Flashlight Tactics – Part II

(Ed. note – This is the second in a three part series on flashlight tactics. Check out Part I and Part III to get the full series.)


The intermittent use of light is one of the most advantageous methods of flashlight use for law enforcement, but also one of the most misunderstood and misused methods. With this technique, officers should only be turning their flashlights on for a brief lighting, or making rapid on/off switches of their flashlight. Here are some examples where intermittent light is needed:

  • Initial lighting for areas of concern to the officer.
  • Lighting an area that the officer is preparing to move into.
  • Communicating to other officers areas they should focus on, or to communicate the direction of travel for officers.
  • Relighting an area after making a movement in total darkness.
  • Making quick peek observations into unknown areas.
  • Engaging a hostage taker during an emergency action movement.

Flashlight TacticsObviously lights with a strobe function can simply be turned on to strobe for brief times to illuminate areas of need. Otherwise, officers should turn the light off when they feel that area is reasonably clear, to provide themselves with the concealment of darkness. This on/off method of light use acts to confuse the suspect as to what our intentions are and where we might be going. In general people have trouble gauging time and distance without light. This on/off method of light use compounds the confusion for the suspect because it makes it nearly impossible to accurately judge where an officer is, or where they are going.

Officers need to train and practice extensively to be comfortable in the dark. There is a reason that our troops are so successful in Iraq and Afghanistan – we rule the dark, through night vision optics and proper illumination techniques! Ask a veteran and I’ll bet they’ll tell you they’d rather fight at night than in daylight. Many high risk duties occur at night so we should be that comfortable as well.

The brain is a remarkable instrument if trained properly. Practice moving through dark houses, buildings and yards with very little use of light. An officer could easily gain the skills to observe a room or area with only a few momentary bursts of light, and then actually move through that room or area relatively safely in darkness. Imagine the suspect’s surprise as they try to track the officer’s movement, see the light in one area or room, and then only moments later the light appears (briefly) in an entirely new area.

SWAT flashlightNow to be sure, this technique is best used when we are in search mode and have to go through open areas that do not offer much cover. I understand that in search mode our mindset must always be thinking that there IS a suspect hiding somewhere in the area we are going, whether in that room or the next, so we must move as stealthily as possible. Maintaining noise discipline is just as important as light discipline during these movements.

If contact is made, or something peeks the officers interest, than another intermittent light use should be employed to examine that area of concern. If a suspect is located, than we switch to full-time light as mentioned above. In a situation where an officer was on the move, it would be necessary for the officer to maintain full- time light on the suspect, while continuing to move to a position of cover.

Through dozens of force-on-force scenarios (often with SWAT officers as bad guys) I can tell you that proper use of intermittent lighting causes the “suspects” to be very concerned that the pain train is coming unless they surrender!

I have had the luxury of training with officers and instructors that have hundreds of hours of low-light techniques training and experience, and I can attest that the confidence to perform well in darkness can be achieved fairly quickly if practiced correctly. And when you use the proper techniques the effects are devastating for those who wait in hiding to do you harm, or who simply try to stay hidden.

Streamlight SL20L flashlightAnother good example of intermittent light is when officers perform a “quick peek”. The quick peek is done when an officer is in a position of cover, behind a wall or at a door frame for example, and the officer wants to examine where they are going without exposing themselves for long. A quick peek in most cases will be performed after the officer has “cut the pie”. “Cutting the pie” is a technique where officers slowly and deliberately move around corners to examine the area past that corner – most commonly at doorways, or the ends of hallways.

In the quick peek method an officer holds at the position of cover, and first uses their other senses. Yeah, use of flashlights is great but don’t forget the other senses while doing so. If you are at that position of cover and smell a cigarette, or body odor, or hear noise then stay behind cover and call the bad guy out to you on your terms! If you don’t have any other sensual stimulus but you still want to confirm that the area you are going into is relatively safe use the quick peek.

To do this, the officer must concentrate on what they are doing to get the timing right. When the officer is ready they will move in darkness to a point where their light, gun, and eyes can see where they want to look. This should only expose the bare minimum of the officer’s body. As soon as the officer is in that position conduct a quick on/off of their flashlight in the direction that the officer wants to see. Once done immediately withdraw back to cover.

police flashlightsThe goal of a “quick peek” is to allow the officer to see into a threat area, but not long enough to give a suspect time to fire or attack the officer. The officer is taking a snap-shot picture of what he saw, and allowing that picture to develop while in cover like an old Polaroid instant picture did (younger officers Google it!).

If the officer needs to look in the other direction into the hot area, than they need to make sure they displace and conduct their “quick peek” from a different position (kneeling, modified prone, etc.). The quick peek should be performed from start to finish in about one second, less for those who are highly practiced in the technique.

Depending on the circumstances, the officer can follow with “painting” the room or moving on to another area, hopefully under the concealment of darkness. Something officers should remember is that all of these techniques are tools for the officers. Officers should not feel compelled or bound to follow a certain set of rules on using their flashlight, but instead take all of these techniques into the field and use the ones that are appropriate for the situation they find themselves in.

With all the good that the on/off or intermittent use of light brings, this area of light use also brings with it a certain mystique and plenty of naysayers. I firmly believe that those who aren’t fans have either never tried it, or more likely, have tried it incorrectly and quickly discarded the technique because of early failures. To be certain, this method of light use requires the highest level of training and practice, otherwise it will lose its powerful and positive effect.

An example of a failure to properly use intermittent light would be an officer who simply flashes some light in a certain area but doesn’t take mental photographs of what they are seeing. In that case the officer has simply wasted time and effort. An officer must train themselves to know that they are going to briefly turn the light on, and train the brain to respond to the limited stimulus by recording information. It is very possible! You’ll be amazed at the amount of detail and information you can gather from a flash of light that is on less than one second.


Have an officer stand in the deep corner of a room (the corner that is adjacent to the doorway) and make the room as dark as possible. That officer will do something particular for the lighting officer to identify (make a peace symbol, be sitting with hands up, have hands in a position to shoot, etc.). The officer with the light will move their head (eyes), flashlight, and training weapon into the room while still dark to do a quick peek. Start with no time limits so the movements can be mastered. Then as officers master the movements, start dialing it in with time restrictions – must be completed in 2 seconds, 1.5 seconds, 1 second.

flashlight holderAfter the officer has moved back to cover allow their brain to start developing that picture. Then ask the lighting officer what they saw in as much detail as possible. Once the lighting officer does well with one officer, try two or three, or have other types of objects or stimulus for them to identify. You’ll be amazed about how much information you can gather in such a short time.

One thing to remember is that action is always faster than reaction. Here, we are expecting that our action will be faster than the suspect’s reaction. This requires a combination of speed and skill. As you train this technique and start feeling more comfortable, step it up a notch. Get everyone in protective gear (full face masks, etc.) and give the “suspect” a Sims or Airsoft gun. Let the “suspect” know that they have a green light to shoot the officer whenever they have a chance. Then let the officers perform the same drills.

The successful officers will come away even more convinced of their abilities in darkness. If an officer is hit then review why they were hit – too long exposed, improper lighting, talking out loud to partners about what they’re going to do, or peeking from the same point repeatedly.

The quick peek has limitations. If done improperly the picture will not provide the officer enough information to make decisions. If the officer lights up before entering the room then they have telegraphed their movement and are susceptible to danger. If the officer lights up as they are leaving there won’t be enough information to process. And if the officer stays in the room too long they are open to danger.

This technique requires practice, practice, practice!

Another thing to remember is the rule of 3! This is an old war rule that says the first to light a cigarette gets the enemies attention. The second to light a cigarette zeroes the enemy onto location. And the third to light gets the bullet! Same goes here with lighting. If you need to do another quick peek DO NOT do it from the same position you just performed!

Displace to kneeling or even modified prone (if you’re really good at it) and look from a whole new area. Suspects believe you’re going to engage them from standing and can guesstimate where you will be coming through that door. You can light up from high while your head is low, or light up low while your head is high. Suspects are naturally attracted to the light so this technique should give even more protection for your noggin.

Coming up, the final installment on Flashlight Tactics.

The author is a sergeant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a trainer, supervisor and SWAT sniper. In addition to his broad tactical knowledge, Aaron has experience in DUI, DRE and undercover narcotics investigations.

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Publisher at BlueSheepdog
Richard Johnson is a gun writer, police trainer and really bad joke teller. Check out his other writing on sites like Human Events, The Firearm Blog and Police & Security News.

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