Gunshots still ring in your ears as you hunker down behind your patrol car. You know the armed suspect ran from his car into some roadside brush, but surreal red and blue flashes from your overheads make it difficult to focus on where he might be now. You see a muzzle flash as he fires again from the shadows.
Taking cover behind the hood and your vehicle's wheels, you stick your flashlight up and away from your body with your off hand, catching a glimpse of the suspect squatted down behind the brush. You fire your pistol. You see the suspect stand as he fires again.
Pulling the trigger as fast as you can, you watch while, as if in slow motion, he crumples to the ground. "Follow-through, follow-through...breathe," you hear the voice of your instructor say in your head. "Stay in the game!" You perform a reload still holding your flashlight in your off hand. You key your lapel mic and send the message that will bring help-although the wait until then will seem like forever.
It could start as a traffic stop or a building search or a suspicious persons call. Whatever the situation, when things get violent, you're in a fight for your life, and all the skills you've acquired through training will help you win the day...or night.
After darkness falls, all of the miscreants seem to crawl out from their hiding places to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting and to ply their dubious trades. And it's up to you to keep them in check, even if you have a hard time seeing them. Low-light operations require special skills learned in specific training. New advanced tools can help. But it takes the whole package-your body, your equipment, and your training-to win the night.
Like it or not, your body has certain unavoidable limitations. According to police low-light operations expert Marshall Schmidt, if an officer with 20/20 vision enters a low-light environment, his vision may deteriorate from 20/20 to as low as 20/800. That's a heck of a disadvantage.
Just think of the last time you went into a darkened movie theatre. Except for the floor lighting and screen, you were unable to see much of what was before you. Your vision will improve in just a couple of minutes, but it will take about 32 minutes to be totally acclimated. And even then, the best vision you're likely to get is about 20/180. Considering that this is just under the legally blind level of 20/200, you can now understand what a disadvantage you have entering a low-light environment where the suspect might have been hiding for some time and might know the environment better than you.
To make matters worse, not being able to see adequately and other stressors can throw your body for a loop. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), also known as the fight or flight reflex, causes a number of psychological and physiological changes in the body based on your perception of threat, whether real or perceived. Effects include perceptual narrowing, changes to the eyes, and inability to perform fine motor skills.
Perceptual narrowing manifested as tunnel vision and auditory exclusion are the most frequently reported effects of SNS. Important to officer survival is that officers involved in shootings report that their peripheral vision field narrowed (tunnel vision). Couple this with the fact that SNS reduces night vision and you understand the importance of proper preparation vis-à-vis lighting equipment and training. Additionally, flashlight and handgun manipulations that may be possible on the well-lit square range seem impossible with shaking hands and a body full of adrenaline and other stress chemicals.
Police equipment has advanced leaps and bounds from when I started on the job 27 years ago. Since then, developments in lighting equipment have been amazing. Officers can carry a small flashlight (even multiple lights) that far surpass even a large rechargeable. This leads us to the first rule: Have a light.
Regardless of assignment, you must have a light. From searching that warehouse on an alarm drop to searching a crack house for a felony suspect, you must be able to safely do your job regardless of the lighting conditions. The Navy SEALs have a corollary to rule #1: "One equals none and two equals one." Simply stated, you must have redundancy in your safety equipment; this means at least two lights. It might sound like overkill, but Murphy's Law states that your equipment will take a dump at the most inopportune time.
Various manufacturers have developed flashlights capable of 120 lumens (the correct way to measure light output) or more in three-volt lithium battery configuration or rechargeable. LED (Light Emitting Diode) lights have extended bulb life into the thousands of hours. What kind of light should you choose? I like a small rechargeable flashlight for general purpose patrol duties. I then back up that light with a three-volt lithium light carried on the belt. This arrangement allows me to always have a light should the need arise.
Weapon-mounted lights have improved in quality while getting smaller in size. These lights-whether for a carbine, shotgun, or pistol-allow for increased accuracy potential while shooting. But in the case of a pistol, use your off hand to open doors, extend the arm for balance, or any manner of physical activity. Always remember that when using a weapon-mounted light: a) You are in fact pointing a firearm, not just a light, and b) You must have a backup light.
When weapon-mounted lasers first came out I was not a fan. The early designs were too big and cumbersome and the systems could be easily knocked off zero. The new mini laser designs, when used in conjunction with a white light, can be used in low light to increase accuracy, from behind cover, from unconventional shooting positions, by a wounded officer, etc.
The final ingredient for success in adverse lighting conditions is realistic training. In Ohio, where I live and work, the state qualification course allows departments to substitute welding goggles for actual low-light conditions in the only adverse light event. This is simply not acceptable.
My experience as a firearms instructor running low-light training is that coordinating the use of a pistol and flashlight at the same time is the toughest for officers to master. Officers frequently overexpose themselves while behind cover in order to get their flashlight on target or light themselves up by leaving the light on while behind cover. Training can improve this performance, but it needs to be conducted in actual low-light conditions with the gear you carry on duty. Otherwise you won't be able to react properly when it counts on the street.
Just today as I was participating in a basic academy force-on-force drill, one cadet held his flashlight and pistol in an excellent coordinated stance but never actuated the "on" button. Pressing the button of a flashlight or coordinating a light and pistol are skills that require training and repetition. Learn to pay attention to lighting conditions and how to use your light to put the suspect in a disadvantageous position-not yourself.
Effective responses to the various lighting conditions we encounter on the job can only be learned in realistic training. Although your agency might not have access to an indoor range with controlled lighting or to an outdoor range after dark, a lot of good training can be conducted indoors in force-on-force or target discrimination drills using Airsoft, Simunitions, or paintball. You can train using cardboard shoot/no-shoot targets set up in a darkened room and then locate and identify threats as well as put accurate fire on target if called for. Conducting force-on-force drills against live role players is an even better way to prepare yourself for the street.
Even with training, shooting accuracy sharply declines in low light. Police low-light instructor Tom Aveni reports that even agencies that conduct a lot of training in low light experience a 20-percent lower hit rate when shooting in adverse lighting conditions. Aveni also notes that 75 percent of "mistake of fact" shootings (the suspect is not armed) take place in low light, which reinforces the need for officers to properly deploy their flashlights.
In the past, instructors made statements like, "Avoid using flashlights because they are 'bullet magnets.'" Although it is true that you want to avoid leaving your light on continuously as you move through or search an area, a better tactic is to "light" and scan, then "light off" and move. The flashlight is an effective tool when used properly.
Since man learned to master fire, he has used it to shine light on the darkness and keep the wolves at bay. Although our forefathers faced threats of a different kind in their day, we still must face "things that go bump in the night." We can and must win these encounters. To do so, we must understand our visual limitations in low light, equip properly, and train in these conditions. We will then be the masters of the night, not victims to those who prowl in it.
Kevin R. Davis is a full-time police officer with more than 24 years of law enforcement experience. A former team leader and lead instructor for his agency's SWAT team, he is currently assigned to the training bureau where he specializes in firearms, tactics, and suspect control training. He welcomes your feedback at [email protected]