LIGHTS OUT! TECHNIQUES FOR DARKNESS
There are times when remaining in near darkness is actually a great advantage to officers. Here are a few situations where being in near darkness is actually a benefit:
- Maintaining a perimeter position.
- Moving through open areas that offer little cover and are exposed to the suspect.
- Crossing fatal funnels.
- Moving through fatal funnels.
- Hiding from your supervisor … uh, wait, different article!
When on perimeter duty for trying to lock down a fleeing criminal it could definitely be advantageous to remain in near darkness and allow our sense of hearing or smell to assist us. Standing around with a light on full-time may be beneficial if we are absolutely certain the perimeter was set up in time. In that case the light should lock the suspect down, or at least identify his flight path. If we aren’t sure, or we’re dealing with a known armed suspect, then setting up a perimeter in darkness may be more appropriate.
Whether inside a structure or in an open field, movement across open areas is of particular concern to officers. In most situations this movement should be completed with as little or no light as possible. This would be a great opportunity to mix techniques. Officers could intermittently light up an area they want to cross for the purpose of identifying obvious trip hazards or other obstacles. Then, under the concealment of darkness, officers could move across that area in a reasonably safe manner. Again, noise discipline will be a critical concern in these situations as well.
Crossing fatal funnels is a horrible reality that officers must face. A fatal funnel is any location that focuses the area a suspect can expect police movement. This could be a doorway, a window, a hallway, a pathway through woods, etc. This obviously increases the chances that an officer will be attacked while in the funnel. Since this type of movement is frequent in police work, officers should investigate as many techniques as they can find on how to successfully navigate this threat area.
One of the things that an officer might be able to control is the amount of light available at the funnel. After using other lighting techniques to “quick peek” or “cut the pie” the officer can go “lights out” and rapidly move across the funnel under concealment of darkness. “Cutting the pie” allows the officer to remain behind a position of cover while exposing the majority of the room for officer inspection. The final movement is to “quick peek” the deep corners before moving into the room. In this manner the entire room can be examined before crossing the threshold.
Communication with other officers is critical so they don’t back light an officer during this movement. “Lights out” should tell all other officers that a movement in darkness is about to occur, and they need to turn their lights off and be quiet. “Lights out” means lights out! In most circumstances, this instruction will come from the lead officer, but may come from a cover officer who senses a threat from an area different from the main objective.
Limited communication is just as important, it should not let the suspect know what the officers are doing. Loudly proclaiming “lights out so I can cross this doorway” defeats the aspect of surprise. Officers should be comfortable with limited and quiet communications that are brief and to the point.
Another time that “lights out” should be considered is when officers are finally ready to move through the funnel and into a room. From “painting” and “cutting the pie” officers should have a good idea of a clear movement path. Obviously with furniture in the room there are still possible areas that a suspect could hide. When ready officers can call for “lights out” and then move into the room under darkness. Once in the room, officers can relight flashlights using an intermittent light technique until the room is clear or a suspect is located, at which time a full-time lighting technique should be used.
Moving into a room should be a considered and deliberate movement. This is not a slow movement, but movement with a plan. Officers still want to clear the funnel as quickly as possible, as there might be ambient light that partially back lights them. To accomplish this officers should move into the room and immediately step away from the doorway a few steps. This clears them from the funnel and allows room for backing officers to enter the room as well. Once inside the room officers should turn lights on to clear any remaining threat areas (like behind furniture).
There are two basic methods for entering the room – crossing and button-hook. In the crossing method, an officer is on one side of the doorway (e.g. left), steps into the room, and then steps across to the other side of the doorway on the inside of the room (right). This is the most natural form of movement into the room that still clears the funnel.
In the button-hook method, an officer is on one side of the doorway (e.g. left), steps into the room and immediately spins back in the same direction (going left), in effect following the contour of the wall they were using as cover.
In either method the officer should take 2-3 steps into the room to clear room for other officers to enter. Going too far into the room will cut off the angle necessary for backing officers to provide additional firepower should an immediate threat be realized. In addition, the officer should move in a manner that places them 3-5 feet away from the wall. This creates a moving target for any suspect that is hiding in the deep corner. If the officer simply moves along the wall they only create a bigger target.
The obvious concerns for the officers are the deep corners and these should be checked first. The deep corners are the ones adjacent to the walls of the room or hallway the officers are in before entering. Using flashlight lighting techniques officers should be able to observe the far corners from a position of cover, but the deep corners are often difficult to observe even with a “quick peek” due to furniture or other obstacles.
Once in the room the officers should sweep their weapons inward until the entire room is covered, but not crossing over their partners area to avoid “lasering” each other. Continuing to move while clearing obstacles is a good idea as long as officers are aware of their muzzle and do not laser each other and communication between officers remains constant. Once the room has been thoroughly checked a pre-set communication should be given, such as “nothing seen” or “clear”.
Many agencies do not have the luxury of a full-time S.W.A.T. Team, or even a part-time team that can be assembled in a reasonable amount of time. This is especially true in more rural areas where agencies may be a part of a multi-jurisdictional team that requires even more time to assemble. Whether it is the initial patrol officers or a S.W.A.T. Team that is handling a hostage taker situation, each style of lighting can be utilized.
The intermittent use of light can be an extremely effective tool in the event that the hostage taker must be taken out. Obviously the best use of intermittent light would be if the hostage taker and hostage are in a darkened area. If the hostage rescue has to be performed in a lighted area I would still recommend officers use light on the hostage taker’s eyes to further distract them from officers’ movements.
In a darkened hostage rescue action officers can decide on two methods to engage the hostage taker. These techniques are meant for the common situation where the hostage taker is behind the hostage and holding the hostage close to themselves. The point of these techniques is to get officers close enough to the hostage taker to allow officers to take a head shot on the hostage taker that affords the utmost certainty of avoiding the hostage.
In the first method some of the cover officers can continue to have full-time light on the hostage taker, while other officers move in the peripheral areas to a point where they can engage the hostage taker. The advantage of this is that there will be enough ambient light for the officers to move into position and see the hostage taker. The disadvantages are that the hostage taker is not going to like the light on them, and the ambient light may expose the officers moving in and cause the hostage taker to take action against the hostage.
In the second method the officers maintain full-time light on the hostage taker until they have a reasonable plan of action decided. Then they can go “lights out” which has the appearance of doing what the hostage taker wants from them. Instead, with the hostage taker’s eyes now very much compromised to the dark, the officer(s) can stealthily but quickly take a flanking movement to the hostage taker’s position. At the last possible moment the officer illuminates the hostage taker with a flashlight and takes as near of a contact head shot as possible to ensure ending the hostage taker’s threat, while avoiding injury to the hostage.
Now before any negotiators or administrators write any scathing responses about not trying to talk the hostage taker down I will restate the purpose of this article – low- light techniques. Yes, officers should first try to negotiate or talk hostage takers into releasing their hostages and surrendering. But when the situation has obviously deteriorated and the officers have a reasonable belief that the hostage is in immediate danger of serious physical injury or death, than the officers must act. And in order to act effectively they need to practice techniques that will give them the best advantage. That is the only point of this article.
With disciplined practice, the techniques in this article will help officers to confidently tackle whatever scenario they face in darkness, and actually come to appreciate the benefits of darkness. I would highly recommend that officers review this material and perhaps practice some of the techniques, but seek out qualified training in the area of low-light engagements to fully appreciate the proper methods of using light.
Aaron 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. He has advanced training in flashlight tactics and hostage rescue.