Suspects On A Curb: Are You As Safe As You May Think?

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As a street cop and as a trainer, Duane Wolfe has seen and used the tactic many times: officers positioning an unrestrained subject on a curb with his legs configured to delay him in launching a physical attack.

Some have the suspect extend his legs straight out. Others order his ankles crossed. Still others prefer the legs pulled back and crossed.

But how much reaction time, Wolfe wondered, does this tactic actually buy you? And is there one position that is superior to others?

A graduate of the certification course in Force Science Analysis and a law enforcement instructor at Alexandria (MN) Technical and Community College, Wolfe recently decided to put these questions to a test–with some unexpected results.

ATTACK SIMULATION

In a street-scene setting inside the college’s “Tactical Warehouse,” he tested 42 LE program volunteers, ranging in age from 19 to 25 and all but one of them male. Their footwear for the experiments ranged from athletic shoes to duty boots to cowboy boots.

One at a time, they sat unhandcuffed on a six-inch curb and, at the sound of an audible tone, moved as fast as they could to slap a timer positioned on a table five feet away. Each was evaluated three times from the three positions commonly used on the street: legs straight out, legs out with ankles crossed, and legs crossed “yoga-style” with heels tucked back against the curb.

SPEEDS

Here are the average times (in seconds) required to reach the timer–i.e., an officer at that location–for each of the positions:

Position: Straight legs
Average Time: 1.34
Fastest Time: 1.14
Slowest Time:1.97

Position: Crossed ankles
Average Time: 1.35
Fastest Time: 1.02
Slowest Time: 2.16

Position: Crossed legs
Average Time: 1.30
Fastest Time: 0.90
Slowest Time: 1.77

Wolfe had expected that on average the crossed-ankle position would cause the “suspects” the greatest delay in reaching the point of attack. And it did. But the difference, he told Force Science News, proved to be negligible.

The average suspect moving from that posture was only 5/100 if a second slower than from the least-inhibiting position (cross-legged). “Insignificant…just an eye blink,” Wolfe says.

Moreover, he explains, these times include the time required for the suspects to hear the tonal signal, mentally process it, and begin to move. If a suspect in the real world was initiating an attack at a time of his own choosing, rather than reacting to a beep, he could probably shave from 0.14 to 0.16 second off his time, Wolfe estimates.

“If the officer is distracted when an attack is launched, a suspect who starts from any of these positions will very likely be able to reach his target before the officer can effectively react to stop him or to escape,” Wolfe says.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

The “biggest surprise,” however, was the manner in which the test subjects moved. “I assumed everyone would rise to their feet, at least in a crouch, then go for the timer pad,” Wolfe explains. But many just “threw their upper body forward, tucked their feet in, and lunged, with one or both knees staying on the ground or close to it. Those who stayed on both knees generally had the fastest times.”

Especially with a suspect who’s knowledgeable in mixed martial arts, “coming in low like that, taking out an officer’s legs between knee and groin level, is very difficult to defend against,” Wolfe says.

LESSONS LEARNED

After watching more than 370 attack attempts during the study, Wolfe offers these observations for making curb seating safer on the street:

  • “The test subjects always placed one or both hands down on the curb as a means of using their upper body to push forward. So stay alert for placement of the hands flat on the curb close to the hips as a possible pre-attack cue.”
  • “What matters is not what seating position is used but the distance between you and the suspect. Your reactionary gap needs to be figured from where his feet are, not from his upper body.” Wolfe recommends keeping a space of five to seven feet or more from a seated subject’s feet, and standing at an angle to him rather than straight-on to further add time to his effort to reach you. “If you have to approach a seated suspect, try to do so from the rear.”
  • “The times established by the study are averages,” Wolfe reminds. “Some people are faster, some are slower. On the street, you never know where your suspect will be on the scale. And you may not know whether your reaction time will be better than the average officer’s–or worse.”

Wolfe can be reached at: DuaneW@alextech.edu

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