Case study: Why distance from seated subjects increases officer safety

The greatest factor affecting an officer’s ability to deal with an attack launched from a seated position is the distance away from the suspect — not the position itself

In a Facebook post promoting this article, we regrettably used the image of an individual who was mistakenly detained by the arresting agency. His incident was not related in any way to the article below, and the use of his photo in promotion of the article was not meant to negatively associate him with the matters discussed in the article. We apologize for the use of his photo and, by his request, pass along a link to his online petition to "require all local, state and federal agencies to automatically erase and destroy all information pertaining to an arrest of individuals that were actually innocent and wrongfully arrested."

For some time now, there has been discussion on making traffic stops safer for the officer by having subjects take a seat on the curb. The assumption is that having the subject in a seated position makes it take more time for an attacker to get to an officer, and therefore more time for the officer to react.

Remembering the advice of Dr. Alexis Artwohl — to investigate our conclusions about how we do our jobs — I decided to put the idea to the test. I set out to compare certain positions, seeking to know which would provide better safety than others.

I used the Tactical Warehouse at the Alexandria Technical and Community College Law Enforcement Program as the test site. The facility has a street scene complete with sidewalk, curb, and a two lane road. I measured five feet off the curb and placed a table with an impact pad holding a PACT time at about waist level. A slap of the timer is enough to stop it. (I used the same concept to research this evaluation of police tactics.)

Duane Wolfe had 42 law enforcement students get up from various seated positions to prove it wasn't the position that mattered - it was the distance between subject and officer.
Duane Wolfe had 42 law enforcement students get up from various seated positions to prove it wasn't the position that mattered - it was the distance between subject and officer. (Photo courtesy Duane Wolfe)

I then had 42 law enforcement students  41 male and one female ages 19-25 participate in the test. Each student sat on the curb in and attempted to move as quickly as possible to slap the timer at an audible tone from the timer. The students evaluated from three positions: legs straight, legs straight with ankles crossed, and bent legs with ankles crossed. Each student was given three attempts in each of the positions — provided there weren’t any problems with the timer — and the times were averaged.

The students wore civilian clothes and were told to wear whatever footwear they normally wore — ranging from athletic shoes to cowboy boots.

Comparing Three Seated Positions
Prevailing thinking had suggested that to provide the officer with a maximum response time to an attack, a subject should be seated with the legs straight and ankles crossed. Listed below are the average times (in seconds) for each of the positions.

Postition Average Fastest Slowest
Straight legs 1.34 1.14 1.97
Crossed ankles 1.35 1.02 2.16
Crossed legs 1.30 0.90 1.77

Looking at the average times, the crossed ankles position does provide for the longest average time to move five feet in comparison to the other two positions. However, you will notice that it provided only a 0.01 second longer time over the straight leg position and only 0.05 seconds advantage over the crossed leg position.

Despite the change in position, there is only a 5/100ths of a second difference in the average movement time. I think this small difference is important to understand in that picking a specific position provides an almost insignificant difference in movement times based on average human reaction times.

Additional Considerations
There are several important things to look at in the study, specifically the method used to launch the attack as a possible pre-attack cue, the attack methods and their times, and an understanding of what the times illustrate.

No video was taken of the project so an in-depth, frame by frame analysis is not possible, but as the person conducting the research — and having seen more than 370 attempts — I noticed several things:

  1. The subjects always placed one or both hands down on the curb as a means of using their upper body to push forward to their goal.
    1. Placement of the hands flat on the curb close to the hips could be a pre attack cue.
  2. The students were not given any instructions on how to go about launching their “attack.” However I noticed that they took three forms: rising to the feet, rising to one foot while kneeling on the other leg, and staying down on both knees.
    1. Those students who rose to their feet generally had times over 1.30 and generally were the slowest to the target. They assumed a low crouch to a full standing position.
    2. Those who drove forward on one foot while keeping one knee grounded generally had times between 1.10 and 1.30.
    3. Those subjects who just pushed themselves forward with their hands as they folded their legs, staying on both knees generally had the fastest times. Using this method against someone directly in front of them would allow for a low attack on the legs between knee and groin level, a position that would be very difficult to defend against.
  3. The actual time that it would take to launch an attack from this position would be shorter than the times recorded. In the study the “attack” was initiated by the sound of a beep. The times recorded included the time it took the subjects to hear the signal and respond to it.

In an assault there would be no lag time caused by the need to listen for and respond to a signal an attack would be launched instantaneously resulting in faster attack times. The average response time to an audible signal is 0.14-0.16 seconds. 

Position Average Fastest Slowest
Straight legs 1.19 0.99 1.82
Crossed ankles 1.20 0.87 2.01
Crossed legs 1.15 0.75 1.62

4. The times given are average. Some people were faster. Some people were slower. On the street you never know where your suspect will be on the scale. If you compare this study and my previous study, some people were faster moving five feet in the seated position than some in a standing position.

The Bottom Line
The conclusions we may draw from this study are the distance from a suspect — not a specific seated position — will have the greatest effect on officer response time and safety. A distance of five feet between the suspect’s seated position and the officer doesn’t provide for much reaction time and a greater distance is suggested.

Another suggestion is that officers not stand directly in front of the suspect, instead standing at an angle requiring the suspect to turn in their direction — thereby adding time to their attack.

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