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Surviving the Nightshift™

Eight-Part Series

Sponsored by ITT Night Vision

By Thomas J. Aveni, MSFP
The Police Policy Studies Council 

Part 1: Introduction

It's approximately 1 a.m., and you're working the midnight shift in an area of your city that is notorious for violent crime. A serial rapist has been stalking women in this area in recent months and more recently has taken his brazen acts to the next level: forcibly entering the homes of elderly women he has determined to be living alone. This night brings you on a collision course with a subject lurking in a dark alley who fits the physical description of the perpetrator.

Upon seeing your squad car slow to a stop, the subject bolts farther into the alley. You exit your vehicle and initiate an unnerving foot chase into the darkness, initiating pursuit before you have the chance to radio your position to dispatch. .

Suddenly, without warning, and under light conditions affording minimal situational clarity, the subject seems to stop and turn toward you with an object in his right hand. With minimal distance and no available cover between yourself and the suspect, you discontinue your forward momentum to draw and fire your handgun.

Faster than you can remember doing so on the firing range, you've drawn and fired with what seems to be decisive effect. As you radio your situation to dispatch, you begin to try to unravel the ambiguity of this fateful low-light encounter.

You've handcuffed the suspect and checked his vital signs. He appears to be deceased from a single gunshot wound to his chest. As you survey the surrounding area, looking intensely for his weapon, you gasp as you discover that the object that the suspect had been holding in his right hand was in fact a mobile phone.

Are such "mistake-of-fact" shootings an uncommon occurrence? Unfortunately, they're not as uncommon as we'd like them to be.

From what we now know, they are much more likely to occur at night, under light conditions that foster ambiguity. While we all have an intuitive sense for how physiologically ill-prepared we are for performing routine tasks at night, we may not comprehend fully the depth, diversity or criticality of the related occupational safety issues.

Even a casual glance at officers' most egregious errors shows ample evidence that the diminished lighting and fatigue associated with working at night are common elements in many cases. The extent to which this is true is difficult to quantify since the necessary supportive data tends to be fragmented and hard to obtain.

Further complicating any analysis is the fact that human errors potentially associated with the debilitating effects of shift-work also can happen when officers are working or driving home during daylight hours. The accidents and judgmental errors that occur by night might have their roots of causation embedded in the schedules we keep, and some solutions will lie in our ability to adapt to them.

When diminished light-related mishaps occur, many agencies appear ill-equipped to determine and address causation or cure. How can this be? Knowing the extent to which occupational safety is influenced by the hours officers work, why do we continue to see so few training and equipment resources allocated to address the most critical and salient issues?

Darkness, Vision and Error

Vision is a complex process, and much of how it works isn't clearly understood. It is a neurological process that begins with what our eyes sense about our surroundings. The eyes gather the light energy (photons) that illuminates people and objects and then transmit that energy to the brain through a neurochemical transduction process. The brain ultimately translates this neurochemical datastream and then interprets what it all means. Simply put, light enables the complex visual/cognitive process. Without light, there is no vision.

The extent to which we take adequate light for granted is driven home quickly when we attempt to navigate at night. We find ourselves driving more slowly at night to stay within the minimal reaction distance allowed by our car headlights. This is most evident on rural roads where streetlights and other artificial lighting (e.g., from business establishments) are not readily available. Since the reflectors in our car headlamps are focused for driving in a straight line, we have minimal ability to see animals emerging onto the roadway from our periphery.

This is but one example of how compressed and diminished our visual capabilities are at night. Many of the tasks that we regularly perform in policing become much more complex at night, and our equipment and training seldom prepares us for the challenges associated with adverse lighting.

The complex cognitive process that perhaps best defines what we think we see is one that is driven by our ability to discern the size, shape, color and texture of objects we focus upon. Our ability to discriminate the difference between a handgun and a mobile phone is a much more complex process than we tend to think it is.

The size, shape, color and textures of some handguns may be somewhat similar to the size, shape, color and texture of many cell phones. As ambient light diminishes, our ability to detect the dissimilarity between cell phone and handgun becomes difficult. In fact, it becomes so difficult that we begin to start placing more discriminatory emphasis on the orientation and the context in which the object is being held.

For instance, imagine that an officer is dispatched to the scene of a late-night armed robbery in-progress and quickly encounters someone fitting the general description of the armed robber running away into a poorly lit area. The officer may well make a threat determination based more upon the orientation and context in which the suspect is holding an object in his hand than from the ability to discern exactly what that object is. If the object he is holding appears metallic and shiny and it is held in a manner consistent with that of a handgun, given the situational context, the officer likely will "see" a gun. Whether it is or isn't a gun likely will be determined after shots are fired, or after the suspect has complied with verbal commands to drop the object.

The fact that most lethal police confrontations occur at night has been well documented for many years. Also well established is the fact that most of the officers feloniously slain every year are slain during evening and night tours of duty. Less documented but just as troubling is the fact that 75% percent of the cases in which officers mistakenly shoot unarmed subjects involve low-light conditions. Indeed, "officer survival" becomes a multi-dimensional proposition, and the ambiguous world in which many critical decisions are made under low-light conditions should be unsettling to all sworn to protect and serve.

Solutions to the problems briefly highlighted in this introduction don't lie in poorly adapted military doctrine, or in knee-jerk equipment purchases. Our ability to enhance the occupational safety of police officers will reflect a deeper consideration of the complexities, demands and expectations that are unique to our profession. Follow-up segments of this series will explore the diverse range of equipment- and training-related issues that exist around low-light operations.


1 Aveni, Thomas, "Following Standard Procedure," Law & Order magazine, Vol. 51, No. 8, August 2003