The ability to rule the night is one reason the U.S. military is so dominant. That ability via adaptation of technology from our military is finding an ever-increasing role in civilian law enforcement.
Because law enforcement is a 24/7 occupation and we usually can t wait for better weather or light conditions before taking action, police officers must be properly trained and equipped to prevail regardless of conditions.
The FBI s annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed/Assaulted (LEOKA) study consistently demonstrates that more deadly force encounters occur in low-light conditions than in daylight. Therefore, the ability of law officers to exploit tactics, training and technology to their advantage will help them dominate in critical incidents.
There are myriad flashlight manufacturers, from the traditional to the high tech. Regardless of manufacturer, the one thing that all lights have in common is that they need to be kept with the officer. It does no good for a light to sit on the passenger seat of the patrol car when the officer who needs it is inside a dark building. It s incumbent on FTOs to instill in their young trainees the importance of having at least one light with them at all times, even if they re working day watch. With the advent of small lights (3-V lithium battery-powered lights, such as those made by NovaTac and Surefire), it s now commonplace for officers to wear one light on their duty belt and carry a full-size flashlight in their uniform sap pocket.
It used to be common only among SWAT operators or K-9 handlers to have lights mounted to their sidearms or shoulder weapons. It s now becoming standard practice for patrol officers to have lights affixed to their weapons. Budget woes notwithstanding, I believe this current trend will continue. Soon, it will be an anomaly to see a law enforcement weapon that doesn t have a light attached to it whether handgun or shoulder, lethal or less lethal. After all, we must first identify a threat and determine a proper response to that threat before engaging it.
With the proliferation of lights mounted to handguns, the major holster manufacturers have been forced to keep pace by designing holsters that accommodate lights attached to weapons. As with all equipment, proper training must ensure familiarity. Additionally, officers should be instructed that weapons with lights affixed shouldnotbe used in lieu of a standard flashlight. I ve heard officers joke about conducting FSTs with their handgun-mounted light. Although these officers were joking, the words of Gordon Graham, If it s predictable, it s preventable, come to mind
While on the topic of weapon-mounted lights, I should mention that a good set of tritium night sights shouldn t be overlooked. By far, the most popular remains the Trijicon brand. With a life expectancy of approximately 12 years and a cost of around $80 for the front and rear sight set for almost every popular duty handgun, this is a very reasonable investment for a department or an individual officer.
Training/Tactical Use of Light
Several reputable low-light courses are offered nationally, the most popular being those conducted by the SureFire Institute. Courses commonly include a combination of lecture/theory and practical application.
In my 21-year law enforcement career, one of the best training opportunities I ve had occurred two years ago at a writers conference hosted by Blackhawk in Norfolk, Va. Following a period of classroom instruction, the attendees were provided two hours of practical training in a force-on-force building. We took turns playing the bad guy and the good guy. The good guy was sent to locate the bad guy who was secreted somewhere inside the building. The winner was the one who was best able to exploit the dark to their advantage.
With practice, we were able to take advantage of shadows, not silhouette ourselves and be more discriminating in our use of a handheld flashlight. We all became fairly adept at locating the adversary in the most tactically advantageous manner possible. It was at this training that I was first exposed to the significant advantage afforded by a strobe light. Strategically holding the light at constantly changing heights, angles and directions, and varying the frequency of the strobe make it nearly impossible to identify your location and proximity as you approach a subject.
One of the most common occurrences during any patrol shift is conducting a traffic stop. This is also one of the most risky duties performed by a police officer. Unfortunately, like most mundane tasks, the routine nature of this activity sometimes leads to complacency. Officers must never allow themselves to fall into this potentially fatal mind-set. Low-light conditions can lead to an even greater risk for those who haven t learned to exploit the tactical advantages of a low-light environment. Although we can t always control where a driver stops their vehicle, we can affect their choice by planning the stop to our strategic advantage.Example:If a traffic violator pulls to the curb within a reasonable distance of a streetlight, the officer can use the public address system to have the driver pull forward and stop beneath the street light, thus using environmental lighting to their advantage.
The proper use of the patrol car s lighting (emergency lights, as well as spotlights/takedown lights) can work to temporarily blind the vehicle s occupants to the officer s approach. Approaching in the shadows and using existing cover and concealment are also healthy habits to develop as a new officer and maintain as an experienced one. By momentarily directing a flashlight beam into a door mirror or the occupants eyes, the officer can also create a loss of visual acuity and temporarily disorient the individual.
The use of FLIR technology is an excellent example of law enforcement bene-fitting from the military s extensive budget for the research and development of low-light technology. Officer safety is greatly enhanced when conducting nighttime area searches using thermal imaging.
I recall a patrol search for a suspect who had led officers on an exceptionally dangerous pursuit at 0300 hrs. Another agency s helicopter was brought in to assist ground officers in searching for the suspect, who had fled the vehicle while it was still in motion. Three different agencies K-9 teams had searched the area without success. Within minutes of the airship s arrival, the aerial observer advised ground units that he had a heat signature of a suspect hiding in a small stream. The suspect was unaware that he d been located because the bright white searchlight of the helicopter was directed in the opposite direction of the FLIR. The observer was able to guide ground units to the suspect s location, and he was taken into custody with the assistance of a canine.
Thermal imaging recognizes heat signatures, whereas night vision equipment magnifies ambient light to allow the user to see in the dark. Like thermal imaging, quality night vision is relatively expensive, and, as they say, you generally get what you pay for. Typical quality night vision equipment costs $3,000 5,000 per unit. Whether you choose night vision equipment, thermal imaging or one of the new combinations of the two, the ability to see without being seen is a huge benefit to officer safety.
Officers who don t have access to night vision or thermal imaging equipment can still take advantage of the cover of darkness. Through practice, officers can develop tactics that allow them to make a safe approach and contact a suspect, whether the setting is in a structure, in an open area or a car stop. I strongly encourage officers to find a safe time and place to train with low-light maneuvering in different configurations, such as solo or in pairs and small teams.
Motivated officers would be well-advised to take advantage of a resource that exists in most agencies your K-9 unit. K-9 handlers are generally among the best-trained personnel on any department when it comes to low-light searches. I d be willing to bet that most handlers would love the opportunity to impart their knowledge and experience to make their fellow officers safer by challenging their ability in low-light environments.