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Safe Low-Light Policing

In an ideal world, law enforcement officers could work more traditional hours. Crimes would be committed only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and only in open and highly lit areas. Natural disasters would only occur during peak daylight hours, providing officers with ample natural light to help them address any issues at hand.

Unfortunately, that isn’t law enforcement. Criminals are often at their busiest when the rest of the community is asleep. And as the world has seen repeatedly over the past few years, catastrophic events, both natural and man-made, can occur any time and any place. If you are like most officers, you find yourself working or covering at least an occasional night shift, guaranteeing that you will be in a position to protect your community, fellow officers and yourself after dark.

It is critical that law enforcement agencies ensure that their officers are prepared to carry out their duties in low-light / no-light situations, both indoors and outdoors, at a moment’s notice. One piece of critical technology that can help in these situations is night vision equipment.

For decades, night vision has played an integral role in helping officers apprehend criminals, prevent crime and protect communities. Whether night vision is used for responding to and policing disasters, performing search-and-rescue missions, conducting surveillance, collecting evidence or routine patrolling on regular beats, there is no doubt that all officers could benefit from this technology, potentially enabling them to save a life—either one they are sworn to protect or their own.

Proactive Patrolling

Dark, shadowy areas provide natural cover to illegal activities—and are a serious disadvantage to a beat cop on patrol. Alleyways, abandoned buildings, public parks and recreational areas, parking lots and darkened street corners are the most common of these in urban areas; in more rural locations, forests and large expanses of private property provide challenges. Using night vision technology to approach these areas after dark allows an officer to assess any activity that is occurring and therefore maintain the tactical advantage. Should a pursuit be necessary, the officer also can maneuver more safely and effectively.

Even in daylight hours, an officer might need to enter a windowless or abandoned building without power. Compounding an officer’s problem in this situation is the time it takes for the human eye to adjust from a light environment to a dark one. Night vision technology allows an officer to enter and explore a building without white light, whether as a routine patrol, a response to a call or in pursuit of a suspect.

The officer has the ability to remain under the cover of darkness and potentially introduce white light if it becomes safe to do so. Tactically, night vision also gives officers the option of cutting the lights or power in a building to slow down suspects or suspend activity. Without night vision, suspects usually either must wait for their vision to adjust or give themselves away, stumbling and running into obstacles as they flee.

Natural Disasters

The loss of power can make it difficult for officers and other first responders to conduct rescue efforts and prevent crimes from taking place during chaotic situations. During such scenarios, the use of night vision can be extremely beneficial. If a disaster occurs during the low-light hours of the day or knocks out power in buildings during daylight hours, night vision enables responders to see clearly even when there is little or seemingly no natural light available to them.

The technology is particularly useful for responders acting in areas made dangerous by looting and other criminal activity. They can remain under cover of darkness while entering and working in these areas and have the opportunity to distinguish criminals from victims in need of assistance.

During Hurricane Katrina, night vision technology played an integral role in first responders’ ability to continue rescue efforts and security measures throughout the night on foot and by boat. Many areas were unstable, and using white light would have been a threat to responders. In addition, helicopters relied on night vision to navigate areas where extensive changes to the landscape had occurred. This continuity was critical as flood waters rose in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

On a similar note, every second is critical when it comes to search-and-rescue missions. Night vision technology, critical for helicopters and other means of air response, also enhances the ability of officers on the ground to cover the greatest territory. Using white light and night vision to complement one another allows responders to perform the most thorough search possible. The safety of the responders is paramount—in areas where the terrain is treacherous or there are other potential hazards along the way, it is vitally important that responders have the ability to protect themselves.


Night vision levels the crime playing field, allowing law enforcement officers to conduct surveillance operations in secluded and dark areas without being detected or giving up their positions. With Generation (Gen) 3 technology, law enforcement officers can discern critical details such as whether a suspect is holding a weapon or simply has a phone in his hand, and whether the person has any notable facial characteristics such as a mustache or other unique features.

Evidence gathered using the most advanced night vision equipment has even proved admissible in court, a significant achievement for officers conducting surveillance around the clock. In addition, some night vision devices can be mounted onto a camera, enabling officers to take clear pictures of criminals at work at any time of day or night.

Officers face low-light / no-light situations on a regular basis. Night vision technology is a versatile tool that allows law enforcement officers to see without being seen. When officers understand the technology and all of its varied applications, they can utilize it daily for safe and effective policing, regardless of lighting conditions. For firsthand accounts of how officers have combated obstacles associated with low-light / no-light situations, visit ITT Night Vision’s Web site.

Joe Horvath and Jennifer Lucado are business consultants with ITT Night Vision (ITT), one of only two manufacturers of Gen 3 night vision equipment in the U.S., located in Roanoke, VA. Chief Tom Dugan, contributor, is retired from the Glen Ridge Police Department in Glen Ridge, NJ, and currently serves as law enforcement projects coordinator for ITT. Photos courtesy of

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2008

Rating : 10.0

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