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Homeland security: Police response after dark

In previous articles we examined homeland security issues as well as issues related to nighttime operations. Here we will combine the two, and look at how no-light and low-light environments may be additionally challenging during a homeland security related event.

Continuing with the All-Hazards Model

Planning for terrorism is somewhat different from general emergency planning because with terrorism there is the additional component of prevention through law enforcement. All Hazards planning looks to mitigate damage through preparedness because you simply can’t prevent an earthquake or hurricane—you can only mitigate the damages.

Terrorism prevention planning and preparedness involve actions like strengthening our ability to exchange information; training our field personnel to recognize the characteristics of terrorist activities; conducting criminal investigations, and, incorporating terrorism response into general field tactics. While law enforcement officials have this additional component of prevention, combining our counterterrorism efforts with general emergency planning will reinforce our ability to respond to All Hazards.

In review, the All-Hazards Model of emergency preparedness was developed by the National Governor’s Association during the 1970s . Essentially, All-Hazards is a planning model which considers mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery as a total planning package. It requires that we view "counterterrorism as part of general emergency preparedness and response.” By doing so, emergency planners and first responders can use their resources to prepare for the remote possibility of a terrorist attack and prepare for the more likely disasters such as tornados, fires, floods and earthquakes . For example, whether intentional or accidental, the response to a hazardous material spill is remarkably similar. However, our responses to situations during the day is going to be different from our responses after dark because “no light” and “low light” operations have unique dangers and characteristics.

Night and Day

Previously, we outlined that there is more crime and danger to law enforcement personnel at night than during the day. As an example, we found that FBI data for law enforcement officers killed in the line-of-duty reveals that between 1995 and 2004 over 65% of the deaths occurred between 2000 and 0800 hours. Additionally, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2/3 of sexual assaults occur between 1800 and 0600 hours. While we are concentrating on nighttime operations, much of this information is applicable to artificial “no light” and “low light” situations such as darkened buildings.

At night, an offender has several advantages over victims and law enforcement personnel. The two primary advantages have to do with the physiology of the eye. As you have experienced, it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust from bright sunlight to total darkness. However, it only takes five minutes for your eyes to adjust from darkness to bright sunlight. The adjustment from bright light to darkness is more profound that you may think. While our eyes immediately start to adjust, once completely adjusted your eyes can be up to one million times more sensitive to light.

Think about conducting a building search for a burglary suspect. If you enter from sunlight, into a closed and dim location without your eyes fully adjusting, you have given the offender a huge advantage. There is a similar advantage at night as you go from call to call. Your eyes may never fully adjust, and when you enter a dark yard, you are seen, but you can’t fully see.

The second advantage has to do with how the eye and brain work together to detect movement. As the descendents of hunters (and occasionally prey), our eyes’ and brain’s ability to detect movement, especially in our peripheral field of vision, was critical to survival. Indeed, there are specialized areas within our eyes designed to detect movement. Return to the scenario where you are about to search the dim interior of a building. The offender, who is stationary, has an advantage in his or her ability to visually detect your movement. Moreover, every time we approach a radio call we provide potential threats with this advantage.

Compensating for darkness

There are three ways in which we tactically compensate for darkness. First, we use the ambient light. Time permitting, we allow our eyes to fully adjust; and, if you are working the night watch you learn fairly simple techniques to avoid losing your night vision, like using a red lens over the report writing light in your police vehicle. Second, we use artificial light. The headlights of your cruiser, the take down light, the alley lights and your personal flashlight are examples of using artificial light. Thirdly, we use technology to either intensify the ambient light or we use technology to view a different spectrum of the ambient light.

Tactics to minimize the loss of night vision are fairly straightforward. Chief among them is creating a tactical pause between the transitions from one light environment to another. Dissimilarly, there is ongoing debate and development on tactics concerning the use of a flashlight. Everything, from how to hold a flashlight to when to use the flashlight, is subject to a wide variety of opinions. However, there are a few basic requirements for any flashlight that a police officer intends to use in the field.

While a flashlight must be small enough and durable enough to be carried in the field, current technology allows for a wide variety of choices based on a department’s policy and a police officer’s personal preference. A flashlight of any size must have two key characteristics. First, the off/on button must be simple to manipulate allowing for rapid switching off/on. Second, the flashlight must have a variable beam. There are times when a police officer requires a diffuse, softer beam such as when issuing a citation; and, there are other times when a tightly focused beam is more appropriate such as when a police officer is illuminating the interior of a vehicle.

The use of technology by American law enforcement officials to create artificial light dates back to the earliest fire watches in the Dutch colony that became the City of New York. Lanterns and torch gave way to “D” cell flashlights which ultimately became the modern, light-weight rechargeable devices commonly used today. While this technology has a centuries old tradition, newer technologies that intensify ambient light are just making their way into American policing.

The use of night vision equipment is becoming more common place. There are two basic types, thermal imaging and image intensification. For street level use, image intensification is probably the best option because thermal imagining essentially sees heat, whereas image intensification allows you to see all available light. Think of a license plate. With thermal imaging you are less likely to be able to view the plate because of a lack of heat emission; whereas, with image intensification you can likely read the license plate number. Earlier articles in this series more fully explore the technology behind these two types of devices.

Preparing for Darkness During an Event

Every beat cop who has waited an hour and a half for homicide to arrive at the scene of a murder experienced the natural delay in deploying specialized resources. Stuff happens at inconvenient times, like 0300 hours. Your notification to the watch commander, the watch commander’s notification to the detectives and then the detectives drive from home delayed their response. A terrorist attack could be very much like a large natural disaster in that it could take several days for state and federal resources to fully reach you. Every municipal police department, police officer and citizen must be prepared for the lag between the event and full response.

It follows that if full response takes 48 to 72 hours, police departments and police officers must be prepared to operate half of that time in the dark. In addition to developing and practicing nighttime tactics, police officers should make sure their flashlight has the ability to operate for at least three days. Many police officers have adopted rechargeable flashlights which they recharge at the station, between shifts. However, if commercial power is interrupted, your station’s generating system may disable certain circuits like the electrical outlets used to recharge flashlights.

A solution is to have a car adapter available for recharging during the shift or to have a second low-tech battery operated flashlight in the locker or kitbag. Another option is using night vision equipment, which provides a “hands-free” ability to continue searches after daylight hours into powerless buildings while still using the cover of darkness to your advantage if necessary.

Departments have several responsibilities to ensure their employees are well-equipped to work during the time between the event and the deployment of state and federal resources. Any planning and preparation for All Hazards emergencies must be done at the highest overall level of the local government. Police, fire and other services must be coordinated. One critical part of the planning process should be a determination of where equipment, both government and private owned, is located. As an example, a local government likely has an equipment rental company or contractor in their jurisdiction. These companies have generators and outdoor lighting. Part of the planning process should include questions like: Where are these companies located? What types of equipment do they have? Do we have an emergency procurement system in place? Where are the pre-designated command posts and staging areas so that equipment can be obtained, staged and deployed?

All Hazards planning of this type assumes the jurisdiction has not only adopted the National Incident Management System (NIMS), but is proficient in its use. It’s not enough to understand the organization will be operating half the time during hours of darkness and to know where lighting equipment is located, but an organization must also have the leadership infrastructure necessary to ensure resources are deployed through the logistical arm of the Incident Command Post. Furthermore, establishing staging areas will hasten the deployment of state and federal resources.

Departments also have a responsibility to seek out and equip their personnel with technology that will enhance day-to-day operations as well as during major incidents. As an example, image intensification technology is well-developed, durable and relatively inexpensive. Departments should develop policies and tactics for the use of this technology and then deploy it in routine field operations, criminal investigations and major events.

Working in the dark has unique challenges. And, working in the dark over longer periods of time, under stressful conditions, increases those challenges. By understanding the challenges and preparing beforehand, police officers and their departments can increase the level of safety and effectiveness.

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