dan­ger­ous neigh­bor­hoods in Amer­ica.

The pro­posed buf­fer no more treats ev­ery­one in Bal­ti­more as an in­her­ent threat than Mary­land’s “move over” law for stopped emer­gency ve­hi­cles treats every driver as drunk or dis­tracted. It strikes a bal­ance between the rights of ci­ti­zens to ob­serve po­lice ac­tions and the safety of of­fi­cers. The fact is that there are dan­ger­ous peo­ple on the streets of Bal­ti­more just as there are dan­ger­ous driv­ers on the high­ways of Mary­land.

I have been a critic of the cul­ture of the BPD and its in­ef­fec­tive dis­ci­plinary sys­tem, as well as the FOP. The ACLU, in­clud­ing Mr. Rocah, has worked to­ward mak­ing the BPD a more trans­par­ent and ac­count­able law en­force­ment agency. That does not mean, how­ever, that we should for­get about what the men and women of the BPD are up against.

“Shoot to Kill,” the riv­et­ing se­ries of ar­ti­cles on Bal­ti­more’s lethal­ity by The Sun’s Justin Ge­orge, held a mir­ror up to the city’s face. We may not like what we see, but it needs to be seen. Po­lice of­fi­cers deal with it every day. There are neigh­bor­hoods in Bal­ti­more awash with drugs, guns and gangs. Too many young men are lost to life on Bal­ti­more streets where re­course to vi­o­lence is sec­ond na­ture and es­pe­cially deadly.

We ex­pect po­lice of­fi­cers to main­tain their dis­ci­pline in the face of hos­til­ity and even phys­i­cal abuse. In re­turn po­lice of­fi­cers have the right to ex­pect us to care about their safety and to do what we can to pro­tect it.

The so-called “21-foot rule” is merely a rule of thumb. It is based on a study show­ing that in the time that it takes the av­er­age of­fi­cer to rec­og­nize a threat, draw his sidearm and fire two rounds, the av­er­age per­son charg­ing at the of­fi­cer with a knife can cover a dis­tance of 21 feet. It is widely used for po­lice train­ing and can form the rea­son­able ba­sis for giv­ing of­fi­cers a safe space in which to deal with a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion with­out vi­o­lat­ing any­one’s con­sti­tu­tional rights.

In a time when every per­son who wants a hand­gun is able to get one, the big­ger threat to in­no­cent ci­ti­zens is not a bad cop, but a fear­ful one. More of­ten than not when an un­armed sus­pect is shot, it is be­cause an of­fi­cer be­lieves that his or her life is in dan­ger. Fear in a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion is not a sign of cow­ardice or poor train­ing; a healthy dose of fear keeps an of­fi­cer alert and alive.

Mem­bers of a Bal­ti­more grand jury who went through a lethal force sim­u­la­tor were sur­prised by how lit­tle time an of­fi­cer has to re­act to the threat of a weapon, but well-trained of­fi­cers are not. If the 21-foot rule im­proves the safety of of­fi­cers and re­duces their fear, it will make both of­fi­cers and ci­ti­zens safer.

In Bal­ti­more crowds that gather near an ar­rest are of­ten hos­tile to of­fi­cers. Com­mon sense tells us that the closer such a crowd is to of­fi­cers, the tenser the sit­u­a­tion be­comes. If crowds are go­ing to shower of­fi­cers with ver­bal abuse, let them do so from a safer dis­tance.

It is im­por­tant for the of­fi­cers of the BPD to know that crit­ics of the depart­ment do not blame of­fi­cers for the epi­demic of vi­o­lence in the city and do not want of­fi­cers to be­come vic­tims of that vi­o­lence. Sup­port­ing the re­quest by the FOP for a “safe op­er­a­tional zone” is one way to get that mes­sage across.

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