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Tactical Lights and Techniques for Patrol Officers
Today’s modern police illumination tools offer so many choices, features, and options, that a top manufacturer’s 2008 catalog consists of 104 pages! Three decades ago, patrol officers had very few options to light up the midnight shift. The usual tool used for illumination was a chromed steel camping flashlight. It used an incandescent bulb, a loose two-position on/off switch, and large C or D cell batteries that didn’t last very long. These old flashlights were never accused of blinding anyone.
Current tactical lights are lighter, tougher, brighter, and more ergonomic than the flashlights of the past. Tactical lights can be mounted on chargers in your squad car’s interior, stored in your duty bag, clipped inside your uniform pant’s pocket, holstered on your duty belt, or attached to your weapon’s Picatinny rail.
Some versions of law enforcement tactical lights are equipped with self-defense crenellated strike bezels, body heat sensors, breath alcohol detectors, and even video cameras. Smaller tactical lights can be used like a Kuboton for subject control and the application of pressure points. Technology will most likely create lights in the future that are more akin to Swiss Army knives.
Current police lighting options allow varied low-light encounter tactics that far surpass the methods of the past. It used to be that an officer’s handgun was pointed at a threat with just his strong hand, while the flashlight was pointed with his weak hand. The old two-position push / pull switches did not facilitate a solid two-handed weapon hold. The modern push-button switch on a tactical light’s body or tail cap gives officers the ability to use stronger two-handed pistol holds.
Bulbs, Reflectors, Optics and Batteries
Three types of bulbs are most commonly used for police tactical lights. Incandescent lamps have been around since Thomas Edison and still provide bright light. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have the advantage of being much tougher and resistant to breakage than incandescent bulbs. LEDs have been getting brighter as technology marches forward. High-intensity discharge (HID) lamps are extremely shock resistant and capable of very high output levels. However, HID lamps can be more expensive than standard bulbs as witnessed by their use in some high-end automobiles’ headlamps.
Gathering a bulb’s created light, shaping it, and then directing it is the job of the tool’s reflector and optics. Cheap chromed cones have given way to precision, computer-designed geometric reflectors that are super smooth and create perfectly even projected light. Clear plastic lenses have given way to impact- and scratch-resistant optical lenses.
Lithium batteries offer far better performance than standard alkaline batteries for police lighting tools. Lithium batteries offer more power in a compact size, they perform better under extreme cold and heat temperatures, and their shelf life retains 90% of their power over a 10-year period while stored in your locker or duty bag.
Several manufacturers include extra bulbs that are stored inside their tactical lights. Small protective cases are also available for officers to keep extra batteries handy. Some tactical light holsters are made to accommodate extra batteries. If your bulb or batteries fail, it will be while you’re using your light. That means you’ll need replacements right then and there.
Police patrol officers require a tactical light that falls somewhere between a dual AA penlight and a massive behemoth that is capable of lighting a major league baseball night game. Tiny lights cannot provide the necessary search and threat identification that an officer needs. Large lights can be cumbersome and create fatigue when operated over a period of time.
The Modern Tactical Light
Three factors differentiate a tactical light from a standard flashlight. First, the tactical light must be rugged, dependable, and waterproof. Police officers are constantly exposed to the elements. Their tools must have the ability to withstand extreme temperatures and weather. A flashlight may not survive a drop to a hard surface or immersion in a puddle or even being temporarily lost in snow. A tactical light, designed for police use, will brush off these hazards with ease.
The second factor attributed to a tactical light is its ability to focus a high-intensity beam. An old-style flashlight would throw a wide, unfocused array of light. This may be fine for children playing tag in the dark, but it is insufficient for serious police work. A bright light is necessary to move in a low-light encounter, as well as to illuminate a threat. The light must be of a high enough intensity to allow an officer to identify and decide if a subject is a threat. Many of the tactical lights available today are capable of causing temporary blindness when flashed into a suspect’s eyes. Cutting-edge versions even sport a strobe effect to further disorient, distract, and temporarily blind a threat.
The third asset of a tactical light that makes it a specific tool for the modern police officer is the momentary button switch. Whether the switch is on the light’s tail cap, its side, or both can be a matter of personal preference. The ability of the light to be used momentarily, where the instantaneous release of the button shuts it off, is what really sets a tactical light apart from a regular flashlight.
Weapon-Mounted Lights, Lasers, and Night Sights
New handguns introduced for today’s law enforcement market must be equipped with tactical rails for mounting lights or lasers. If a pistol doesn’t have the Picatinny rail feature, it’s a step behind the competition. The same goes for duty holster makers. Common holster designs are available to accommodate weapon lights, and new versions are brought to market on a constant basis.
Weapon-mounted tactical lights possess the same features as handheld tactical lights. They also must be extra strong to withstand the abuse of a firearm’s recoil. Most of the weapon-mounted lights are controlled by a remote momentary pressure switch or by a rotating switch activated by the officer’s trigger finger or offhand thumb. Weapon-mounted tactical lights have created new challenges for the way police officers use the combination of weapon and light.
Night sights allow officers to see their handgun’s sights in low-light situations. Their glowing dots or other markers can be seen when standard black sights would have just disappeared. A weapon-mounted laser is a sighting tool that aids bullet placement just as the front and rear sights do, but you must also be able to identify a target as a threat. Illuminating a threat allows it to be identified and then, if appropriate, fired upon. Seeing your night sights or using a laser in the dark aids greatly with shot placement, but you still need to see the threat first.
Tactics for Low-Light Encounters
The first rule of a gunfight is to have a gun. The first rule of a low-light encounter is to have a light. Statistics prove that a police officer is more likely to be involved in a “shots fired” incident during low-light conditions. A tactical light, holstered on your duty belt, guarantees that you will always have a light with you. A rechargeable light mounted in your squad car or a light in your duty bag’s side pocket can still be forgotten during a sudden emergency. Law enforcement officers need to decide which carry method works best for their individual needs.
These needs are not always objective, and they are not always shared. An officer who works in a rural area may often need to search large, open areas. An extremely powerful light with a beam adjustable for broad areas would be an asset when searching a cornfield for suspects. But, this type of light would be infrequently needed by an urban officer, detailed to a residential area, consisting mostly of high-rise buildings. An officer more likely to search for a suspect in buildings with smaller, more confined areas would be better suited using a compact tactical light with a focused light beam.
Police officers armed with pistol rail-mounted lights need to be aware that handheld tactical lights are still necessary for patrol use. A weapon light is not always a substitute for a handheld light. A weapon light simply provides another option for handling low-light encounters. Justification for a handgun to be drawn must first exist before a weapon-mounted light should be used. A pistol’s muzzle obviously points in the same direction the rail light searches. Even with the trigger finger indexed off the trigger, pointing a gun around corners, into closets, and under beds during a search is a bad idea.
While a rail-mounted light is an excellent option during a search when there is already justification to have a firearm out of its holster, indexing the trigger finger is even more important in the dark. A surprised reaction can cause an unintentional shot. In the dark, surprises are apt to arise more suddenly than in the light. Officers must remain ever vigilant to keep their finger off the trigger until it is time to fire.
Weapon-mounted lights are convenient because they’re always present, and they are very quick to get into action. An officer searching a dark building with a handheld tactical light may identify a subject as an armed threat, drop the handheld light, and draw his pistol. Switching to the weapon-mounted light allows illumination of the threat as well as a strong, two-handed firing hold.
There are several techniques currently taught for the police use of tactical lights. Some techniques may feel natural, and others may seem uncomfortable for individual officers. Regardless of how easy or difficult they seem, they all require practice. Shooting is a perishable skill, and it’s even more so when used in conjunction with a tactical light. No single method is best for every possible situation. Departments should teach several techniques and then allow officers to decide which work best for them. Individual hand size can make certain techniques impossible for some officers.
Low levels of light provide concealment. Suspects hide in the dark. Officers are trained to move quickly through backlit areas to minimize their exposure, but we can also use dark areas for concealment ourselves. A tactical light should be used intermittently so as not to give away an officer’s position. Search and engagement with a constant light should only be used when there is no immediate threat. Continuous light can make a search faster and easier, but it also gives away an officer’s position and makes him a target.
Hands-together techniques keep a handgun’s muzzle aligned with the tactical light. This helps accuracy, but muzzle recoil can displace the light’s beam and the hands can separate during recoil. Hands-together techniques keep the light centered on the officer’s body, and it must be remembered that an armed threat is likely to fire at the light.
Hands-apart techniques do not offer the stability of two-handed firing grips. But it also means the handgun does not have to be aimed at everything the light is shed on. The light can be kept away from the body so that the officer is not necessarily the same center mass as the light.
The Harries technique can be used with tactical lights featuring either side or tail-cap buttons. The light is held in the offhand and is activated with either the middle finger (side button) or with the thumb (tail cap). The back of the offhand is crossed under and mated to the back of the shooting hand for support.
The Rogers / SureFire technique is used with smaller lights featuring tailcap activation. The light is held between the index and middle finger of the offhand in a sort of “syringe” style. This technique allows as close to a standard, two-handed shooting hold as possible. A combat grip ring can be attached to the light, which secures it to the shooter’s offhand index finger. Magazine changes and weapon malfunctions can be accomplished while still retaining the light. The grip ring also allows an officer the freedom to use his offhand to open doors or move objects.
For tactical lights with side-button activation, the Chapman and Ayoob techniques allow for two-handed use. With the Chapman technique, the light is held underhand, using the offhand thumb for activation. The shooting hand’s thumb and the support hand’s thumb rest side by side. The Ayoob technique is similar, but with an overhand grasp on the light.
The intermittent light technique (also known as the modified FBI technique) is when an officer holds the light in the offhand, away from the body, and then flashes it for a strobe effect. Operating the light at different heights and positions, over varying timeframes is useful if the location of a threat is unknown. This technique draws fire from the officer’s center mass and can confuse a hidden threat.
The neck index technique is where an officer holds the light with his offhand and places it against his neck. The tail-cap button is controlled by the thumb and the light rests just below the officer’s ear. The light can search and move with the officer’s head as well as illuminate both the handgun’s sights and the target. The neck index also transitions easily back and forth with the modified FBI technique. This technique has the disadvantage of drawing fire to the head area.
Industry leaders such as SureFire (www.surefire.com), Streamlight (www.streamlight.com), Insight (www.insightlights.com), Pelican (www.pelican.com) and others offer training classes for low-light encounters at the national and local levels. So do the large firearms schools such as Thunder Ranch (www.thunderranchinc.com), Gunsite (www.gunsite.com), Front Sight (www.frontsight.com) and many others. They also produce professional training videos. These videos can be an inexpensive way for law enforcement trainers to keep up to date with the constantly progressing technology and tactical techniques for solving low-light encounters.
Patrol has come a long way from cheap flashlights that quickly became rusted and worn due to exposure in weather. We no longer have to worry that our lights will shatter if dropped when scrambling out of a squad car during an emergency. While they are certainly not inexpensive, a rugged, bright, and easily operated tactical light could be the tool that saves a patrol officer’s life during a low-light encounter. For that, it’s worth every penny.
Steve Tracy is a 20-year police veteran with 18 years of experience as a firearms instructor. He also is an instructor for tactical rifles, use of force less-than-lethal force and scenario based training. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2008
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