Low-light situations are a common occurrence in law enforcement. Studies show that from serving a warrant to nighttime traffic stops, officers spend more time in low-light situations than in well-lit situations. Because lighting technology has rapidly changed over the past few years, we must adjust our low-light training programs as it evolves. When we analyze military operations, our soldiers always own the night—and this isn’t because they’re eating a lot of carrots. They have the newest and best technology and are trained how to use it in a multitude of ways. At Team One Network, we emphasize training that incorporates awareness of lighting environments and maximizing the lighting tools available.
In an effort to train for those all-too-frequent low-light situations, Team One developed a block of low-light training as an integral part of all of our tactical and firearms courses. When we train the low-light block, we begin by asking a series of questions:
1. How often do you train in low light?
2. How often do you shoot in low light?
3. Are these the same training events?
We’ve found that the only low-light training many officers get is at the range. But the range isn’t an optimal scenario for training conducive to officer survival. Trainers need to provide low-light training in environments outside of firearms training.
One of the most common lights officers use is vehicular lighting. Vehicle headlamps are an excellent source of light, but they’re fixed in one direction once the vehicle is parked. The overhead emergency lights are highly visible, but they can also be very distracting. And of course, a vehicle spotlight properly used can be invaluable, but improperly used can literally light up an officer and increase vulnerability. The point: Look at each lighting component and consider its potential tactical benefit, but also be aware of the potential downside.
Handheld lights are vital to law enforcement and a back-up, on-belt light is essential. Some of the challenges associated with handhelds include:
• Is it within reach? Can you operate it?
• Does it work and is it adequate for the job?
• Have you trained with it?
• What type of switch does it have?
• How will you use your weapon, reload or deploy handcuffs while holding the light?
The handheld’s main purpose is to identify a target, whether that be lighting up an individual, illuminating a situation or guiding yourself in the dark. Handheld strobes work as an offensive distraction, but they require practice to be used effectively and safely.
Like military personnel, law enforcement officers need to see the effect of light to gain a full understanding of techniques that will work in real life situations. While researching this article, I spoke to Editor-in-Chief Dale Stockton about the importance of low-light training. In our discussion, it became clear that trainers often focus on the tactical side of low-light issues: training to use darkness so as not to be seen and using light aggressively as an offensive weapon.
As our conversation continued, I realized that there also are times when an officer must be seen. For safety reasons, the public, as well as other officers, must see you when you’re directing traffic, conducting vehicle stops or are in a situation where you might be in a crossfire. In other words, remember there are at least two sides to every lighting situation: seeing others and being seen. Different situations dictate different priorities.
Optics can significantly improve your ability to identify and hit your target since they can provide both magnification and illumination. There are a variety of mounting options for optics for long guns, and the technology has advanced so much that you can even install them on your handgun.
Sighting options include lasers and night sights. Although these don’t really aid in identifying your target, they definitely offer an advantage in hitting your target. A caveat on lasers: Over the course of thousands of hours of instruction, we’ve clearly seen that lasers aren’t the answer to solving shooting problems. Good shooters will hit the target faster with a laser/light combination, but poor shooters will miss faster with them. To quote Steve Johnson, the president of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors: “Lights and lasers allow for faster target engagement, but proper shooting techniques must still be applied. Lights and lasers are not homing devices for the bullets.”
Although knowing how to shoot a gun with a flashlight is certainly necessary, the officer operates in low-light conditions far more than they shoot in low-light conditions. At Team One, we realize that we have to do more than just teach flashlight shooting techniques. We have to teach officers how to operate in low-light conditions. They must know how to use light and darkness, shadow and silhouette, and even distraction to gain the tactical advantage.
Since low-light survival skills are a necessity, Team One has developed some low-light training non-shooting drills that help officers learn how to use light as an ally. The key to these drills is having the officers observe the effects of light from different perspectives so that they come to understand how to make effective use of light under real-world conditions and day-to-day situations.
The Gun-Mounted Light Issue
At Team One, we’re frequently asked about the pros and cons of gun-mounted lights. One of the reasons for writing this article is to assist law enforcement agencies in decisions about purchasing, training and authorizing the use of gun-mounted lights.
Our conclusion: The gun-mounted light enhances an officer’s ability to identify and engage a target only if the officer has justification or reason to have their gun drawn in the first place. A gun-mounted light isn’t just an illumination tool. It should be considered an element of a law enforcement weapons system.
Therefore, we at Team One strongly recommend that officers who install lights designed to be mounted to a pistol purchase a holster to accommodate the pistol with the light attached. There are many manufacturers making duty holsters that hold the weapon with the light mounted. This will also address the issue of re-holstering when deescalating the use of force.
Gun-mounted lights should never be used as search tools unless the need for a firearm is present. We’ve heard stories of officers using a gun-mounted light to check a driver’s license. This is certainly not proper use.
Giving officers the experience of operating in different lighting conditions and maximizing the effectiveness of their lighting tools is essential. Whether you use gun-mounted lights, hand-helds, optics or lasers, the three most important factors in keeping officers safe and sound are—training, training and training. In order to perform you must practice. In order to perform perfectly, you must practice perfectly. In order to practice perfectly, you must train.
Train to win.
Lights On & Off Demo
Put half the students inside the classroom looking out a window, the other half outside.
• Lights on in classroom / no lights outside
• Lights on in classroom / lights on outside
• Lights off in classroom / lights on outside
• Lights off in classroom / lights off outside
Learning objective: It’s harder to be seen if you’re in a darker environment than your adversaries.
Patrol Car Demo
The purpose of this demo is to educate officers as to how an officer in a patrol vehicle appears to others outside the car. Start with an officer sitting in the car at nighttime with no internal lights whatsoever. Then try these different lighting sources and look at them from different angles:
• Interior overhead light on (white)
• Interior overhead light on (red)
• Laptop computer or MDC on
• Cell phone in use
• Headlights on
• Overheads on
• Small penlight or stylus light on
Learning objectives: It doesn’t take much to light you up, particularly inside a car, but light shining in your adversary’s eyes will make a huge difference in what they can see and how they react.
Students take turns searching and observing inside a room. (Note: During the search students should be able to identify guns and other items. Safety note: Never use live ammunition and use training guns if possible.)
• Constant-on flashlight
• Flashing and moving
• Painting and moving
• Door backlighting
• Strobe lights
• Offensive light use
• Hall drill: moving behind intense, high-powered light
Learning objectives: How to observe, use light intermittently, and move and search for cover; learning the pros and cons of these different techniques.
The objective of this exercise is to have students identify objects and colors under time and illumination pressures. They must identify objects held by the instructor from 15–20 yards by using a flash or paint technique from behind cover. (This distance is the maximum effective range for most tactical flashlights.)
As Team One instructor John Zamrok puts it: “You can’t outshoot your light.” Bottom line: You must always be able to identify your target.
IDs should be made from the following positions:
• Straight on (no additional light, only the flashlight)
• Suspect backlit
• Suspect side-lit at 90-degree angle
• One student off-center with another student opposite of center (no additional light, only the flashlights)
Items to be identified:
• Handgun (stainless)
• Handgun (blue or red)
• Screwdriver or knife
• Baseball bat
• Long gun
• Rubber hose
• Spray can
• Cell phone
Learning objectives: Show students the difficulty in identifying objects and colors under stress without the proper light, and how additional light sources and the use of angles make the situation easier.
John T. Meyer Jr. is president of the Team One Network. Visit http://www.TeamOneNetwork.com for more information.