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The reactionary gap: Reminders on threats and distances

In light of a recent shooting in Florida, it might be a good time to renew the concepts of the “reactionary gap”

On Wednesday, May 22, an FBI agent was stabbed during an interview with a triple murder suspect. The suspect, who was then fatally shot, was reportedly friends with one of the Boston Marathon bombers.

Nobody likes to second guess the tactics of other cops, especially when those tactics may have played a part in one of the cops being injured. But, from early accounts, it appears that the interview tactics employed here may have played a part in the agent being injured and.

Early news accounts lay out what happened. Ibragim Todashev, 27, was being questioned at his home in Orlando. The interview was being conducted by the agent and two Massachusetts state troopers. Several Orlando PD officers were also present with the MA-based LEOs at Todashev’s townhouse.

The suspect, reportedly a MMA fighter who was friends with Tamaerlan Tsarneav (who himself was an aspiring boxer and who died during the April 15 firefight with police) had just confessed to his role in a September 11, 2011 triple murder that went down in the Boston suburb of Waltham where both he and the late Tsarneav resided.

The three victims of that 9/11/11 murder each had their throats cut with an edged weapon.

Details are still sketchy, but early reports indicate that law enforcement officers had been following Todashev since the April attacks; and that they had a lot of intelligence on the guy.

They reportedly knew he was “a hot head” who was “prone to violence” and that he had been kicked out of several gyms for getting into altercations with other patrons.

They also knew of his Aggravated Assault arrest on May 4 during an altercation with two other men (one of whom he beat unconscious) during a parking space dispute at an Orange County, Florida, mall. In that attack, a witness vividly described the damage Todashev did on the face of his victim.

That witness thought Todashev had used “brass knuckles” on his vic. He also described the “quickness” with which Todashev delivered his punches.

The officers also knew of Todashev’s 2010 Boston arrest after he got into a fender bender and had to be restrained by witnesses when he tried to attack the occupants of the other car. This wasn’t one of those “unknown” risk field interviews.

Stacking the Odds
Prior to the late 1980s, officers always equated being close with being in control. Nothing can be further from the truth.

In fact, the closer you are to a suspect, the more dangerous that situation is for you. One of the most common mistakes officers make when conducting FIs is the failure to realize the importance of maintaining adequate distance between them and the suspect being questioned.

“Reactionary gaps” are defined as “the minimum amount of space needed to ensure that you can properly react to whatever threat may be presented by a suspect being questioned or detained.”

The first concept to remember when considering the reactionary gap is the “I-stance.”

The Interview Stance was developed to ensure that officers performing field or street interviews position themselves close enough to speak to their subjects in a normal voice and be able to hear the subject’s responses, yet far enough away that they don’t become vulnerable to a physical attack.

Next, remember “police proxemics” defined as “the distance between an officer and the threat posed by certain weapons.”

Here are some numbers to keep in mind:

• Firearms Threats: Generally your safety zone is defined as “line of sight unbroken by cover.”

• Edged Weapons: Generally a 20-25 foot zone of safety, depending on the circumstances and the level of the officer’s response. That distance could be more if you have information that the suspect may be skilled with EWs.

• Impact Weapons: Bludgeons, pipes, baseball bats, and the like require a minimum reactionary gap of 10-12 feet plus the length of the object — maybe more, depending on the circumstances.

• Empty Hands: For most empty-hand situations, you’re going to want at least a 5-6 foot reactionary gap between you and the subject you’re dealing with — maybe more, depending on your prior knowledge of the subject.

Which brings us back to Wednesday, May 22. In this case, the troopers and the agent knew a lot about Todashev. They knew his history of violence. They knew about his prior arrest for Aggravated Assault.

They knew about his skill set with his hands. They knew he had used an edged weapon to cut the throats of his three vics.

While we don’t know where Todashev retrieved his edged weapon from in this case (on his person, from the kitchen, or off a table), we know he somehow got close enough with it to stab the agent and inflict injuries serious enough to put that agent in the hospital.

There are no guarantees in this job. There never are. Police work is risky business.We often have to question violent, dangerous people. But maintaining an adequate reactionary gap during those times can at least stack the odds in your favor.

Dave Grossi is a retired police lieutenant from upstate New York now residing in southwest Florida. A graduate of the State University of New York, Dave has served as a patrol officer, undercover narcotics investigator, detective, sergeant, and lieutenant. For 12 years, Dave was the lead instructor for the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar. He has instructor credentials in virtually every force discipline and has testified both in the United States and abroad as an expert witness in use of force cases. He is a combat veteran of Vietnam, and a member of the Force Science Research Center.