Perspective Use of Force and High-Intensity Tactical Police Flashlights Policy Concerns By R. Paul McCauley, Ph.D. During a recent police shooting incident, an officer parked his cruiser facing the direction of oncoming traffic in a narrow alley and activated the red, white, and blue roof lights; high beams; and takedown lights. He then exited the vehicle, drew his weapon, and positioned himself in the darkness behind the car. The suspect ran toward the bright lights, passed them, and entered the unlit area. Upon recognizing that a policeman—or someone—waited in his path, the individual extended his arms forward. The officer fired.
Law enforcement agencies routinely have used patrol car lights to create a wall of illumination for officers to maneuver behind; opinions exist that departments can similarly employ high-intensity tactical police flashlights (HITPFs).1 Some experts consider them powerful new tools that give officers a nonlethal force option, one that can control potentially violent suspects by, for example, diminishing their vision, affecting their depth perception, intimidating them, and putting them at a mental disadvantage.2 Further, they think that because of sensory overload, some individuals may become less prone to violence during an incident. 3
Officer use of handheld and gun-mounted HITPFs presents serious considerations for departments. As with all police equipment, policy guidance proves critical—particularly as related to use of force.
Uses by Officers Blinding illumination—whether experienced from a flashbulb or a tactical police light— bleaches out the retina. The length of time that vision becomes impaired partly depends on the intensity and duration of the exposure. The health of the retina represents another variable; while this may relate to age,4 no scientific evidence exists that supports the theory taught by some trainers— that for every 10 years individuals age, they need four times the light to see what they used to easily.
Of course, suspects simply may close or avert their eyes and continue to walk, run, swing their arms, lunge with an edged weapon, or fire a gun. While the light, at least, obscures subjects’ abilities to visually target, it seemingly does not apply any physical force or pain to gain control or compliance from these individuals.
Agency policy makers must decide for their departments if light is controlling or painful to determine where HITPFs fall in the use-of-force continuum. And, they must formulate or adjust use-of-force policy and training accordingly.
Dr. McCauley is a professor of criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pennsylvania . Deadly force refers to any means reasonably likely to cause death; nondeadly force entails any other method, including physical efforts used to control, restrain, or overcome the resistance of an individual.5 In this regard, the Confrontational Force Continuum 6 represents an example of a model employed to train police officers in the appropriate application of force. It consists of seven levels.
1) Officer presence: Police assume control of the suspect through their announced or uniformed presence.
2) Verbal command: Presence has failed; officers now begin verbal persuasion and, if needed, issue commands or warnings.
3) Open hand: Where practical, police place their hands on suspects and advise them that they are under arrest. Officers counter any resistance beyond this point. Often, wrestling, grabbing, or pushing occurs.
4) Pain compliance: Police employ pressure-point control or pepper spray (which they sometimes may deem appropriate at level 3). This greater force could be justified when the officer encounters weapons, a larger suspect, multiple individuals, combative behavior, or persons under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
5) Mechanical compliance: These methods usually involve physical tactics that employ counterjoint pressures and leverage, such as wrist locks, arm bars, or other “come along” techniques. Officers may apply them using handcuffs or the police baton.
6) Impact: Police use impact weapons only when mechanical control methods prove ineffective or inappropriate. When practical, officers should direct blows to the soft-tissue areas, such as the backs of the legs or buttocks, prior to striking a joint or bone.
7) Deadly force: Police resort to this ultimate step only to protect themselves or others from death or serious injury or to apprehend a forcible felon (after exhausting all other reasonable means) who presents an imminent risk to the community if not immediately detained.
Considerations for Departments The author opines that light is only subjectively painful, that not all people will say it hurts their eyes. Certainly, illumination can disrupt normal behavior and cause varying degrees of discomfort. However, HITPFs do not produce any physical contact or injury. Therefore, the author suggests that HITPF usage merely results in visual effects, thereby relegating it to a use of force applicable only at level 1.
But, at level 1, HITPF use presents a potential problem. That is, cases could arise in which investigators use the light before individuals can identify
them as officers; of course, suspects may respond in a manner that produces a threatening situation. Not only is an HITPF alone insufficient to announce an officer’s presence (anyone can carry a flashlight) but, in fact, the light may create a visual barrier preventing subjects from recognizing police. This blinded person may or may not be armed. Obviously, this situation is not only dangerous but subject to legal scrutiny and possible civil litigation. Departmental policies, procedures, and training must require officers to verbally identify themselves in HITPF-use situations.
In this regard, the author recently conducted an experiment in which he asked 17 college students to move toward him in a darkened hallway. Each time, the author shined an HITPF into the participant’s eyes. Fourteen of the students extended to some degree one or both arms in response to the light beam. In a real-world situation, officers could mistake this response as threatening, justifying an escalation of the level of force— perhaps, even to deadly force, depending on the circumstances. Further, some could argue that the officer’s actions created the dangerous situation.
Also, departments must ensure that their officers do not consider an HITPF a reliable force option; it may well not be. The author argues that it serves only as a light source, merely used to illuminate the suspect. Certainly, it does not provide a physical barrier that shields law enforcement professionals from harm. It also does not apply force capable of gaining control of or compliance from suspects; it may not even intimidate them.
Agencies must clarify when and how to use HITPFs and when to employ higher levels of force. For example, if a male suspect in a low-lit area knowingly encounters a police presence and ignores a command to stop, continuing to move toward the officer, should pepper spray become the next level of force used? Of course, factors, such as the distance between the subject and the officer, presence of a weapon, and speed of movement, would help answer that question. But, if police choose to use pepper spray will they face disciplinary action for failing to use the HITPF effectively?
Clearly, they need policy guidance and training. Confusion on the part of officers concerning appropriate uses of force can present danger to themselves, subjects, and innocent bystanders. Conclusion High-intensity tactical police flashlights can serve as effective tools for law enforcement officers. However, agencies must provide their personnel with clear policies and training regarding how and when to use light. And, when placed in dangerous situations, officers need to have the knowledge and ability to decide—without hesitation—if higher levels of force are appropriate. The safety of law enforcement personnel and the citizens they serve depends on it.