American law enforcement officers have many tools at their disposal. On the average officer's belt, he or she has a baton, OC spray, probably a TASER, and most definitely a handgun and spare mags.
That handgun is probably the first thing that many Americans think of when asked to imagine the tools carried by police officers. It is a symbol of the officer's authority and a tool designed to save his or her life or the lives of innocent people in a deadly threat situation. But there may actually be a more important life-saving tool in that officer's kit.
That tool is some form of flashlight. Officers can't respond to threats when they can't see them. And officers spend much of their time working in low-light and even no-light conditions. This is true even in the daytime when officers are often required to search darkened buildings or large buildings such as warehouses that have many areas of shadow.
Because of the critical importance of illumination tools in law enforcement operations, POLICE recently conducted a survey about flashlight, weapon light, and laser sight ownership, usage, and training among working law enforcement officers. The following is a snapshot of our findings.
First, let's get a little bookkeeping out of the way. The survey was sent to 22,466 e-mail addresses, all registered readers of POLICE Magazine or PoliceMag.com. A total of 2,084 recipients opened the survey for a 9% total response. Out of that total of 2,084 respondents, 1,742 self-identified as "working law enforcement" officers. The response level in this survey yields a plus or minus 2.3% margin of error with 95% confidence.
OK. Now let's discuss the findings of the survey.
The first question we wanted answered was what percentage of officers carry a standalone flashlight on duty. We assumed that the number would be high and our survey proved that assumption correct. A full 97% of respondents said they carry a standalone flashlight on duty. Interestingly, slightly more than 93% of these officers said they carry a standalone flashlight while working in the daytime.
From our findings, it is not unusual for officers to carry multiple illumination tools on duty. This means that buying these lights can be a major expense for officers. Fortunately, about 62% of the respondents said they are issued one or more flashlights as part of their standard gear. A total of 39.7% of respondents said they receive a gear allowance that can be used to augment their issued kit or to purchase gear that is not issued, including illumination tools.
One of the most popular features added to law enforcement flashlights over the last decade has been the strobe. This feature has gained huge traction in the market. More than 61% of respondents said their lights have a strobe feature.
The idea behind the strobe is that its bright flashes can disorient potential assailants. But just because officers have the strobe feature does not necessarily mean they use it, at least not intentionally. It's easy to accidentally trigger the strobe function on many lights. Despite some problems with strobes and the general novelty of strobe features on law enforcement flashlights, our findings show that the strobe is being used more and more as a tactical tool. Nearly 30% of respondents said they have triggered their strobes intentionally on duty.
Another feature that has become prevalent in law enforcement flashlights is extreme brightness. A decade ago, 150 lumens was considered extraordinarily bright for a small tactical flashlight. Many of these little torches now offer more than 500 lumens of searing white light. So one thing we were curious about was how much brightness is too much and has the market reached that threshold.
Evidently not. Less than 1% of our respondents thought law enforcement flashlights are now too bright and more than 47% said they need to be brighter. But the brightness levels may be reaching a point of diminishing returns, as a little more than 52% of respondents said the lights are now just bright enough.
One of the more interesting revelations from the survey was what officers would like to see improved on their flashlights. Many of the suggestions for improvements focused on making commonly available features better. They asked for longer runtimes, greater durability, better size/weight ratios, increased brightness, and faster recharging. Others asked for features not currently available on many lights, including auto shut-off when the light is holstered, rechargeable systems that can use regular batteries in a pinch, a built-in windshield breaker, a dimmer switch, easier transition operations between modes, a battery life indicator, programmable switches, and the inclusion of a traffic cone with every light. And of course, everybody wants them to be cheaper.
Yet despite all of the requested improvements, law enforcement light manufacturers should give themselves a pat on the back for the quality of their current products. Several veteran officers replied with something very similar to this officer's sentiment. "I don't think you can improve them. I have used flashlights for 30 years in law enforcement, and the new ones can't be beat."
Weapon Lights and Lasers
A decade ago it was not uncommon for agencies to ban the use of pistol-mounted weapon lights by patrol officers. The thinking was that if officers had weapon lights they would pull their guns to illuminate suspects in situations where the guns should not be drawn. It seems these agencies had little knowledge of the fact most officers carry more than one light on duty.
Today, any qualms about officers using weapon-mounted lights without cause appear to be on the wane. More than 42% of the survey respondents said they use pistol-mounted weapon lights on the job. Of these, 71.8% said they also carry standalone lights. Many of these officers are now being issued pistol lights by their agencies.
As we did with flashlights we asked what improvements officers would like to see in their weapon lights, and once again we got an earful. Comments included the usual stuff such as better runtime, improved size/weight ratio, greater durability, more holster options, and of course, price. Some of the more interesting responses included specific requests for new features such as strobing and dimming. Others asked for ambidextrous switches. And one respondent asked that lights be coated with something that would make it easier to clean gunshot residue off of them.
Unlike weapon lights, laser sights are not gaining broader acceptance by law enforcement agencies or individual officers.
Only 16.1% of respondents to our survey reported they use a laser sight on their duty or backup weapons. Of these, nearly 81% use a red laser.
Asked what improvements they would like to see in laser sights, some respondents expressed a general scorn for the tool. One respondent said, "Other than special purpose infrared lasers sights, there is no place for lasers in police work." Others said they would never use lasers on their duty weapons because of fear they would come to rely on them too much for sight alignment and pick up bad shooting habits.
Other respondents said their agencies prohibited the use of laser sights by non-SWAT officers on duty. One added that the reason his or her agency banned laser sights was because of their ability to intimidate suspects. That comment is interesting, considering that many officers believe the primary tactical advantage of a laser sight is its ability to back down suspects before deadly force is necessary.
As with standalone flashlights and weapon lights, respondents offered a variety of suggestions for improving laser sights. These included minor tweaks, such as extending battery life and making the sights easier to zero, to scientifically challenging if not impossible requests for different color beams from the same laser.
A major concern among tactical trainers is that officers may not be receiving enough low-light training.
The training section of the POLICE Lights and Lasers Survey reveals this situation may be improving, at least for the majority of officers. More than 78% of respondents said their low-light training was supplied by their agencies or their academies.
On frequency of low-light training, slightly more than 60% of officers are receiving indoor flashlight or weapon light training at least yearly. That's the good news. The bad is that 11% say they have never received low-light training at all.