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Seeing night vision technology in a new light

Night vision equipment – everything from video and SLR camera lenses to rifle scopes and night vision goggles (NVGs) – is increasingly ubiquitous in departments throughout the country. Once supplied only to an agency’s SWAT team or limited to a handful detectives conducting extended nighttime surveillance, these excellent products are making their way into the trunks of hundreds of squads and duty bags of thousands of patrol officers. This is in part because – as is often the case with rapidly-evolving technologies – the costs associated with some of this equipment is going down while the quality of the products continues to increase.

Street Survival instructor Betsy Brantner-Smith tells PoliceOne: “When I first started, something like two departments in the county would own night vision – you know, a scope or goggle or whatever – and we’d sort of pass it around. Now it’s cheap enough that you can own it yourself.”

Prices for night vision equipment vary depending on the underlying technology in the device. Light intensifier sets are the most common solutions in the hands of police officers today and tend to be slightly lower in cost. They’re very good for seeing people’s faces and other details but require some level of pre-existing light (moonlight or the ambient light in any given city at night is generally sufficient). Night vision equipment based on thermal imaging technology doesn’t need any existing light to give you an image, but also tends to be on the more expensive end of the price range, and doesn’t give as clear a picture of someone’s face.

Some agencies can seek grants and assistance for the acquisition of night vision gear through CEDAP, which helps smaller jurisdictions meet their equipment needs by providing technology and training in various types devices and technology, which can include night vision gear. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security website, “awards are made to law enforcement and emergency responder agencies not currently eligible for funding through the Department’s Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program.”

But night vision capabilities are more prevalent today not just because the cost is coming down or because grants can help you obtain high-end gear. Rather, night vision is more widely used today in large part because the tactical applications are limited only by the imaginations of the officers working our streets.

The following are just a handful of scenarios, culled from conversations with the aforementioned Betsy Brantner-Smith as well as others in law enforcement, in which it makes sense to don your NVGs or peer for a moment through the handheld monocular in your pocket.

  1. You’re entering a darkened building (whether it’s in mid-afternoon or in middle of the night) and you have reason to believe that a suspect may be lying in wait for an ambush inside. You know that turning on your flashlight, even for a moment, is another way of saying, “shoot over here,” so you turn darkness to your advantage and take a look through the night vision.
  2. You’re setting up a perimeter. Using night vision, you can deploy officers further from a potential threat because each can see more clearly and over a greater distance. Or if your agency is feeling a budget crunch, you may only have four squads to deploy for that mission today whereas you might have had six last year. Night vision can be a force multiplier here because each officer can watch over a bigger field of view.
  3. You’re backing up a K-9 officer and his dog. The dog isn’t particularly tactical – he’s going to go after the suspect in a straight line – so to help you cover the handler tracking the bad guy, night vision capabilities can help you see a threat hiding in the dark.
  4. You’re conducting a nighttime directed patrol with two officers in the squad car. Dim the cabin down by squelching the brightness of the mobile computer screen and dash lights, and give the officer riding shotgun the night vision set so they can see down darkened alleyways as you roll quietly along.
  5. You’re a rural patrol officer, your backup is still a few minutes away, and the suspect you’re chasing the just bailed out of his car and ran into the field beside the road. Want to see him in that twilight? Get up on the roof of your squad with the NVGs on your head, pinpoint his location, and wait for the cavalry to arrive.

Whether you’re pursuing a suspect, responding to a reported break in, or investigating a suspicious and/or abandoned vehicle – especially this time of the year, when daylight in North America is extinguished in the late afternoon – having some type of night vision capability in your bag can make a big difference in your effectiveness and your safety.

How are you using night vision technology? If you don’t already have this equipment available to you, how would you use night vision if you could get your hands on it? Sound off in the comments field below, or send me an email.

As always, be well, do good, go get ‘em.

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