The dark, and what hides in it, is a genuine concern, having been validated for centuries through legends, mythology and literature. Think of your favorite horror movie: Chances are something was lurking in the dark. Such is the power of suggestion.
Suggestion has a tremendous influence over our ability to function under stress. As humans, we continuously receive information through our various senses, with our sight being the sense that we rely on most heavily—especially where we need to positively differentiate friend from foe. As the quality of the input becomes compromised, like in reduced light, the mind tries to augment the imperfect input with assumptions about what can’t be seen, based on the perceiver’s prior conditioning.
Important: In a critical event, paralyzing thoughts lead to disaster. If you’re afraid of the dark, you’re in trouble.
Low Light, Most of the Time
History and experience support the fact that diminished-light conditions constitute the majority of a law enforcement officer’s day. Although we concede this, law enforcement continues to fall short in addressing the legitimate use of a flashlight in day-to-day situations and spontaneous transitions to extraordinary situations.
Case in point: Too often we associate flashlights with deadly force in our low-light training. Low-light techniques begin and end from a “ready” position with both flashlight and weapon deployed, suggesting that lurking around every corner is an aggressive bad guy. When an officer aims a flashlight at an individual, using a typical two-hand technique, he’s also pointing the muzzle of a firearm at what might be an unarmed or innocent person. This simple, habitually dismissed action creates a serious deficiency in the rules of firearms safety, as well as the policy of most agencies. It’s a disaster just waiting to happen: Most situations necessitating the use of a flashlight don’t require the use of a weapon.
Typically reduced-light training consists of officers being shown various methods of operating a flashlight and weapon together. The officer is then told to select a method that they feel comfortable with and to fire X-number of rounds. This is done on a flat range, at defined distances, from static positions and on targets that are outlined or bordered in white.
Why do we train this way? The primary reason is safety. After all, night or reduced-light ranges can be safety nightmares, requiring instructors to take extra steps to maintain control and avoid tragedy. However, real conflicts are rarely static and seldom occur at known distances. Unless the officer has already assumed a posture with weapon and flashlight deployed, they aren’t likely to use the flashlight—regardless of the level of light present.
Compounding this already monumental problem, the methods taught are solely target engagement techniques and do little in addressing drawing, searching and moving with a flashlight. These techniques also fail to address physical control of the weapon or flashlight. What if a suspect ends up within an officer’s reactionary distance or engages the officer in a physical fight?
Following are tips to rectify this situation.
No.1: Bring the real world to training
The idea of reality-based training is far from new. It’s been the content of countless articles advocating everything from marking rounds to padded suits. In applying reality-based training to low-light training, consider how a flashlight is used most frequently and what the intended use is. Bring those applications into the training environment and emphasizing their legitimate use. But also recognize when it’s time to transition to a more aggressive posture.
Keep in mind: Without serious training, the likelihood of anyone using tools in their hands is minimal and even less likely if the tool has to be drawn from a carrier. Consider the eye-opening facts presented in the 1991 video of the Nacogdoches County, Texas, constable killed on a traffic stop by three suspects. For the greater part of the video, the constable has two things in his hands: a portable radio and a full-size flashlight. He never drops either to access his handgun or uses one or the other as an impact weapon.
No. 2: Emphasize both search techniques & engagement techniques
Search techniques and engagement techniques aren’t always the same. The purpose and desired outcome can differ as greatly as oil and water. Understanding the difference and the necessary application is essential to effective operation in a low-light environment.
While a steady constant beam is simpler, it communicates location and intent like a flashing neon sign on the Vegas Strip. Using the flashlight like a series of flashbulbs during the search mode makes for an unpredictable pattern, one where you’re much less likely to be tracked or located, especially when you quickly analyze the information provided and move between the strobes. Using this strobe technique, along with the full capacity of your eyes and the mobility of your head, allows you to quickly see a tremendous amount of decision-affecting information—much more than when you simply stare into the sphere illumination.
It’s also important to remember that search techniques have no time limits set on them, so slow down and don’t let yourself or your students get so swept up into the situation that we move too fast and get careless. Keep all movement and actions purposeful. Rushing will do nothing but cause you to become careless and provide any potential opponent with exploitable opportunities.
No. 3: Train under four potential threat states
While conflicts and engagements have a limitless number of dynamics that makes each unique, officers need to be trained to operate under four potential threat states:
1. with only weapon deployed;
2. with only flashlight deployed;
3. with both weapon and flashlight deployed; and
4. with neither weapon nor flashlight deployed.
Unfortunately, most training only provides—and in limited doses—for situations involving both weapon and light deployed. For those sincerely trying to prepare officers for the realities of real-world situations, this makes no sense. Training should accurately mirror the use of tools and their application in situations where they’re intended to be used. The four potential threat states are awkward and require ambidextrous response. They aren’t easy to train on! But they are unquestionably essential for performance and safety in reduced light environments.
One of the safest and most effective low-light training tactics is to use the weapon and flashlight in opposite hands, working independently of each other. In this manner, the officer is able to move the light around, negotiate it around corners and obstacles, and minimize his exposure to potential danger areas and hostile suspects. Operating the flashlight and weapon independently allows the officer to illuminate larger areas with greater maneuverability, have a superior search perspective and maximize his safety, which conversely means reduced liability.
Diminished light training is a confusing subject matter, one that is much more complex than it appears on the surface. Being human, it’s easy to be taken with clever marketing and assume that a newer and more advanced tool is the only answer to the problem. After all, advances in illumination technology have given us brighter, more durable tools. But even the brightest white light isn’t the end-all/be-all answer. It’s only part of the solution.
The solution rests in intelligent application of both tools and tactics under realistic conditions. The right tool used in conjunction with the right tactics becomes a phenomenal asset, increasing officer performance and confidence at the same time increasing officer safety and reducing agency liability.
When lives are at stake, there’s far too much to lose if training fails to address real issues or fails to reach ample intensity. How we train and what we train is crucial, because the folks we train can’t afford to make mistakes when conflict happens, regardless if it’s light or dark. My message is, as always—train to win!
Wes Doss, PhD, is an internationally recognized firearms, tactics, and use of force instructor with over 28 years of military and civilian criminal justice experience, as well as significant operational time with both military and law enforcement tactical and protective service organizations. Wes holds specialized instructor certifications from the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine Corps, Arizona POST, the Smith & Wesson Academy, the Sigarms Academy, the NRA LEAD, and FEMA. He is the founder, president, and general operating manager of Khyber Interactive Associates, LLC, and the Annual 1 Inch to 100 Yards Warrior Conference. Doss holds a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration and a PhD in Psychology. His third book, Inside the Gap, is about the psychology of close-quarters fights and due for release in winter of 2013.