Cops’ Survival: Can 10 feet make the difference?

When you’re fighting at bad-breath distance, simply pointing and pulling the trigger stands a fair chance of success, but when you get out to seven yards or further, marksmanship training begins to pay off

Ever wonder why most police ranges have a marked seven-yard line? It is not an accident. Long before Sergeant Dennis Tueller first published his research showing a knife-wielding attacker can beat your shot inside of 21 feet, police firing ranges had a seven-yard line. 

In the late 1980s I managed a research project for Police Marksman magazine in which we collected survey forms on officer-involved shootings. Among other details, we recorded the gunfight distance which averaged out to 20 feet. Reading through several years of the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) statistics, I calculated the average distance — when a distance was noted — and it came to about 10 feet. 

Rather than disproving my pattern, it reinforces the importance of the seven-yard line. You see, the officers in the LEOKA stats all lost their fight at an average of 10 feet. But, in the Police Marksman study, the officers all won their fight at 20 feet. And, the seven-yard line corresponds to Tueller’s minimum safe distance of 21 feet for a knife attack. 

Most police attackers have little (if any) formal firearms training. Some informal numbers I’ve pulled together on bad guy shooting performance suggests they hit at about the same rate as cops at very close range — we’ll say about 20-30 percent hits. Yet, police officers maintain about the same hit rate out to the magic seven-yard line on the street, while the bad guys miss a whole lot more out there. 

It stands to reason. When you are fighting at “tag, you’re it” distance, simply pointing and pulling the trigger stands a fair chance of success, even if you’re holding the pistol sideways, but when you get out to seven yards or further, marksmanship training begins to pay off. Just those 10 extra feet are enough to start separating the men/women from the boys/girls.

So, seek and gain as much distance as you can on encounters. Policing is often an up-close and personal endeavor, but program yourself to put distance at the top of your survival to-do list. You are a better pistol shot than your adversary and the more distance you have, the bigger your advantage.

When it comes to distance, the most badass distance tool in your toolbox is your patrol rifle. Many — maybe even most of you —have a patrol rifle with you every day. At the risk of being arrogant, my proudest accomplishment in more than 30 years of police writing was to be one of the earliest and most vocal supporters of putting black rifles into the hands of patrol officers. 

While the average puke has a problem landing handgun hits at 20 feet, it’s difficult to miss head shots at 25 yards with a rifle. Be hyper-aware of danger calls and standoff with a rifle whenever possible.

However, as you know, the bad guys also have access to rifles. About 20 percent of the officers killed with firearms each year die from rifle fire. The parallel to the rifle threat is ambush killings. We all know the destructive power of a felon laying an ambush, and of the premeditated ambushes, the vast majority are committed with a center-fire rifle. An ambush with a rifle is the ultimate threat you face today.

I’ve been preaching about the ambush threat for several years. We first identified the sharp increase in 1997 and have tracked its steady growth ever since. 

I strongly encourage you to examine this column on avoiding ambush and this column on fighting your way out of one. 

Both pieces are from 2010, and while the statistics have changed a little in the intervening four years, the principles are the same.

Think: “Distance is my friend!”

Think: “How could I be ambushed on this call?”

Be alert when gathered in a place where you think you should be able to lower your guard.

Remember the four Lakewood officers ambushed at a coffee shop. Remember the two Pennsylvania troopers ambushed at their barracks.

Remember my motto: “Not here! Not today!” and add, “Not to me!”

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