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December 20, 2004
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The great persuader: The little red dot of a laser sight can stop the bad guy right in his tracks

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By Dave Douglas

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Recently on the U.S. border with Mexico, a Border Patrol officer was caught with no backup while facing an angry mob of illegal aliens bent on crossing into the United States.

The Border Patrol officer put out a cover call with a brief sit-rep on his predicament, but cover was about 10 minutes out, and we all know how long it takes for 10 minutes to grind by when we need cover.

As the crowd came to within shouting distance, the officer warned them to stop, first in perfect unaccented Spanish, then English. He was answered by a torrent of rocks and bottles. With this escalation, the officer drew his Beretta 92FS and issued another warning. Regardless, the crowd continued its onslaught.

It had to be obvious to the crowd that the officer was pointing his firearm at them. They were spread out in front and had an unimpeded view of him. But crowd mentality had taken over. They inched forward a step at a time, pausing only long enough to replenish their arsenal of dirt clods and rocks.

The officer''s supervisor answered the call for backup, and he, too, was greeted by a barrage of rocks. Now two officers were pointing firearms at the crowd. Only, one of the Berettas was very different. The supervisor''s weapon was equipped with a set of Crimson Trace Laser Grips. As he scanned the approaching crowd with his sights, he paused on one of the crowd, stopping the man dead in his tracks.

The young Mexican man looked at the tiny glowing ruby red dot on his chest, let out a yelp, jumped into the air, turned around, ran a zig-zag pattern back to the fence and disappeared under it. The same occurred with the next designee and the one after that. After illuminating the first few and receiving the desired results, the supervisor swept the beam across the remaining members of the crowd, and they beat a wholesale retreat back into Mexico.

A few days later at the processing center, one of the officers recognized one of the first illegals to bolt back when illuminated. Curious as to why the suspect did not respond when he was pointing his weapon at him and why he did respond when he saw the laser, the officer took him aside and questioned the man about his actions.

The illegal alien told him that early in the incident he had the comfort of the crowd. He never realized the officer''s gun was pointed directly at him, and it was only after he was singled out by that red dot, that it occurred to him he could die right there and right then. The sobering effect of being starkly confronted with the fact that, within a second or two, a bullet could enter his body right where that little dot was glowing brought his mortality into crystal clarity and overcame the crowd mentality.

I can''t think of a better argument for equipping police officers with laser sights.

Laser Critics

Of course, there are those who would argue against such a move.

One of the primary criticisms against laser sights is that officers will become dependent on them, and that their responses will be slower in a gunfight, especially if the sight is not operating properly or conditions are not right for laser sighting. The logic here is that an officer might hesitate if he or she doesn''t see the red dot.

The answer to this criticism is simple. Hardly anyone who supports laser sights believes that a laser should be the primary sight on an officer''s pistol. Iron sights on a duty handgun are the primary sighting system. A laser sight is a secondary sight. Officers should be taught to use the primary sight first and then transition to the laser, time permitting.

And the truth is that in many gunfights officers don''t use sights at all. Many will tell you afterward that during the shooting all they were looking at was the big gun in the suspect''s hand. This is why many agencies teach reaction point shooting for those instances when using any sight at all will be too slow. Equipping officers with laser sights should not change that in any way.

Horseplay

Another argument against laser sights truly borders on the absurd. The concern is that officers might point the laser at each other engaging in horseplay.

This is insulting to every police officer worthy of wearing a badge. Police departments go to great lengths and great expense recruiting mature individuals, and then they send them through a battery of psychological testing, train them to make good decisions, drill them in safe gun handling techniques and marksmanship, pair them with a field training officer for months on end, supervise them closely, put guns in their hands, and expect them to make split-second, life and death decisions.

Surely such people are not going to play around with laser sights. Afterall, we''re not talking about laser pointers here, folks. We''re talking about gun sights on real guns. Do you think maybe someone is not giving enough credit to our good officers to conduct themselves in a mature manner?

Target Acquisition

That''s the bad side of laser sights. Here''s the good.

First let''s talk about accuracy under stress. Crimson Trace says that out of the seven documented shootings involving Laser Grips 35 rounds were fired with 33 hits. That''s a ratio of around 94 percent, and it isn''t too bad. The national average hovers around the 20 percent mark.

Shooting experts believe the hit count goes up so dramatically when officers use lasers because the lasers give the officers a tool to overcome the body''s physiological response to stress, allowing them to accurately respond. We are conditioned by survival instinct to look at the threat, but we teach officers to look at the tips of their guns. Since we really don''t have a choice other than to attempt resistance to natural stress reactions, experts believe it''s very beneficial to have a projected red dot in the area we are going to look at anyway.

Another benefit of laser sights is they can''t be beat for low-light shooting. In a low-light encounter, at times officers have a hard time even picking up their sights let alone efficiently using them. They will, however, be able to see the laser.

Hitting a moving target is another advantage of laser sights. A medium-sized sheriff''s department on the West Coast has observed that when its SWAT deputies were equipped with laser sights, the deputies shot dramatically better on the move, even when the target was also moving.

Realtime target assessment is another area where lasers shine. To demonstrate this, try the following exercise. Have a friend stand between 10 and 15 feet away. Now, WITHOUT A GUN IN YOUR HAND, take up a good firearm combat stance, Weaver, Modified Weaver, Isosceles, whichever one you feel comfortable with. Sight over the top of your hands as if you have a pistol and are using the sights. Then have your friend put a hand on his or her belt buckle and hold out a number of fingers. Can you tell how many? Probably not.

Lower your hands about five inches and try again, imagining a little red dot brightly glowing at the center mass of the target. This time you should easily be able to tell how many fingers are being held out. This translates to watching a suspect''s hands. Is the suspect pulling out a gun, a knife, or a badge clipped in his waistband? With a laser sight helping you with target acquisition, you may be able to tell the difference much faster than if you were using only iron sights.

Lasers are also an invaluable training tool for helping shooters improve their marksmanship. They can also show new shooters just how trigger finger placement and pull translates at the target.

The Intimidator

Perhaps the greatest benefit of all is the deterrent factor as illustrated in the border incident previously described. None of us really wants to end a life unnecessarily. If given the option, I would much rather take a suspect in wearing handcuffs instead of a toe tag.

This is one of the few areas that I can think of in which Hollywood has done law enforcement a favor. After all those films and TV programs showing a laser dot sweeping a room and coming to rest on the chest of a bad guy, the public has been indoctrinated to recognize this as instant death or the resolution of a bad situation when the suspect throws down the gun, thrusts his hands in the air, and gives up. And the public who has seen these images includes the suspects that we sometimes have to challenge with deadly force.

Here''s another example of the power of lasers on the minds of suspects. Officers I interviewed for this article told me about a suspect they had been chasing for about 15 minutes through backyards, over fences, and down to a brackish pond at the bottom of a canyon.

The suspect lay on his back mostly submerged with just his eyes and nose peaking out as in an old "Lone Ranger" episode. The only thing that was missing was breathing through a reed. Repeated attempts with drawn pistols to get the felon to come out did no good.

But one of the officers was equipped with a laser sight and, when he placed the dot on the suspect''s forehead, the suspect gave up. According to the hysterically laughing cops who told me the story, he jumped out of the water looking like a Polaris missile launch with weeds still hanging off his ears.

Justified Expense

Police Budgets are a bit tight right now everywhere across the United States. But when you consider the intimidation factor of laser sights and their ability to prevent police-involved shootings, such equipment can be easily justified.

Run this cost analysis: one laser sighting system vs. one officer-involved shooting. On one hand you have between $200 and $600 for the sight. On the other: administrative leave, Internal Affairs investigation, possibly a homicide investigation, crime scene processing, detective call out, critical incident debriefing, weapons lab work from the crime lab, use-of-force review, Officer''s Association attorney, psychiatric counseling, officer leave, citizen''s review board, and civil litigation lasting years.

Sgt. Dave Douglas is a frequent contributor to POLICE and a 25-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department.


This article is reprinted with permission from Police Magazine, online at www.policemag.com/.

Not to be reprinted or published without the express consent of www.policemag.com.



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