In today’s podcast, I talk about threat identification in low light conditions. Humans are highly dependent on our vision to make decisions on how to respond to our surroundings. Being able to identify threats is critically important to make sure we respond appropriately to an incident.
References from today’s podcast:
- Shreveport, LA Shooting Video Stills
- Visual Perception in Low Light Levels by Paul Michel
- Lowlight and Tactical Training from the SureFire Institute
- Visual Perception in Low Light: Can You Identify a Threat?
- Identify Your Target: Use Your Flashlight
Blue Sheepdog Podcast 14
Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the Blue Sheepdog Podcast. We’re back for episode number 14. I’m Richard, your host; and tonight what we going to be doing is, talking about identifying threats in low light conditions.
Now, I don’t care how good your vision is or how good you think it is. Identifying a threat anytime you’ve got a condition of reduced lighting is going to be a lot more difficult than you think. And it may be a lot more than you realized which could put you in a kind of a precarious position legally, if you maybe don’t take some steps to mitigate it, and even when you do all the right things or try to do all the right things, you can still get jammed up.
So, there’s a lot of information that I’m going to go over that hopefully will be of benefit obviously, any of the links that I reference in the podcast, I’ll have in the show notes. So make sure you bounce over the bluesheepdog.com and check out those links.
Our eyes are our primary sense that we use to gather information about the world. If you think about everything we do on law enforcement. When we’re out and we’re observing, we use our eyes more than anything else. Just human beings were set up, we’re more visually oriented. We’ve got binocular vision. Generally speaking, we have pretty good vision not necessarily as good as some of the birds of prey and what not. But relatively speaking, we do have pretty good vision.
Our hearing, we use it but not merely as much as we use our vision. Smell, taste, touch, we use on occasion but vision followed kind of a distant second, our hearing. Our primary senses for observing things that we come across while on duty. And our vision is severely diminished anytime we have reduced light situation, whether it’s night time or daytime and you’re inside.
Anytime the light starts to go down, anything from broad daylight we start losing quite a bit of our ability to distinguish fine detail. And the reason why is it’s a physiological reason. If you go all the way back to your biology classes in high school or junior high, middle school, you probably would remember the science instructor, the teacher telling you about the rods and the cones in the eye. And you have cones which are generally activated in brighter conditions, and those are good with fine detail and color, and our rods which are generally associated with night vision or vision during reduced lighting situations.
And the rods are not cued in on detail. Rods tend to focus more in on movement and that creates problem that in low light conditions when we may be trying to determine if the suspect has a weapon, that our eyes are not set up to give us the information we need. And the problem is kind of that – It’s out there – or exaspirated by the age of the person, of the officer that’s trying to do the viewing; and also really severely hindered by a survival stress, and we’ll talk about the stress in a minute. But as you get older your vision starts to get worse.
I think we all realized that at a certain age a lot of people start to having to wear glasses whether it’s for reading or for long distance. If you are like me and you’ve worn glasses for the vast majority of your life. Every few years it seems like you might have to get a little bit of a stronger prescription and kind of a — one of those rules of thumb that’s out there.
Generally speaking, the amount of light you need to see in darkness doubles about every 13 years. And what that means in practicality is, if you’re are a 32 year old officer and you are going up against an 18 year old assailant, they need less than half the light that you do for the same amount of vision.
In other words, in any given darkness, however much light there is or isn’t, they’re going to have probably about double the ability to see than you will. And 32 is not very old. 32, if you’ve been in law enforcement for five, six, seven years at age 32, you’re just now starting to kind of hit your stride probably. Yet the kids you’re going up against, I say kids 18-year- old, I mean, that’s a man in all states of the union.
Physically, not just from hitting the weights or run on the track. Physically, their eyes are just much better. So you’ve got age going against you and the darkness. And when you move from a well lit area to a dark area, until your eyes adjust, you are at a severe disadvantage there. If you move from a well lit room into a very dark room, your vision is actually reduced to about 20/800 which is, if I remember correctly, well past legally blind. You’re not going to see very well. And I think we all realized that.
But one of the things that kind of dumps on us is when we are trying to perceive a threat, a lot of times it’s because we perceived that there is a threat, right? We’re looking for somebody that’s maybe run from us or you’re on shots fired call or you’re with K9 trying to track an assault suspect or something like that.
So, already we’ve got some survival stress, right? We perceive some danger to ourselves and that’s creating a stress in our system. And anytime we have that survival stress, that’s going to cause a sympathetic nervous system discharge. And that’s just really big words for that fight or flight response. It’s where we get all those chemicals in our system. There are some physical alterations to the way our body operates; and now, we’re having that body alarm response.
Well, part of that body alarm response or that SNS discharge; what that cause us, is we get a little bit of tunnel vision, right? And the problem with that is the tunnel vision we wind up, we lose some of our near vision which we know that. But the rods which are responsible for our night vision are largely eliminated from use. Because the tunnel vision focuses in on the cones which don’t do well in darkness and we’re li — When it focuses on the cones, which don’t do well, and we’re eliminating about 70% of the rod use, whatever vision we had in dark conditions, has now been further reduced.
So we’re kind of in a tough spot if we’re working at night, we’re in dark area, and you’re not necessarily 18 years old. I suspect that many of you are like me and you’re a few years in the law enforcement. You wind up you’re at a huge disadvantage. And you may not necessarily perceive that all the time because if you’re always out working at night, a lot of these changes are slow to occur. But after 10 or 15 years of working, you’ve may not realized how much your vision has deteriorated and you just don’t even realize it.
So, what kind of problem does that cause? Well it causes kind of a huge problem because you may wind up misidentifying weapons or other threats. You could misidentify something that is a threat and you don’t take it as a threat and you wind up getting yourself hurt or killed. Or the exact opposite, you could see something that isn’t a threat but you think it is a threat and you take some type of action when it’s not necessarily deserved.
Crime case of this is a few years ago, city of Freeport Louisiana had some officers there working at night. I don’t remember what time of the day it was, it was just at night time I remember seeing the video and they were chasing a guy by the name of Marquise Hudspeth.
And what Marquise did is he was driving down the road, and apparently driving in an erratic manner, and the officer that saw him was going to make a traffic stop.
The officer didn’t know if he was possibly a drunk driver or if he was just not paying attention, talking on the cell phone, whatever. But the officer attempts to make a stop for the traffic violations and winds up they chased the guy for about five miles or so. And just about the time that they were getting ready to call off the chase, the guy pulls up into a well lit parking lot of a Circle K or a 7/11, QuickTrip, one of these type convenience stores and gets out. And he starts to walk away, and he is not complying.
And obviously, the officers they don’t know what they have. All they know is that they got a guy that’s fled from them and now he stopped. He has hopped out of his car. He is walking away. He is still not listening to verbal commands.
The officers have their guns drawn. The guy is not listening. And then, suddenly, Marquise turns, assumes a two-handed hold and points an object at one of the officers. The officer fires twice, does not hit him. The second officer who was actually in contact distance with Marquise from the video, it’s not entirely clear but it looks like that officer that’s in contact distance probably saw the weapon but for whatever reason didn’t fire and Mark Hiss continued to walk away.
And the officers fall behind him point the guns issuing verbal commands; and Mark Hiss spins around again this time, again holding that object as anybody would a firearm pointing at one of the officers. The officer ducks down trying to get out the line of fire; and a short time later, they put, I think, eight rounds into the back of the guy and put him down. And he was killed right there on the spot.
Well, it all sounds like a good shooting and it was, it is and I would hope that all of those would do the same thing. The issue that comes up though is what Marquise was turning around and pointing at these officers was not a gun but it was a cell phone. Now, when you watch the video, when you watch it through the first time and you have no idea what’s going to happen or anything else, you see a gun and it’s not until after you realized that it wasn’t a gun that you go back and you really look at it and you go, “Oh maybe that wasn’t a gun.”
But everything that Marquise did, all of his actions clearly indicated that he was someone that obviously wasn’t cooperating with the police; but then he assumes a two-handed hold with an object that all of us identify as being a firearm; and he is getting ready to shoot me. And obviously, the officers thought that. Every time he turned or pointed gun, you see officers ducking and everything else.
So it’s very clear the officers, they had no ill intent or anything else. They honestly believed that Marquise had a firearm and they do what they have to do. If Marquise didn’t want to die that day then he should have just pulled over for the police back when they tried to stop him.
But what’s interesting about this particular case to me anyway is not public outcry, was not the charges of racism, and incompetence and all these other silly things but it’s that — You know what? It may not be that uncommon of a circumstance, maybe just a little more common that it was all caught on video.
There was a research article done by a gentleman by the name of Tom Aveni; and I’ll have a link on the website to this. And Tom went through a lot of shooting data. And kind of came up with a couple of, he had all sorts of statistics and things he looked at. And obviously, this is not an all encompassing research study that takes an account every shooting or anything else.
But it was fairly well researched and it was somewhat telling. Two points that I took from it, first of all what he discovered is 75% of all police shootings happened in some type of low light, reduced light condition, 75%, three out of four. It means you are more likely to get in some type of low light shooting than you are in full daylight.
Yet what are we trained at? The vast majority of us spent most of our time training in bright conditions. At a range outdoor, a range indoor, or a range that matter; we always spent that time during daylight hours. Or well lit ranges on the inside. Yet, 75% the shootings happened in some type of reduced light condition, anything from twilight hours all the way to pitch black darkness.
Tom also discovered that somewhere between, 18% to 33% of police shootings involved a misidentified threat. Let me say that again, 18% to 33% of police shootings involved a misidentified threat. That means somewhere between one out of five and one out of three shootings that police officers are involved in, officers did not correctly perceive the threat. It doesn’t mean the officers did the wrong thing. It doesn’t mean the officers — that they were bad shoots. It just means that whatever the threat was, the officers misidentified it.
In several cases with my own agency of people producing some object, officers that they’re on some type of violent crime and the suspect is non-compliant and produces an object in a manner consistent with producing a firearm; and either with verbal threats or the implied actions. The officers felt genuinely in fear for their lives. And they shot and killed the suspect – well, suspects. That would have several cases like this.
And you know what? In different cases, it wouldn’t actually a real gun or anything. But you know what? They did the right thing. But it doesn’t change the fact that they misidentified the actual threat. Again, they didn’t do anything wrong, they did everything exactly right, the exact same way I would have. But the threat wasn’t necessarily a threat. What’s kind of interesting is the brain. If you’re missing information the brain likes to fill it in.
You’ve heard the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum”. Well your brain is sort of like that. The brain wants information and if it’s missing information, it’s going to try to fill that information in. That’s the reason why a lot of times if you’ve got a question about something, you may puzzle over it a long time. It is your brain trying to figure it out, trying to fill that information in.
Well, it’s the same thing with our perceptions. If you are in a situation where you can’t clearly identify something, the brain is trying to identify that. Because you have identified whatever is in that person’s hand, I need to know what it is. And you may not able to see it in your vision as your primary way of gathering information, the brain is trying, trying like hell to try to figure what’s in that hand but you can’t see it or you can’t see it clearly.
And so what the brain does is it tries to add in information and it does of this a lot of times through context. For example, what is the person’s hand positioning? How is the person moving? How is the body positioned? And that’s exactly when we’re talking about the Shreveport Case.
Those officers, they see something in the hand. They think it’s a weapon. It’s something shiny. It’s something bright. It’s the right size to be a hand gun. They obviously can’t identify it precisely. Otherwise, they would have said, “Oh it’s a cell phone.” and just jump the guy or whatever. But the brain is looking, okay; based on the context he has assumed a two-handed hold. He’s turned, he squared off, and he’s pointing at somebody with this object.
Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Well, that’s exactly what the brain is doing in that case. Okay, he has got something in his hand. It’s about the right size of a gun. It is shiny like a metal is. He squared off. He/s assumed a two hold, a two-hand hold. He is non-compliant. He is a threat. It’s a gun, shoot him, right?
And that’s exactly the way we have to think. We don’t have time to second guess ourselves and confirm it’s a gun. No. In these cases, it’s absolutely correct. These officers have done what they have to do. But again, it’s a misidentified threat; and largely because of the low light conditions. And not just the low light conditions but then also how our body is reacting to the survival stress, your age, everything else.
Now there was an interesting study, another study. This one done by a guy by the name of Paul Levits Mitchell or Michael, I don’t think it’s Michael. Well, anyway Paul if you’re listening, I apologize, brother.
Paul did a study where he took a group of academy recruits and screened them for vision problems to make sure they didn’t have any vision issues or anything, and he took these recruits and told them ahead of time that we’re going to try to identify some objects.
And basically took them into a dark room one at a time at varying light levels, all the way from 0.04 foot candles up to 0.45 foot candles of light and it may not seem like a lot but a 0.45 foot candles we’re talking about that’s actually quite a bit of light. You’re going to be navigating at that. That is the equivalent of a direct beam from your vehicle headlights, hit to somebody about 30 feet away.
Okay, so that certainly well enough to navigate with, and you would think that you’re doing pretty good. I think all of us have, that have work nights, have gotten out and wondered around warehouses and buildings and things not using our flashlight, just using a full moon. I think we all agree a full moon is certainly enough light to navigate by and a lot of times you’re able to identify your partners and everything else.
Well, a full moon is only putting out about 0.01of foot candles of light. So at the very lowest amount of light that Paul is using is four times the amount of a full moon. So, were talking about light levels that many times are better than what we have to work with.
But what he did is he took the recruits in these rooms and had a subject that’s holding an object inside each room and gave each recruit one second to identify what the object is, and the subject held the item in kind of a neutral position, holding the item the same way every time so there’s not going to be any context clues or anything else. And each recruit run through their — I believe it was four times each — to try to identify one of four different objects.
Only one of the objects was a weapon and it was Smith & Wesson 59, which I believe the 59 was a second generation full sized Smith & Wesson 9 mm, pretty big sized gun. I mean, we’re not talking about like a little Kel-Tec or something. But at the lower light levels 0.04, the number of objects correctly identified by the recruits was four, whereas the number of objects misidentified was 44.
In other words that four times the amount of light of a full moon with a full second which is a lot more time than most of us are going to have out on the street to make a decision, 44 times out of 48, the recruits were misidentifying what was in fact the firearm.
If you go all the way to the other end of the scale and basically the equivalent of your vehicle headlights, the recruits were still misidentifying 11 out of 48 times. So, what is that about, 20% to 25% of the time they’re still getting it wrong? That’s with the full second and that’s with no stress on them, whatsoever.
And what’s also scary is the recruits frequently said they made the determination on whether or not the person was holding a gun based on the way they held it which if you heard me a minute ago, they held every item the same exact way which kind of indicates to me that even at the brightest level, a lot of those recruits were guessing. They may have been guessing right but they were still guessing. They weren’t absolutely sure.
But even with guessing correctly they, still only were hitting at about — or they were getting about 20% to 25% of the time incorrect which that 20% to 25% certainly falls right in the middle of Aveni’s research where he was saying 18% to 33% of police shootings involved a misidentified threat.
So that certainly seems to match up. So I don’t know if this is kind of making an impression or not on you. I’m trying to get you to just realize that no matter what you may think about your vision or how well you work at night or anything else, you’re not working nearly as well. You’re not seeing nearly as well as you think you are, and that’s going to possibly get you in a situation where you misidentify a threat.
Now, just like the Shreveport Case or like the cases with my department or thousands of other departments, if the guy is a criminal and he is acting in such a way as to try to make you believe he has a firearm, I had no sympathy for him. He gets what he gets. But my big concern is that you misidentify a threat the other way and that you do not perceive a threat when one exist because we’re behind the curve the vast majority of the time when we’re doing stuff out on the road, and if someone is presenting a weapon and we don’t perceive it is a weapon, how far behind the curve are we going to be then?
A lot of times we don’t realize where in a gun fight until somebody starts shooting. Well, that’s the biggest way to lose that fight because if you don’t perceive a deadly threat until they’re shooting at you, and now you’ve got to figure out how you are going to respond? Where are you going to go for cover? How to draw your weapon? How to respond to the threat?
I don’t want to say it’s too late but you’re in a bad spot. You have bound yourself in a big hole and you’re going to have to get a pretty darn big ladder to get yourself out of it. If on the other hand, you recognize that you cannot perceive threats as well as you think you can, there are some things you can do about that. You can change your tactics a little bit.
For example, use your flashlights. Now, there may be an officer somewhere that has been killed because they were using their flashlight and somebody was tracking the flashlight and shot him. I searched the internet. I can’t find any. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened, but if you know of something, please send me a link, please send me some reference to it. Because I can’t find it but I can find plenty of times officers have been killed because they didn’t perceive a threat in low light conditions. They either didn’t have their flashlight. They didn’t have it on, whatever, but they did not perceive a deadly threat in low light conditions and they died. I can’t find those cases. I can’t find the cases where an officer was using a flashlight and was killed because of that flashlight used.
If there are out there, please send them to me because I don’t want to give anybody bad advice. Where in this game together and we’ve got to know what really works in the field and we’ve got to do those things and avoid the things that don’t work.
But I’m telling you right now, I can’t find any. Please send them to me if you know of them. So use your Dadgum flashlights. And we’ve got these wonderful flashlights. If you’ve been reading the website, you’ve seen a couple of articles from one of my partners in crime Randy. He has written an article about the Elzetta flashlight. They can mount on the end of your AR without having a bolt [??] on a bunch of stuff. He also did a review on the TerraLUX LED replacement for your stinger flashlights.
I’ve done prior reviews on streamlights and Blackhawk flashlights, we’ve got all sorts of crazy tools now for flashlights and they’re bright and they’re small, we can carry them everywhere. They’re lightweight. They hold the charge forever. There is no excuse for us not to have a flashlight and not to be using it. All right, so use your flashlights we have to identify the threats.
The other thing is and I’m as bad as the next guy. I eat too many fast food meals and I don’t drink enough orange juice whoever the case maybe but we’ve got to have more healthy lifestyles. We can — I can’t say that we can improve our vision but we can certainly avoid causing worse vision, and by that here is what I mean, two things, one, smoking. I don’t smoke, but if you do, knock it off, okay?
There are all these awful things that are related to smoking, right? Cancer and everything else, and you may not want to hear me preach about it, that’s fine, whatever. But I’ll just give you one little thing and one more thing about smoking and that the researches out there shows or we say, a very, very high correlation between smoking and vision problems including a reduction in night vision.
So, you know if you’re smoking and it helps you stay awake at night, that’s great. You can’t see crap which may help you stay alive. So I mean, you know, think about that. The other thing is vitamin A deficiency. If you have a deficiency in vitamin A, that can also lead to vision problems including a loss of night vision.
I’m not saying that going out there and taking huge amounts of vitamin A is going to improve your vision but it will certainly decrease your vision if you’re not getting enough of it, and I’m not a doctor, I’m not a clinician, or dietician, or anything else, okay? I can tell you that eating all of your vegetable is good for you and doing that will probably prevent a vitamin A deficiency.
If you’re on court all day and you work all night, and you’re not getting good meals, try a multivitamin. I don’t know if multivitamins work as good as the vitamin company say they will but darn it, they can’t hurt.
So a healthy lifestyle, okay, vitamin A, stop smoking, and use your Dadgum flashlight. I mean, that’s the easiest thing in the world, right? It’s easy for me to say it but it’s true. That’s the easiest thing you can do to improve your ability to identify threats in low light conditions.
All right, I’ll stop preaching now about the subject. I just want everyone to be safe. We’ve lost too many police officers this year already. We had an awful fear last year. I hate going to funerals and I’m really tired of police funerals. I just want you all to kind of think about some of the things I brought up. And if you can use a little bit of what I talked about today; and improve the way you handle your calls, at least just recognize that you’re not going to be able to see as well as you think you can see at night time or in a warehouse or any time you’ve got any kind of reduced lighting.
Any questions, comments or concerns, shoot me an e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, my e-mail is email@example.com, always looking for your suggestions and your feedback. Also, as I mentioned earlier, all the links, show notes and everything, will be on the website. If you’ve not been checking out the website, if you’re just listening to the podcast on iTunes, I welcome you to check out the website.
We’ve got years of material on there. I’ve been doing the podcast now for months and been doing the website for years. I’ve got lot of training articles. In fact, I think I’ve got some prior articles talking about visual perception in low light and identifying your target, those types of things that are linked to from the show notes today.
Then certainly, check out the website. As I mentioned, my partner in crime Randy has been throwing in a bunch of articles for us. Randy is a great guy in addition of being in police work for many years. Randy is also a supervisor. He has spent many years on the department’s SWAT team. He’s spent – I don’t know how many years in the homicide, in major crimes and everything else.
So, he is a very, very valuable resource and really a funny guy also. So make sure you go in the website even if you hate my stuff, check out his stuff. Randy is putting out some good things. But like I said, any questions shoot me an e-mail and other than that, stay safe.