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Weapon-Mounted Lights for Patrol: Necessity? Luxury? Liability?

Written by George Williams

Regardless of ambient lighting factors, officers must have the ability to quickly discriminate between imminent threats to their lives and people who are not armed and present no threat. Fractions of seconds matter. Failing to observe an imminent threat results in another police funeral, while failing to recognize the exact nature of an object in a subject’s hand can result in an unarmed civilian being shot. Flashlights are vital to your officers’ threat discrimination capabilities and prevention of tragedy.

Most chiefs and sheriffs have been approached with requests to authorize a weapon-mounted light (WML) for patrol officers. These units attach directly under the weapon and, once activated, illuminate the target, permitting visual verification of threat status, either imminent or not imminent threat.

At first blush, granting such a request seems to be a no-brainer. After all, officers need light to see, don’t they? However, like any piece of equipment, the usefulness of the WML to any individual officer or agency should be considered in the context in which it is likely to be used. This consideration should include a cost versus benefit analysis and a realistic evaluation of how and where this equipment is likely to be used, as well as possible liability issues involving physical safety and civil exposure.

Think about the real-world uses of this tool and the very real pitfalls that may be waiting for your agency involving the carry and use of WMLs. It will offer background information as well as experiences of officers nationwide, and take a look at the liability exposure—both physical and civil—that the improper employment of the weapon-mounted light by your officers represents.

The Need

Officers obviously need flashlights to operate in hours of darkness, as well as in darkened environments such as basements or windowless rooms. However, the consideration of a dedicated flashlight mounted on a deadly weapon must include the totality of an officer’s duty needs for portable, instantly available artificial illumination.

Officers will use the flashlight for routine administrative duties far more often than for that of illuminating or actually shooting an imminently threatening subject. A quick look at an officer’s lighting activities will find this to be more than 90% of flashlight use. Just some of those duties are: navigation, to move safely through unfamiliar terrain and areas; evidence collection, searching for and identifying evidence; completing paperwork, examining identification and documents and completing citations or reports; locating equipment in police vehicle trunks, which are typically a crowded maze of equipment.

Now, the tactical requirements. The bulk of the tactical need for a flashlight will not, of course, involve shooting an offender who is presenting an imminent threat. Instead, a short list of tactical requirements might be threat discrimination, i.e., “Is that a person, and, if so, is he a threat to me?” White light permits subject identification and better discrimination of “threat / not threat” regarding subject behavior and weapon status.

Other needs include facilitating compliance. Anonymity afforded by darkness instantly evaporates in the middle of a police flashlight beam. This often temporarily creates compliance and an opportunity to discern subject identification, intent, and activities. The use of the flashlight to create voluntary compliance (herding) with orders is common. Contacting a subject from distance and controlling that subject’s movement or actions with light and voice commands permits the officer to deny access, inhibit criminal or aggressive behavior, or provide directional control for egress or ingress of a specific area.

Shining a flashlight into an open door will generally set an artificial barrier, denying that doorway to a suspect who wishes to remain hidden from police, and “pinning” that subject in place. The offender assumes that if a light is shining through the opening, an officer on the other end of the flashlight is inevitably watching the doorway.

Especially consider search operations. The average patrol officer typically has many more hours of experience in actually searching buildings and conducting area searches than any SWAT team. These searches are generally undertaken in diminished and no-light conditions. While the majority result is simply clearing the structure, officers will occasionally confront, detain, and arrest a subject who has been located during the search.

Light is also used for temporary sight disruption and distraction. The use of white light to overwhelm a possibly threatening subject’s vision is a very valuable tool. If the situation permits, the sudden shining of a flashlight (generally 60 or more lumens is considered to be sufficient for “tactical flashlights”) into an imminent threat’s eyes disrupts his vision, creating a temporary blinding effect that can prevent the effective targeting of the officer by the suspect. This is not limited only to shooting situations. Cutting-edge defensive tactics doctrine teaches the use of temporary sight disruption during suspect contact to facilitate takedowns and other force responses more safely.

Finally, the light is used when responding with deadly force to an imminent threat in conditions of diminished or adverse light.

This has not been an exhaustive list, but it is intended as a starting point for the evaluation of equipping patrol officers with the WML. At present, there are two solutions to these lighting needs: handheld flashlights or WMLs. Both have shortcomings and strengths, which must be examined.

Handheld Flashlights

Traditional “tube” flashlights (a lighting filament located at the end of batteries with a switch mechanism on the barrel and/or end-cap) are the most common solution to general police needs for artificial lighting. This style of flashlight is getting smaller in size while the intensity of available light increases as the technology deepens and changes almost monthly.

For general purposes, the operation of this flashlight is instinctual. No training other than switch on/off and changing batteries is needed for its use by officers. Children are instantly able to operate and employ a tube flashlight, so little to no valuable training time is needed for general operation.

The use of the tube flashlight for tactical purposes requires training that varies in the level of intensity, duration, and repetition to achieve minimum competency. Applications such as herding, pinning, and threat discrimination, once learned, are permanent skills. Other tactical applications are perishable (especially search operations and deadly force response where the flashlight is employed to illuminate the target and disrupt the threat’s vision), and these skills must be refreshed through recurrent training. If officers are going to use handheld flashlights, they must be provided with recurrent tactical training to sustain the limited competency they require to function on the job.

Weapon-Mounted Lights

Weapon-mounted lights are compact, and project “tactical intensity light” where the handgun points. If average officers qualify first with tube flashlights, and then again with WMLs, the qualification scores fired with the WMLs are far superior, hands down. WMLs require much less training than traditional flashlight employment methods when firing and hitting targets at the range.

If your officers’ sole function in operating in dim or adverse lighting conditions consisted only of shooting targets during qualification, or of solely responding with deadly force to an imminent threat, the weapon-mounted light is perfect for the job. However, your officers have many highly varied functions to perform, and the real-world experience of WMLs show they are less than perfect for patrol officers. In fact, they are more likely to increase civil liability exposure than to solve reality-based problems.

The only practical, positive argument for the WML is that when the trigger is pressed, there is no easier light to use for targeting and hitting on the range. Range shooting requires no tactics, no surprising the suspect or being surprised by a sudden imminent threat, and definitely no “two-way range” dangers. Simply turn on the light and hit the target when told to shoot. However, the real-world isn’t so simplistic. The liabilities (tactical as well as civil) and drawbacks to the WML must be weighed, and its single strong point cannot justify the expense and inherent tactical weaknesses of the WML.

Problem #1: “Flashlight-with-a-firearm-attached” behavior increases civil and criminal liability. Since the inception of police deployment of the WML, officers have used them as “duty flashlights” for routine administrative purposes. With the increasing number of WMLs being fielded, the number of firearms with WMLs being pointed at non-threatening civilians, firefighters, paramedics, and other officers for purposes of illumination and signaling are too numerous to recount in this article. Consider a few examples.

Following a successful warrant service, SWAT officers in Tennessee approach a slowing vehicle in front of the suspect residence. Two of these highly trained officers use the WML attached to their M4 rifles to illuminate the driver and her three children. One visually searches the interior of the vehicle with his loaded rifle’s WML for almost a minute as another officer gets the driver’s information. A paramedic in Florida treating a heart attack victim asks an officer for more light. The officer responds by drawing his .45 ACP handgun, turning on the WML and illuminates the victim.

A California police officer, speaking to a citizen, hears a group of people approaching in the dark. He casually turns, draws his handgun, illuminates the three individuals with his WML, and then holsters, turns, and resumes his conversation. In Pennsylvania, a police officer, hearing voices on a third story balcony, draws his handgun and uses the attached WML to illuminate the people, and then returns the handgun to his holster. A Washington police officer draws his handgun and uses the attached WML to signal his position to responding officers.

While many officers dismiss this behavior as “clearly substandard” and “idiotic,” their “It’ll never happen to me because I’m smarter than that” attitude denies simple human nature. This “flashlight with a gun attached” behavior is exhibited by the entire spectrum of officers, from rank rookies to the highly trained tactical elite. It is very likely that those officers, before their ill-considered actions, would have viewed that behavior with similar disdain. It simply seems to be the nature of the beast—“When I need a flashlight, I automatically resort to what is easiest and handy.”

While it is true that no reasonable officer would approve of this conduct, given the inherent pressures of the job, routine absent mindedness, the effects of fatigue, and reverting to the dominant habitual response of drawing a handgun (a positive, intentionally ingrained and trained behavior), there is always room for error on anyone’s part, and no one is immune. The odds are against 100% fully conscious decision-making 100% of the time by any officer during every shift for 30 years—or even one week. Simply put, it is not about “idiocy.” It is about dominant response and human nature.

The greatest problem with the “my-gun-is-a-flashlight-handle” behavior, beyond even negative public perception (and the questions of legality those actions invoke), is that of an unintentional discharge. Despite the fact that officers are universally trained to keep their fingers off the trigger until they intend to fire, there are national and international studies that show that officers routinely and unconsciously touch the trigger during stressful situations. This creates a huge problem with WML-equipped officers. At some point during every shift, there are periods of inattention and unthinking automatic behavior. Most of the time, there are no ramifications for this. However, when that unconscious behavior involves the need for a light to illuminate an unknown situation, the officer’s dominant response may be to use the light that is the easiest to access—his handgun’s.

The consequences an unintentional discharge resulting in injury or death of a non-threatening citizen due to the casual use of a WML is staggering. There will be no question of civil liability exposure by the officer and agency—just a matter of determining how many zeroes to enter on the settlement check. In some jurisdictions, there will be criminal liability that may include manslaughter charges.

Regardless of the civil and criminal ramifications, an individual will have been injured or killed without justification, two families will be shattered, and the community (further?) estranged from the police. Additionally, the officer will have to live with the fact that he or she wrongly injured or killed another human being. Any resulting discipline can have significant effects on agency morale. Everyone loses in this situation.

Some agencies recognize this problem and hope to prevent this behavior by mandating the carry of a tube-flashlight when carrying a WML. Unfortunately, policy cannot override fundamental human behavior. Officers do not point “loaded flashlights” at citizens intentionally—it is through an unthinking dominant response to a need for light, rather than willful misconduct. While this policy provision will provide a basis for discipline after the fact, it likely will do little to inhibit the inherent problem of unjustified brandishing of a “live-fire flashlight” at a citizen.

Problem #2: What does the officer do when there is no longer a justification to point a firearm at a subject but there is a continued need to observe the individual? Given a situation in darkness where the officer is justified in using his handgun and WML during an area search, the officer contacts a subject at gunpoint. Within seconds, the officer determines that this is clearly not the described offender, yet this present individual has not been identified, searched, and his intentions have not been discovered. He still bears watching, yet the situation no longer permits the officer to point the handgun at him. What does the officer do?

While training may rightly call for the officer to immediately transition from illuminating the subject with the WML to illuminating him with a second flashlight, the human factors again argue against an easy transition each time, every time for the balance of a career: The original threatening situation has not diminished. The need for a handgun in the officer’s hand to possibly respond with deadly force has not been eliminated.

Moving from a light that is more than sufficient to illuminate the present subject (the WML attached to the handgun) to a second flashlight to illuminate this subject is less than likely in the real world. While it is easy to discuss why it should happen in the classroom, the offices of Professional Standards, the chief’s office, or the courtroom, in the midst of a continuing threatening situation, the likelihood of this officer transitioning to a second light 100% of the time in the field is doubtful.

This person has not been “cleared” of concealed weapons. While there may be nothing indicating that this person is presently a threat, the overall context may prevent an officer from completely shutting off the perception that he is under threat. The officer’s handgun represents safety and defense against sudden attack.

The officer considers his WML to be his “search and identification tool.” This individual has been located, and while it is not the suspect he was attempting to apprehend, this individual still has not been cleared of weapons and his intent clarified. The officer will then have two flashlights activated, one in his hand, and one on his handgun. Now the officer is tasked with transitioning from a lighting solution that is working to a second lighting solution where he feels he loses the advantage provided by the second-hand on the firearm.

Problem #3: The reality of officer-involved shootings. Shootings often occur with little warning. In dim light, the officer is using his tube-light in a non-threatening situation. A subject turns the corner. The officer suddenly orients to an imminent threat. The officer reflexively draws his handgun and takes time to drop or stow his tube-flashlight and then turn on his WML? It is more likely the officer will make due with the hand-held tube light in solving this life-threatening problem and not think of the WML until after the shooting is over.

The carry of a WML presupposes the officer will have sufficient warning of possible threatening behavior as well as having sufficient time to activate the light before the need to respond with deadly force arises. If the situation is static (e.g., responding to an armed subject being held at gunpoint by another officer), and if there is sufficient time to activate it, then the WML may play beneficial part in resolving the situation.

Problem #4: WMLs limit tactical options. In performing a search, the ability to separate the flashlight from the handgun is now the training standard for diminished and adverse light operations. It is not nearly as effective or safe for the officer to be limited to the single option of a “flashlight-attached-to-a-gun.” Current doctrine calls for the officer to employ the flashlight independent of the handgun in random patterns and from differing heights and angles to create confusion and hesitancy in the offender.

With the flashlight attached, the officer is precluded from maximizing the effectiveness of the flashlight for his safety. Effectively employing the light of the WML would lead to improper weapon-handling and waving the handgun around. It is impossible to achieve a level of complex and random illumination unless both hands—the handgun in one, and the flashlight in the other—are free to move independently. Each tool is operated independently until purposely brought together to challenge a suspect and/or shoot an imminent threat.

Problem #5: Carry of the WML. No real solution has been found that fully satisfies the need to carry the WML before its employment. The dedicated holsters are less than satisfactory from a weapon-retention point of view—the modification to the holster generally provides much more movement of the handgun inside the holster, lessening the effectiveness of the various retention systems. Weapon retention is an officer safety priority and should never be compromised.

If the officer is carrying the WML separately, this, too, is problematic. Not only does this separate carry force the officer to have sufficient advance notice of a tactical need for the WML before a shooting situation, but it is also a problem when a situation suddenly changes to a hands-on, force arrest.

After holding the suspect at gunpoint with the WML activated, the officer must now assist other officers in overcoming suspect resistance. To holster his weapon, the officer must first disconnect the WML from the handgun, stow the light, holster the handgun, snap the handgun into the holster, and then engage the suspect. This added time may be the cause of injury to an officer or suspect.

Not a Patrol Solution

WMLs are a remarkable technology. Durable, bright, and always aligned to the target, it frees the non-dominant hand to maintain a two-handed grip, as well as permitting the rapid clearing of malfunction and unhindered reloading. If shooting and manipulating the weapon were the sole criteria, every officer in the U.S. should be equipped with a quality unit.

However, the real world intrudes. The likelihood of at least occasionally pointing a “loaded flashlight” at others without legal justification—including other officers—with the concomitant possibility of an unintentional discharge with injury or death, argues against WMLs for patrol. While any particular officer may never brandish his WML-equipped handgun without justification, it can only be determined at the conclusion of his career if this was true of this officer.

Officer-involved shootings generally occur too rapidly to employ the light. The very nature of the WML forces the officer into a dramatically inefficient tactical method of employment when searching. Additionally, the problem with secure carry of the WML-equipped handgun has not been solved.

There is a solution to the problem of police officers requiring illumination for all purposes—the handheld flashlight. The flashlight remains flexible enough to do it all, including illuminating a target (paper or threat) in diminished or adverse light. While it takes training to retain competency in high-threat situations, there are very few liabilities that can be incurred by the flashlight held in an officer’s support hand.

The WML is not a solution for patrol, and has very limited application to police work (possibly for K9-handlers and perhaps SWAT, although transition from high-stress entries to post-entry searches still require a transition to a flashlight). The WMLs use parameters are too narrow, and its inherent liabilities are too great.

George T. Williams is a professional police training specialist, a certified police master trainer, and is currently director of training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, WA. He trains officers in revolutionary defensive tactics, firearms, tactical operations, and civil liability courses. He is available at (360) 671-2007, or via e-mail at gtwilliams@cuttingedgetraining.com.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2009

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