Law enforcement officers spend a significant amount of their time in low-light environments. Whether you work midnights or afternoons (or the dreaded swing shift), at least half your shift is conducted in the dark. Even the day crew frequently enters low-light situations, often starting their winter shifts in early morning darkness. And let's not forget that no matter how bright and sunny it might be outside, coppers frequently end up in dark places such as basements, attics, lofts and dim, boarded-up buildings.
Simply put, no officer should ever hit the street without a quality flashlight. If you're serious about safety and survival, consider carrying two lights: one for routine, everyday work, and a backup that's always on your belt.
Of course, tactical teams and other law enforcement specialists require specialized lighting, such as weapon-mounted lights, headband-mounted lights and infrared systems (for sneaking around in the dark), tools you can't do without when the need arises. In this article, however, I'll focus on tactical lighting for patrol officers.
The Latest Lights
Today's market offers many well-made, small flashlights that use high-intensity bulbs, are powered by lithium or rechargeable batteries, and feature metal construction and reliable switch assemblies.
Many departments furnish larger, rechargeable lights in the three- to four-cell size range. Officers typically purchase their own belt-mounted tactical lights, and prices range from $35 $500 (pretty pricey, but some manufacturers like Surefire provide a lifetime, no-questions-asked warranty). Lights are now "light systems" that feature interchangeable head and tail caps, a variety of switches and many accessories. Some light models include two or three different heads that officers can switch out depending on the work assignment. Some lights even include multiple bulbs so you can use one bulb as a low-intensity light for reading documents, while another can put out several hundred lumens for those times when you need to reach out and touch someone.
Selecting a Light
When searching for a personal tactical light, you must understand how light intensity is measured in order to make fair, apples-to-apples comparisons among models.
Two terms refer to a light's brightness: candlepower (or foot candles) and lumens (or lux). They are definitely not the same thing.
Candlepower is an old fashioned term, sort of like horsepower. Cand lepower is based on foot candles; one foot candle is the amount of light put out by a church candle at a range of one foot. (This church candle thing is pretty quaint, but it's exactly what it says: a standard sized candle in a church. Why our ancestors chose a church candle as opposed to a kitchen or living-room candle is lost to the mists of history.) So, a light rated at 15,000 candlepower sounds pretty bright, and it is. However, the measurement for candlepower is taken from the brightest part of the beam and really doesn't describe the entire beam's brightness or evenness. Couple that with the fact that sometimes unscrupulous manufacturers advertise inflated candlepower ratings, and candlepower can prove unreliable as a measure of light effectiveness.
One lux, equal to one lumen per square meter, takes into account the area over which lumens are spread. Think of it like this: 1,000 lumens concentrated into one square meter will light up that square meter with 1,000 lux. The same 1,000 lumens, spread out over 10 square meters, produce only 100 lux.
That's probably more than you wanted to know, but now you can see that it can prove difficult to compare lights rated in candlepower with lights rated in lumens. The more generally accepted standard in the industry is the lumen. Don't be fooled if one light is rated at 15,000 candlepower and another is rated at 60 lumens. The second may be a more effective light.
Three types of bulbs are used in today's tactical lights: traditional incandescents, high-pressure Xenon bulbs (necessary for the super-bright lights everyone wants) and LEDs. The newest, of course, is the light-emitting diode (LED). LEDs have been around for quite awhile, but they only recently became bright enough for law enforcement purposes. You may have noticed manufacturers of emergency lighting equipment offer lightbars utilizing LEDs. There are good reasons for this practice, and many of those reasons carry over to tactical lights.
The main reason: reliability. Any officer who attended accident investigation training knows how you can tell if a vehicle's headlights were on at the moment of impact; if they were on, the filament was hot and the impact probably broke the filament, which is more fragile when heated. Traditional flashlight bulbs work the same way. LEDs, however, do not have filaments to break, making them impact resistant.
The Power Source & Energy Efficiency
These days, most belt-carried tactical lights use standard 3-volt lithium batteries, which were designed specifically for high-drain devices. Additionally, these batteries work very well at low temperatures, which can cause other batteries to fail, and they have a long shelf life (often as long as 10 years) and excellent leakage resistance.
Another strong point of LEDs: their energy efficiency. Here's a scenario. Lithium batteries come from the factory at about 3.3 volts. Put them into a light with an incandescent bulb. As the batteries run down, the light will get dimmer and dimmer until it goes out when the batteries go dead. Put lithium batteries into a light that uses a high-pressure Xenon bulb, and they will operate at pretty much a fixed brightness until the batteries drop to around 2.8 volts, and then the light will go out (after assuming a slightly yellow cast first). Take those same batteries from the Xenon-equipped light and put them into an LED-equipped light, and you'll still get steady light until the batteries drop fairly low; then the light will dim and go out. The short version: LEDs use the available power more efficiently.
Without going into a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo, it's clear the design of a flashlight's reflector has a great deal to do with the light's effectiveness. Research continues in this area, and certain designs provide a much greater "throw" of the bulb's light. Once upon a time, flashlight bulbs (and car headlights, for that matter) were nothing more than small bulbs screwed into a separate housing which contained a reflector. Modern bulbs are carefully engineered units in which the design of the reflector and lens are matched to the capabilities of the particular light emitter, be it a Xenon bulb or an LED.
LEDs can shine very brightly when you're looking at them. However, they are not as efficient at throwing their light down range as, say, Xenon bulbs. That's not to say LEDs are useless in a flashlight. They're very effective at closer distances, say 20-25 feet. But until manufacturers address this range issue, if you want to shine your light out across a field to spot a running suspect, you really need a light with a Xenon bulb. Xenon bulbs are many times brighter than LEDs, but will not last as long (sometimes by a factor of 10 or more).
An equally important tactical consideration: the switch. Larger, more-traditional flashlight designs incorporated a slide switch along the side of the barrel. The small tactical lights discussed above typically utilize a switch located in the light's base or endcap. This makes the switch readily accessible to an officer's thumb, and lends itself to the adoption of various techniques for deploying the flashlight at the same time as the handgun. Of course, other types of switches are available for use when a light is mounted on different types of weapons. An officer should choose a customized solution that meets their immediate needs.
For safety's sake, consider a second, belt-mounted light essential equipment. And when shopping for this personal tactical light, look for a light that will provide a good beam for your purposes, features a reliable tail switch and uses the powerful, reliable 3-volt lithium power source.
Stay safe, and wear your vest.