What law enforcement needs to know about lasers
Your eyesight may be at risk – do you know what to do in a laser incident?
In the English county of West Yorkshire, the pilot of a police helicopter was blinded midflight, fortunately avoiding a crash. In Baltimore, a police sergeant suffered corneal damage after a laser beam was shined into their eyes while responding to a car gathering. In 2020, Los Angeles outlawed the possession of laser pointers and laser-style devices during public demonstrations citing two dozen cases in which police officers suffered eye injuries.
These officers have all been victims of laser attacks to the eyes – a threat to law enforcement that appears to be growing.
What are laser lights?
“Laser” is an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” though it has become its own word and is rarely styled in all capitals anymore.
Lasers typically produce monochromatic (one frequency) light limited to a narrow beam. They emit light at varying frequencies. Some can cause permanent damage, while others can cause temporary injuries ranging from flash blindness to afterimages.
Lasers of sufficient strength operating at visible to near-infrared frequencies – 400 to 1,400 nanometers – can affect and injure the retina. Lasers of sufficient strength operating in the range of 1,400 nanometers to one millimeter will likely cause injury to the cornea. At 315–390 nanometers, the area of the eye likely to be injured is the lens. Laser effects can come from direct beam impingement on the eye or scattered reflections from other objects.
In the United States lasers are limited to five milliwatts, which is what the typical laser pointer has in terms of power. Usually, serious eye injuries will not occur with this low-powered laser. However, one can easily order more powerful lasers from Internet vendors. Class 3b lasers, with 5–500 milliwatts of power, or Class 4 lasers, with more than 500 milliwatts, need protective goggles or glasses during operation, as recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Lasers targeted at police
Incidents in which officers are targeted using lasers have become more common.
The Federal Protective Service reported injuries to more than 100 officers during the Portland riots. It appears most were temporary in nature. Aircraft are also a frequent target.
Green lasers (+/- 520 nanometers) are the most common laser used to attack aircraft and law enforcement. Some terrorist groups have considered using lasers as weapons, as have several nation-states. These systems, along with currently available lasers, could be used to blind cameras or personnel, including cameras used by unmanned aerial vehicles, facial recognition systems and surveillance systems. Protesters in Chile reportedly used handheld lasers to incapacitate a government-operated unmanned aerial vehicle surveilling their protest.
The effects caused by lasers, regardless of strength, include a distraction and startle response, causing the officer to immediately look off-axis to the laser to avoid or limit eye damage. Lasers also produce degradation of night vision and may induce flash blindness, which is usually temporary. However, this does not mean serious eye injuries cannot occur. Some sources report laser pointers with less than 100 milliwatts of power can produce eye injuries, and those with less than 10 milliwatts can degrade night vision.
For those exposed to lasers, the exposure may cause corneal abrasion from rubbing the eyes, and those affected may experience retinal damage with afterimages as a symptom. Substantial exposures may cause eye pain and eyelid spasms, visual defects, headache and nausea.
Those experiencing exposure without symptoms should be medically evaluated by a physician familiar with laser injuries. Those with symptoms or pain should be evaluated by an ophthalmologist familiar with laser injuries. Any exposure should be documented, as the long-term effects of lasers are not well understood.
Address the threat
1. Protective equipment
If officers anticipate potential exposure to lasers, wearing protective goggles or glasses is a sufficient countermeasure. However, selecting the appropriate eyewear is critical.
Available items protect against common laser frequencies. A strip or larger panel of laser-protective material can be added to riot helmet shields when wearing goggles or glasses might be impractical. Day or night, it’s crucial that the darkness of the glasses or goggles does not interfere with the mission.
The costs of such protective eyewear range from less than $100 per pair upward. Make certain the eyewear meets the ANSI Z136.1 and Z136.6 standards as recommended by OSHA. See if a state occupational safety standard is in place, as specific requirements may govern the type and nature of protective equipment to be used.
2. Prohibit the possession of lasers
Many jurisdictions have enacted ordinances that prohibit the possession of lasers by certain persons (e.g., juveniles) or prohibit laser possession or use in public venues or in certain ways. Such ordinances may also criminalize the use of lasers to harass, alarm, or annoy. While these are typically misdemeanor offenses, they provide law enforcement with a tool to use against this type of behavior. Many locales have no criminal prohibition against this type of assault.
3. Training response
When officers experience laser impingement, should they seek cover or drop to the ground, as if they are targeted by a firearm using a laser sighting system? What does the current training teach officers to do if they are “painted” by a laser? Should lasers capable of harm be considered dangerous instruments? If an agency decides to include lasers as a dangerous instrument, what statutory support does such a position hold, and what response in terms of force should be used to terminate users’ behavior?
Some devices, such as improvised incendiary devices (Molotov cocktails), are clearly understood to be dangerous if not deadly. We’ve realized this over the number of years these devices have been in use. The paucity of experience with lasers and laser injuries makes determining the laser’s potential damage to officers difficult, but smart departments will have policies to address such use and provide the tools to protect their officers’ eyesight.
- American College of Emergency Physicians Tactical and Law Enforcement Medicine Section Featured Article: Law Enforcement Laser Eye Injuries – Prevention, Diagnosis, and Management
- Federal Aviation Administration Laser Safety
- Laser Institute Laser Safety Information
- OSHA Laser Hazards
- OHSA-Laser Institute of America Alliance
- University of California, Berkeley Office of Environment, Health & Safety Laser Safety Manual
- University of Washington Department of Environmental Health and Safety Laser Safety Manual