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Low-light SWAT operations training: 5 tips for flashlight use

We use flashlights in many situations and depending on how and when we use them, they can either help us or make us a target

In law enforcement, the flashlight is an indispensible tool. But depending on its use, it can be an asset or a liability.

Studies over the years have stated that low-light conditions attributed to between 60 percent and 80 percent of officer-involved shootings. Regardless of which study you believe, the majority of officer-involved shootings occur in low-light or no-light conditions. These conditions also contribute to the majority of mistake-of-fact shootings where officers believed that the individuals engaged were armed, when in fact they were not.

For many of us, low-light training consists of going to the range and learning how to fire our weapons in conjunction with our flashlights. The firearms instructor shows us a variety of ways to manipulate our flashlight and weapon using different hand-held techniques. Perhaps a few other dynamics were brought into the fray, but for the most part, the training was solely conducted at the range during some type of firing sequence. We have learned over the years that flashlights have far more applications than just shooting platforms.

We use flashlights in many situations and depending on how and when we use them, they can either help us or make us a target.

About five or six years ago, I attended a three-day, low-light instructor’s course. Initially I was skeptical because I thought, what could we possibly do for three days just learning how to use our flashlight.

After attending the lecture and doing a few drills, we moved onto the building search portion of the class. Having been a SWAT officer for a number of years and feeling I was well versed in building search tactics, I proudly informed the instructor that we always turned the lights on upon entering a room to gain the advantage.

I can only imagine what the instructor was thinking to himself, but he simply said, “Use the techniques during the drills, then when we go into the force-on-force scenarios, you can use whatever technique you like.”

I went along as he asked and performed the techniques and tactics that were being taught.

In my first scenario, we breached the door and were looking into an area that was completely dark, except for one light that was left on in the kitchen. At this point of the training, my only thought was, “How are we going to get in there to turn off that light?” In just a few short days, I had dismissed what I had been trained to do as a standard operating procedure and adopted the new principles of low-light engagements.

Over the years I have continued to learn different applications of how and when to use light to gain a tactical advantage in many different applications of law enforcement.

For example, when dealing with a suspect on a felony stop, we may not want them to face away from us, but rather turn them facing toward us looking directly into every light we can bring into the encounter.

When backing up other officers on traffic stops at night, turn off all of your lights except your rear wig-wags so as not to backlight your fellow officers. When clearing structures, instead of turning the lights on, turn them off to control backlighting and manipulate the environment at your discretion by activating your flashlight when applicable.

Here are five basic applications for using our flashlights:

1. Search

When in the search mode, we advocate keeping the light out and away from your center line, which is in contrast to exactly where it would be if using some of the range training exercises previously discussed.

Weapon-mounted light systems and tactical lights can also be a problem for essentially the same reason; while searching we are telegraphing not only our position, but directing the suspect to fire on us at center mass. By keeping the light out and away from our body, using the light in a strobe affect, at random intervals, not only presents a harder target to hit, but also confuses an adversary relative to our exact location.

2. Navigate

While navigating, we use the light to paint a path to our next destination. Light and look to determine your route and to ensure your next location is not already occupied, then go dark and move to it. By doing so, you stay one step ahead of where your adversary thinks you are and you add to their confusion on your rate of progress.

3. Communicate

When working in low-light, or no light, conditions it is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to accurately direct other officers to specific areas.

While searching a structure you cannot simply point and say, “The suspect is behind that door.” Other officers may not see which door you are referring to. Instead use the beam of light to illuminate the door and clarify exactly which door the suspect is behind.

At night, on a darkened residential street, with the aid of cover/concealment, try to call the suspect to your position. The suspect, to our benefit, cannot see us and is confused on where we want them to proceed. Maintaining a tactical position, shine the light on the suspect’s eyes and tell them to walk towards the light.

4. Maintain Control

This application is probably one of the most beneficial because it acts as a force multiplier.

Once you have located the suspect and determined this is not an immediate deadly force encounter, direct all available light at the suspect’s eyes. The affect on the suspect is immediate and somewhat incapacitating. From the suspect’s viewpoint, they only see an intense bright light surrounded by a dark abyss. With the light remaining locked on the suspect’s eyes, they are now vulnerable to a host of tactical options.

Practice this application from both the officer’s and the suspect’s viewpoint in order to gain a true appreciation of its effectiveness.

5. ID the Threat

Because we are law enforcement officers it is not only our duty, but necessity to make every effort possible to identify threats quickly and accurately. As previously stated, low-light conditions attribute more to mistake-of-fact shootings than any other single variable. The ability to distinguish if a suspect is armed, to facilitate movement, to distract, confuse and incapacitate make the flashlight indispensible to our profession. The flashlight is an officer’s first line of defense in low-light tactical encounters.

As with so many other encounters, one tactic does not work for every situation, we have to be able to change and adapt to the current environment. The way we do things in well-lit conditions may vary from the way we do them in low-light or no light conditions. For those skeptics out there, I strongly encourage you to experiment with these tactics for yourself, or attend a low-light school to investigate further.

The type of flashlight you carry is also a concern. Without going into too much detail, you should be able to maintain your light in your hand while clearing any type of stoppage with your weapon. Placing the light on the ground, tucking it under your arm or between your legs just wastes valuable time in a critical moment. It makes things much worse if the light is stuck in the on position while trying to clear the stoppage by telegraphing to the adversary that your weapon is out of commission. Practice stoppages with your weapons and clearing them with light in hand and honestly evaluate your equipment. Things such as size, power source, lumens (brightness), tactically correct switching, and incandescent vs. LEDs are all important considerations when selecting a truly tactical light.

There is not a single tool or tactic that works for every situation and in every environment. Officers must learn a variety of applications in a variety of settings in order to be able to employ the proper selection of tools and tactics for a given situation and then be able to adapt and modify them fluidly in order to succeed. Whether to use light, or to operate under the cloak of darkness takes practice, discipline and understanding. To see without being seen is the greatest advantage in any tactical environment.

This article, originally published 05/05/2011, has been updated with current information.

Dan Danaher is a retired sergeant with 28 years of law enforcement experience. He has been retained by his former agency as the range master to oversee the firearms and TASER programs. Dan is also the co-founder of Tactical Encounters Inc., a law enforcement training company based out of Michigan.