About 80% of all officer involved shootings take place in low or
diminished light. The average police shooting is over in 2.6 seconds. The time
frame from which the officer perceives danger to when deadly force is deemed
necessary is typically under a fraction of a second.
Adequate light is necessary to locate, identify, evaluate and
engage threats. A research study conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department
found that officers have difficulty in distinguishing between lethal and
non-lethal objects in levels of light less than that produced by 0.5 foot
candles, i.e., routine working conditions at night. Even during the day, there
are many situations in which officers will face conditions of reduced or inconsistent
Visual acuity is further reduced by the fact that the suspect or
officer is frequently in motion prior to and during an officer-involved
shooting. The effects of stress and fear also adversely affect visual acuity.
Hormones are secreted by the body during periods of high stress or acute fear
that dramatically decrease visual functioning.
Equipping a weapon with a tritium night sight or a laser doesn’t
eliminate the need for a white light where it’s too dark to reliably locate,
identify and evaluate targets. A powerful flashlight or weapon-mounted light is
Not only is a white light essential for illumination, it can
provide a significant tactical advantage when employed in a tactically sound
manner. The application of high-intensity light can impair the vision of anyone
looking directly into the beam and temporarily disorient him, providing the
operator with a critical edge. A powerful light can provide a non-lethal force
option and reduce the level of force that’s necessary to bring a suspect into
compliance or custody.
There are a number of important advantages that can be gained by
mounting a light on a firearm. Using a separate hand-held flashlight and
manipulating a weapon can be difficult if not impossible in fast-moving,
high-stress situations. Additionally, it ties up both hands, one hand to hold
and operate the light and the other hand to control and operate the weapon.
A weapon light will provide the officer with white light in
critical reduced light situations without adversely affecting the officer’s
ability to shoot, while allowing the officer to maintain a free hand for other
tasks. Since the weapon light is mounted on the weapon, the light is always
aligned with the weapon.
Having a weapon light doesn’t eliminate the need to carry a
flashlight. A flashlight is still essential as a back-up light and for general
illumination tasks. Some weapon lights, such as Insight Technology’s popular M-
and X-Series lights, for example, may also be employed as hand-held systems
that can be duty gear adapted through a series of aftermarket clips, holders
and pouches. These lights can be removed from a duty belt holder and used as a
powerful, easy-to- operate hand-held flashlight. If needed, the light can be
instantly attached to a weapon and employed as a weapon light without ever
losing sight of a suspect.
Searching with a white light can be a two-edged sword. Although
often necessary, searching with a white light can become a liability if armed
suspects are present. However, there are several widely used techniques that an
officer can employ to increase his safety. The appropriate techniques and
tactics will vary depending on the situation.
A suspect has obvious tactical advantages when the officer does
not know the suspect’s location. Until threats are located it is best to keep a
flashlight away from the body as much as possible. The officer’s flashlight can
be the only aiming reference point that a suspect has and he will naturally assume
that you are behind it.
White light should be used intermittently, with varying
placement of the beam, duration of on time, and angle of the beam, as the
tactical situation allows. The goal is to locate and identify threats while creating
an illusion as to the officer’s actual location. A constant on mode rapidly drains
batteries, degrades night vision, and makes one visible to potential threats.
The intermittent use of light can provide a tactical advantage.
One technique is for the officer to use momentary flashes of light to gain
instant pictures of his immediate surroundings, then move away from each flash.
After the officer has moved through the area that has been captured by a flash,
the officer uses another flash to get a picture of a subsequent area. This
technique lessens the likelihood of a suspect pinpointing the officer’s
location while the officer is searching with the white light.
Another technique is the use of indirect illumination; that is,
bouncing light off of a ceiling or a wall. The use of indirect illumination helps
conceal the officer’s location, since the intensity of the light from the
officer’s flashlight won’t increase as the officer approaches an illuminated
area. Indirect illumination can also often be used to locate a suspect
concealed behind an object by the shadows that are cast by light bounced around
If working with a partner, the officer’s partner can use
indirect illumination from his flashlight to illuminate danger areas in front
of the officer. From a position of cover, the officer’s partner can also use direct
illumination from his flashlight for the same purpose and to provide the other officer
with partial concealment, provided the other officer is behind the light beam.
When employing a weapon-mounted light, indirect lighting can be
utilized to identify an individual in a low-light environment without having to
point the light and the attached firearm directly at that individual. The light
can be pointed in a safe direction on a wall, floor or ceiling, and reflected
or “bounced” back to identify that individual.
When using either direct or indirect illumination, it’s always
extremely important to avoid silhouetting or illuminating yourself or a partner
with reflected light. You also need to be aware of any shadows that may be cast
that will give away your approach. When shining a light at a suspect, it should
be aimed directly into the suspect’s eyes. This will serve to temporarily impair
the suspect’s vision and have a disorienting effect.
When searching a building, sometimes that best approach is to
first turn on the building lights while making effective use of cover and
concealment. Obviously, the officer should advise other officers at the location
of his intentions before doing so. Also, it is important to keep in mind that light
switches in some locations may be booby trapped.
A number of flashlight-assisted shooting techniques have been
developed. There is no one “best” technique. There are advantages and
disadvantages to each technique. The choice of technique will largely depend on
the size of the flashlight, the location of the switch, the size of your hands,
the shooting stance you will use and, of course, personal preferences.
As previously discussed, a white light can give away the officer’s
position and provide an excellent aiming point for a suspect. Whenever there is
the possibility of multiple suspects, the light should only be turned on
one-half second before firing to illuminate the target when shooting. The light
should be turned off immediately after firing. The officer should then move away
from the target in a lateral direction to prevent being located as a result of
the white light beam or muzzle flash.
The technique differs somewhat when there is only one suspect.
When the officer is certain there is only a single suspect, the white light
should be kept on and target acquisition maintained after the suspect is down
and incapacitated, until the officer is certain the threat has been terminated
or back-up arrives.
The proper use of cover and concealment is no less important in
reduced-light situations. It is important to always keep in mind that suspects
don’t worry about clearly identifying their targets before opening fire. Eugene
Nielsen provides investigative and tactical consulting
services and is a former officer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more
articles geared to the tactical officer, see www.trmagonline.com or subscribe
to Tactical Response magazine, brought to you by the editors of LAWand ORDER magazine.