Baltimore’s 21-foot rule necessary to protect police.

Lodge No. 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file 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.

October 25, 2016

[Published as an op-ed by The Baltimore Sun on October 25, 2016 but not posted to my blog until December 9, 2016.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]


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