Fractions of a Second

July 24, 2008
Winning against threats on the street requires awareness for potential threats, strategies for responding and an understanding of how to articulate your actions.

Fractions of a second... you're out on the street doing your business checking out a suspicious person or making an arrest and... BAM... the suspect attacks. One minute "routine" the next you're thrust into chaos. In an instant as the body readies itself for fight or flight you must make a decision on what to do and complete the action to stop their assault or save your life. The entire incident will probably be over in less time it took me to write this sentence - that fast.

"Time waits for no man," so goes the quote but a firmer understanding of time, distance, reaction and response time will further your winning violent altercations on the street.

Some Definitions

Reaction Time Is a mental process in which you perceive the stimulus until you mentally download a response.

Movement Time Is the time from the beginning to the end of your movement.

Response Time Is the total time from the perception of the stimulus until the end of your physical movement.

As an example, you see a suspect make a hand movement toward his waistband as if he is attempting to draw a hidden pistol. This stimulus triggers a mental signal of mortal danger and a need to draw your own pistol (Reaction Time). You begin your combat draw-stroke and end with your pistol at eye level in a modern isosceles stance (Movement Time). Put it all together and you have Response Time.

From Stimulus to Response

Of course all of the above is moot if you aren't paying attention. Caught in Condition White (complete unawareness otherwise known as head up the derrière) events may transpire before you are able to "get your game on."

You must be knowledgeable about the law and use of force and practiced in decision making under stress. It is not enough to have fast twitch muscles and amazing response time if you hesitate because you don't know if you have the legal right to use force. These legal lessons must not be simply learned in the classroom but also in force-on-force role playing exercises. One of the effects of the Sympathetic Nervous System reaction (fight or flight) is the inability to make good cognitive decisions. Although we will never equal the stress of the street in dynamic confrontation training, we come closer to learning to swim with the sharks by training in the ocean than we do by swimming in a wading pool.

Also true is that your survival skills must be practiced to a second nature so that you can perform them without conscious thought. There is no time on the street to think, "Grab the pistol firmly and disengage the holster's safety straps." It is strictly: stimulus (threat) / response. That pistol ought to materialize in your hand like magic.

Work done by Joe Ferrara for PPCT Management Systems Inc. examined distances and the importance they play in giving you time to respond. For instance, Ferrara found that at touching distance it only took .319 seconds for a suspect to assault but giving yourself a six foot reactionary gap increased the time to assault to 1.042 seconds.

Further research for PPCT completed by the late Tom Hontz and Ray Rheingans (Reaction Time, A Real World Approach; 1996; Ray Rheingans) had shooters respond to a visual cue (light bulb above a target) and fire on a large (10" X 14") target from low ready and from the holster or a small target (3" X 5") target from low ready. The distance was 15 feet for these tests. The averages were:

One Large Target from Low Ready = 1.15 seconds
Two Large Targets from Low Ready = 1.11 seconds
One Small Target from Low Ready = 1.56 seconds
Two Small Targets from Low Ready = 1.58 seconds
One Large Target from the Holster = 1.90 seconds

Now it should be noted that the (76) participants in the study knew that when the light went on they should shoot. This is unlike the street where your reaction time will be extended based on perceiving the suspect's actions.

Other tests included recording the draw times of suspects from: a strong side holster carry; front belly; rear carry and low ready type positions. These times were gathered using high-speed video with time generator. The "suspect's" hand was on the handgun.

Holster Draw = 1.19 Seconds
Front Draw = 1.09 Seconds
Rear Draw = .78 Seconds
Raise/Fire = .59 Seconds

Additional germane studies are the time it took suspects to run different distances. These tests expanded on what others (Dennis Tueller, Lt. Salt Lake PD, ret.) originally noted on the lethality of impact weapons (knives and bludgeons) and running attackers.

15 Feet = 1.28 Seconds
20 Feet = 1.57 Seconds
25 Feet = 1.79 Seconds
30 Feet = 2.06 Seconds

Ray Rheingans has drawn some inferences based on this study and we will expand on them.

  • Action (assaulting or attacking) beats reaction (officers responding to the threat)
  • Officer should have their pistol drawn whenever they perceive a possible deadly threat to reduce time on target (.80 seconds on average, longer on the street)
  • Even with an officer's pistol at low ready they are at risk from a suspect with a gun in hand because the suspect will always be able to attack before they can react and respond
  • If you know you are facing an armed suspect, get distance and get behind cover
  • A smooth and practiced combat draw stroke is vital for law enforcement officers. You must be able to initiate this motor program without conscious thought
  • Officers must pay attention to a suspect's body language. Whether it's a punch or an attempt to kill you with a concealed handgun, suspect's frequently display pre-attack body language that indicates a potential threat. Pay attention to it.
  • Training to "move off the X" is critical in dealing with suspects armed with both impact weapons and firearms
  • Research by John Boyd on the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) is critical in completing your actions before the suspect completes his attack

Dr. Bill Lewinski from Force Science has added additional tests such as the 180 degree front to back movement and other tests to explain response time.


The Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor acknowledged that "The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments - in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving - about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation." We must articulate in our use of force reports distances and the need for a quick reasonable response based on the totality of the circumstances. In other words, we must relate the need for our split-second decision based on the suspect's actions.

All force is pro-active or pre-emptive in nature. We don't use force for what a suspect did, we use force to stop them from doing something else (attack or assault). The Supreme Court was clear that we need not be perfect or use the "least amount of force necessary," only that we be reasonable based on the circumstances.

We must employ tactics to prevent, whenever possible, making split-second decisions but if fractions of a second are all we have we must respond aggressively and reasonably and then properly document the suspect's and our actions.

Sponsored Recommendations

Build Your Real-Time Crime Center

March 19, 2024
A checklist for success

Whitepaper: A New Paradigm in Digital Investigations

July 28, 2023
Modernize your agency’s approach to get ahead of the digital evidence challenge

A New Paradigm in Digital Investigations

June 6, 2023
Modernize your agency’s approach to get ahead of the digital evidence challenge.

Listen to Real-Time Emergency 911 Calls in the Field

Feb. 8, 2023
Discover advanced technology that allows officers in the field to listen to emergency calls from their vehicles in real time and immediately identify the precise location of the...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Officer, create an account today!