Part IV of
Thomas J. Aveni, MSFP
The Police Policy Studies Council
Threat Location & Identification
Low-light training has
finally begun to garner the interest and concern that it has warranted for
many years. While this has been a very positive development, it has also
entailed some cause for concern. Occupational training pertinent to working
under adverse light conditions isn’t a matter of “one-size-fits-all,” though
that seems to be how many have packaged and marketed it in recent years.
This installment of the SNS series will attempt to examine recent trends in
low light training and then make suggestions regarding how shortcomings
might be addressed.
The recent release of US DOJ
publication entitled "Violent Encounters" offered some useful
perspectives salient to working under adverse light conditions, and to what
degree occupational risk might be exacerbated. I had heard that this
publication offered documentation of officers getting shot with their
flashlights "on" and was really enthused about what this document might
Upon receipt of the publication I began sifting through the various sections
of it until I came to "Tour of Duty at Time of Assault." This study
interviewed a handful of officers who survived their encounters and also
interviewed the assailants of each officer. This publication does NOT
represent a "random sampling" of thousands or even hundreds of officers
assaulted. To accomplish what it set out to do, it had to “cherry-pick”
incidents where both the officer and his assailant were alive to be
interviewed after the fact. So, after sifting through 800 incidents of
felonious assaults against officers, the authors of this publication
selected 40 incidents involving 50 officers and 43 offenders. This is a far
cry from being "science" but it is a useful anecdotal tool.
By time of day, the study breaks down the 40 violent encounters that they've
chronicled by time of day;
The publication cites only
four incidents in which officers reported using their flashlights to
illuminate the scene.
The officer is engaged in a foot pursuit with his flashlight on but then
drops his flashlight and continues his pursuit without it. At some point
(unspecified) the suspect fired at and struck the officer "numerous times."
Two officers are engaged in a traffic stop of a lone individual. They are
relying heavily on the illumination of their patrol car to allow them to see
into the suspect's car. The passenger side of the car was reportedly too
dark to see into and the officer approaching the passenger-side used his
flashlight to illuminate that area. He was able to see the driver holding a
handgun before the driver could initiate an assault with that weapon.
An officer engages in a foot pursuit that eventually leads him into the
darkened rear yard of a residence. When the officer scanned the area with
his flashlight the suspect fired at the officer and hit him in the chest.
The suspect, when interviewed later, said that he "fired at the flashlight."
An officer engages in a foot pursuit with his flashlight on. He loses sight
of the subject in a darkened courtyard. At some point, unspecified in the
incident narrative, the suspect shoots the officer in the leg and chest. He
later says the officer was "lit up" by the flashlight, and "that's how I
noticed him." The assailant also alluded to part of the officer's uniform
being reflective, saying he saw the word "police" in a reflective area of
the officer's uniform. (this sounds like the officer had a reflective strip
on his jacket, as many police jackets do - but that is confusing, since most
reflective "POLICE" strips are on the back of the jacket and the brief
narrative of this incident gives no detail about direction of fire).
What can we take from this?
publication leaves us with many more adverse light questions than what it
answered. From the brief narratives provided there is no evidence that any
of the (assaulted) officers attempted to use cover or concealment in
conjunction with the use of their flashlights. We don’t know if they used
their flashlights intermittently (as opposed to constant-on) or whether they
were holding their flashlights close to their bodies when shot (as opposed
to holding their lights overhead or out to their sides). However, we do have
some material to work with……..
Indoor vs. Outdoor Scenarios
From the publication just referenced ("Violent Encounters"), we
finally have documentation of two officers being shot while they had their
lights activated. However, and perhaps more importantly, we must note that
each of these incidents occurred OUTDOORS and AFTER each officer lost sight
of the subjects that they were chasing on foot. And, we have an officer
being shot after he dropped and discarded his flashlight. And, we have an
officer on a traffic stop that foiled an attack because he had his light on.
There are certainly some
training implications embedded in all of this, though we'd probably find
more if the narratives of each incident were more detailed. What we might
venture to discern is that when a flashlight wasn’t used, one officer was
shot. When it was used, two officers were saved from an attack on a car
stop. When two officers were carelessly chasing suspects with their lights
on, each in outdoor settings, they were shot.
It must be emphasized that
the majority of low-light confrontations are OUTDOOR scenarios – a point
that seems to have been lost on many trainers who focus all or most of their
low-light training upon building search-type scenarios. Since many low-light
trainers have SWAT or military backgrounds, they usually train others from
their own specialized frame-of-reference. This often does a disservice to
the patrol officers that they train. Patrol officers should be given
task-oriented training that best reflects what they do most on the street –
and under what circumstances they routinely find themselves severely
challenged; vehicular stops, pedestrian stops, “suspicious persons”
investigations, field interviews, etc. Unfortunately, almost of all of such
concerns are given little or no priority by many police trainers.
When addressing indoor
scenarios we might still find ourselves taking a very different
approach than what many SWAT and military trainers might dictate. While I
prefer leaving my light on when involved in indoor scenarios, I'm willing to
concede that there may be times when it isn't appropriate. In outdoor
scenarios, the nature of the call and the topography will likely dictate
specific flashlight tactics and they will likely have the flashlight "off"
when the light's capabilities are dwarfed by the area that needs to be
illuminated. When indoors with light directed away from you and toward
likely threat vectors, it is more often an advantage to have your flashlight
Another deviation from
prevalent low-light doctrine that we tend to address is whether or not to
activate light fixtures indigenous to the indoor environment that you’re
searching. For many SWAT-type trainers, this approach might seem
sacrilegious – it’s just not high-speed enough! If you can flip a light
switch within an enclosed structure that would enable you to see everything
within that structure, why not do it? Let’s face it, none of us wants to
walk blindly into a high-risk environment and yet we also know that when we
activate our flashlight we’re giving away our general location.
The SWAT-Ninja trainer
doesn’t like the “level playing field’ approach, which is what turning on
indoor lighting is all about. They believe that as long as we maintain
darkness and use our flashlights selectively, we maintain the upper-hand.
Unless officers have had exceptional training in this realm, the SWAT-Ninja
approach represents a leap of faith for most officers. In a darkened
environment, bad guys have an exacerbated “home field advantage.” Leveling
the playing field by illuminating everything alters the fundamental
psychology of the scenario – the hunter now becomes the hunted. The
ambush-in-waiting has now been uncloaked. That’s not to say that we’ve
eliminated all risk by illuminating the entire structure. But in doing so
we’ve mitigated some of the risk of not seeing someone waiting to do us
harm, and we’ve also mitigated much of the risk associated with making the
all-too-common low-light “error” of shooting someone that wasn’t armed.
We must note that activating
indoor structural lighting isn’t always a viable option. Most commercial and
residential structures have area-lighting fixtures that, when activated,
only provide illumination of one room at a time. While that benefit can be
substantial, officers must recognize if and when adjacent rooms and hallways
(not yet illuminated areas) afford a residual refuge for potential
adversaries. Be prepared to use a hybrid approach (flashlight and structural
lighting in combination) when the situation dictates it.
Validating Low Light Tactics
Tactically speaking, we all wish to benefit from compromising an adversary's
vision while enhancing our own in a high-risk confrontation. Let that be our
common ground throughout this discussion. I should mention that I don't
malign tactics without offering something more constructive as an
alternative. I've been teaching low light courses for more than 16 years and
instructor level (low light) courses for more than 11. Having said this,
there are many tactics that I've had to trash along the way. The evolution
of what and how to teach has had these stimuli;
Trial and error in force-on-force
Student input about past lessons
Input from vision and perception
specialists on our staff
In-depth analysis of available gunfight
Review of LEOKA data
Review of criminal victimization
Review of court decisions that impinge
upon "reckless police tactics" (these are sobering)
The dynamic synergy derived
from the above process is (unfortunately) not common in most police training
circles. So, contrary to what your view seems to be, the litmus test isn't
merely what we derive from force-on-force training. The real crucible comes
from the street, where we acquire a requisite sense of "real-world” tactical
calibration. And from the street we gain much more refined insight about the
legalities of what we teach officers to do.
Some low-light trainers will
assert that what they teach is “a tactical art form.” There’s a place for
artful adaptation to tactical problems, but know where or when “art” runs
contrary to science. Many of the “artful” low-light tactics being taught run
contrary to what human vision and cognition will reasonably facilitate. That
is most evident in many of the “blip” or “firefly” light techniques being
taught to police officers. Intermittent flashlight techniques such as these
generally adhere to the belief that ¼ second “blips” from a flashlight will
provide an officer with an adequate sense of topography of his environment.
This “art-form” tends to rely on “residual imagery,” whereby a residual
image of the landscape remains on the retina for 1-2 seconds after the light
is turned off. The sudden over-stimulation and fatiguing of the optic nerve
produces a secondary negative image of the same size as the object which
produced the "optic fatigue." The location of the image will coincide with
the focus of your eyes.
Be mindful of the severe
limitations of this phenomenon. It is so transient and the residual imagery
so coarse that seldom does it enable more than brief spurts of terrain
navigation. For some, especially those untrained in using it skillfully, it
may actually cause or exacerbate disorientation. It also doesn't generally
reliably facilitate threat location and/or identification. But, it gets
worse. Combine movement with the fleeting imagery afforded by a split-second
flashlight activation and you have the worst of all perceptual worlds.
Case-In-Point: The “Slide-By”
The “slide-by” is a technique
used (ostensibly) to afford preliminary visual exploration of a room without
actually entering it. It entails having an officer moving briskly across the
outside of the doorway while briefly illuminating the inside of the room. If
a door slide-by is completed at a brisk rate - a rate brisk enough as to
discourage or defeat reactive fire from within the room, it is probably
being completed in .5 seconds or less. Therein does the problem lie…..
The most important consideration is that 0.5 seconds generally allows only
one visual “fixation.” That is, your fixation is exactly where your fovea is
pointed at a specific time. In .5 seconds, there is no time to adjust an eye
movement to look at something that is not directly in the sightline. When
casting this fixation into and across a room of average size, visual acuity
(assuming the flashlight is directed there as well) might be limited to a
few inches within that room. Considering the fact that, for instance, a
typical living-room averages 150+ square feet, a few inches of visual
fixation seems to offer little tactical benefit for one’s effort and risk.
Complicating matters further, perceptual processing is slower under low
How much you can “see” along your sightline in 0.5 second depends on lots of
Whether there is much clutter in the
scene (most room searches involve clutter!)
Whether the scene is static or moving
Whether you are static or moving (and
you’re obviously moving when using a slide-by)
The most important factor,
however, is familiarity. If the scene is familiar, your view might interpret
and understand the scene more quickly. This is in part a matter of "filling
in the blanks" from memory. In other words, the eyes "see" some of the
scene, the brain says “aha, I know what that is” and fills in the rest. This
is especially likely to occur under low light conditions where there is
ambiguity about much of the scene. A problematic aspect of this phenomenon
is that people will frequently report seeing things that aren’t really there
because the brain has filled them in from memory.
People frequently confuse perception and memory. If the scene is unfamiliar,
people will need a lot longer to “see” it. Or else the brain will treat it
as if it is the closest familiar scene (in memory) and completely
misunderstand the current landscape.
When performing a "slide-by," how much of the area that you're scouting
falls into the "previously familiar with" category? In most police scenarios
- the answer is none at all - you're on someone else's turf. In addition,
how much of that brief visual fixation will be drawn to furnishings and
other large objects in the room? How many shadows will your brief light
activation cast in that room to further complicate the fact that you're only
getting a .5 second snapshot of the room? Are furnishings and shadows (cast
by your flashlight) obscuring vision of your adversary? The list of critical
problems is significant, and too complex to discuss here in one post.
Whatever you've learned elsewhere about low light tactics is OK with me.
Just understand that what appears and sounds sexy might not be all that it
has been purported to be.
Referring back to my earlier view about when low light tactics are either
"art or science," don't confuse where one ends and the other is supposed to
begin. Ask yourself; have the tactics that you've been exposed to in the
past been mostly "art" and virtually no "science"?
Counter-Intuitive Flashlight Techniques
Another commonly encountered problem in police training circles lies within
the fact that many flashlight tactics/techniques being taught tend to be
fundamentally counter-intuitive. One noted low-light trainer who teaches
counter-intuitive flashlight techniques stated, “…..anything can be made
intuitive with enough training.” Needless to say, that is a direct
contradiction of the meaning of the word.
"Spontaneously derived from or prompted by a natural tendency."
Unfortunately, many of the
traditional “tube-type” (cylindrical) flashlights don’t lend themselves to
intuitive application. They don’t point naturally and they tend to
substantively encumber the hand grasping it, making two-handed shooting less
effective. One approach, viable at ranges within 7 yards, is to fire the
handgun one-handed while deploying the flashlight with the off-hand. Another
approach is embodied in the use of a more intuitive flashlight design that
will point naturally and not encumber the non-shooting hand (see the product
review for the “Firstlight Liberator” in the September 2007 issue of
Answering the Call).
Gunfight statistics have historically suggested that police lack sufficient
confidence in their ability to shoot with flashlights. With fewer than 2% of
police gunfights involving flashlights, much can be implied but little can
be proven. However, traditional flashlight techniques have always been part
of the problem - as has been traditional police flashlight design. The two
problems go hand-in-hand, no pun intended.
The low light dash-cam videos that we've been accumulating have been
corroborating the available statistics. If the flashlight happens to be pre-deployed -
it gets used in the gunfight. When flashlights are used in gunfights the
techniques that we see are often blatant distortions of traditional
flashlight techniques. The arms/hands are punched out (toward the threat)
but the hands often don't come together. We've seen exceptions to this and
they tend to be within "bunch-shooting" incidents that we have
video of. In such cases, individual officers seemed unstressed as they
engage suspects with multiple other officers.
Force-on-force training is an extremely useful training validation tool if
structured in ways that help to eliminate or minimize confounding variables.
Because FOF training tends to involve scenarios with police trainees being
pitted against other police officers (being used as role-players), there is
a substantial degree of anticipatory tactical preemption. Police trainees
know how police perform car stops, building entries, etc. and they know how
police tend to use flashlights. How important is this? One case-in-point is
that we see flashlights getting "shot" in FOF training with some degree of
regularity. On the street, we see little or no documentation of this
ever happening. So, we have to be mindful of the situational bias and skew we
commonly see in FOF training outcomes.
The status of police low light training must be elevated beyond marketing
impulses and individual egos. Being a great and "all-knowing" tactician
clearly isn't good enough. As this article was meant to convey, police
trainers have to be armed with a thorough understanding of how to seek
validation of a broad array of salient training issues. Until then, we’ll
continue to police in the darkness of poor preparedness.
Tom Aveni recognizes the
limitations of trying to exhaustively address low-light policing issues
within an article of this length. He also wishes to acknowledge the fact
that specialized low light tactics probably shouldn’t be addressed in a
publication that cannot be restricted to law enforcement personnel.
Accordingly, Mr. Aveni welcomes your e-mail inquiries: