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Night vision goes on patrol

By Chuck Remsberg
Senior PoliceOne Contributor

Sponsored by ITT Night Vision

If you still think night vision equipment is specialized gear only for SWAT teams and military ops, think again.

A rapidly increasing number of law enforcement (LE) agencies are finding that once good technology for surreptitiously peeling away the darkness is made available to patrol and detective personnel, the number of applications quickly expands – dramatically impacting crime solving and officer safety alike.

Reports from the field

• Municipal officers one night tried to question a man they’d stopped regarding suspicious activity around tourist hotels in Florida. The suspect bolted and fled on foot to a nearby beach and dove into the ocean. The pursuing officers quickly lost sight of him, and a Coast Guard (CG) boat couldn’t find him either.

A sergeant brought night vision equipment to the scene and “within seconds, the subject was spotted swimming northward,” a report later stated. “Despite [his] attempt to hide underwater, [officers were] able to locate him every time he came up for air.”

With CG help, “they eventually took him into custody,” thwarting what otherwise would undoubtedly have been a clean escape.

• In Texas, a highly skilled serial night burglar had eluded capture for years, once even managing to pick the lock of a “bait house” and get away because the officers and detectives staking out the house were unable to see him in the dark. Another night at another bait house, the tables were turned.

This time, as before, officers using only their naked eyes couldn’t track the suspect’s approach because he stayed in shadows and used trees and bushes for concealment. But an officer with a night vision unit quietly radioed, “I’ve got him….He’s just stopped moving and is in the shadows next to the house.”

She “never lost sight of him” as he “took the bait” and crept through an open garage door. He was arrested at gunpoint and eventually sentenced to 25 years after being tied to more than 500 residential burglaries.

• A state conservation officer in Virginia used his night vision unit to maintain a safe distance while he monitored two hunters trying to spotlight deer in an open field from outside a pickup truck.

Because he could see them without their seeing him, he was able to approach from an angle that maximized surprise and minimized his exposure to their .22 magnum rifle. He seized the weapon and the spotlight from the startled pair without incident.

• A sheriff’s office in South Dakota received a complaint from a woman who felt she was being watched at night while she was home alone. A deputy with night vision goggles was assigned to conceal himself in a vacant field nearby and observe.

The first night, he spotted a suspect coming toward the house. From the driveway, the subject checked that the coast seemed clear, then moved to a position at the woman’s window.

While the peeping tom’s attention was focused on what he could see inside, the deputy “walked right up to him. He had no idea anyone else was out there,” the deputy said later. The offender “almost died of fright” when the lawman identified himself and arrested him.

“It was darker than the inside of a cow” that night, the deputy said, but he was “able to identify the suspect and move in to arrest him” while maintaining a distinct tactical advantage. He’s convinced night vision units “are great tools, and we will have increased need for them in the future.”

Enhancing officer safety & suspect apprehension

Just as carbines and ballistic shields, as well as high-risk tactics, have expanded steadily in recent years from purely SWAT assignments to normal street duty, night vision gear now is finding its way more commonly to patrol cars as well. Night vision units can offer a great deal of hands-free versatility in virtually any dark environment, without exposing the user as a target.

“Patrol officers only need to get this equipment into their hands and see what it can do for them,” says Chief Tom Dugan (ret.), Law Enforcement Projects Coordinator for ITT Night Vision, the leading manufacturer of the most advanced generation of image intensifier technology. “Once they see the rewards, they fight to get more.”

Dugan quickly cites an impressive cross-section of basic patrol applications where night vision capabilities can enhance your safety and suspect apprehension:

—on foot pursuits, for alerting you to otherwise obscured hazards like clotheslines, stumps, breaks in pavement;

—on calls to domestic disturbances and other potentially unstable situations, especially in remote rural areas with little ambient lighting, where a stealthy approach and a chance to covertly scan people and places for weapons can give you the edge;

—on searches of “abandoned” buildings, where no electricity is available but where suspicious activity may abound;

—on patrol of public property, such as parks and schoolyards, where you may need to monitor people and surroundings on land or water before approaching;

—on manhunts and search-and-rescue assignments, particularly in rugged or wooded areas where darkness may otherwise force a halt to critical canvasses;

—on warrant service, where undetected intelligence gathering can be critical to your timing;

—on approaches to suspected gang or narcotics scenes where you’d prefer to roll up blacked out to look for known suspects and possible weapons before contact;

—on observation and protection of infrastructure, where you may need to survey from concealment for anyone from graffiti vandals to terrorist saboteurs;

—on patrol in disaster areas, where power outages may have left vast areas without interior lighting, street lights and other conventional light sources that normally are vital to even the most routine functions, day or night;

—on any surveillance where extended monitoring of suspect movement and activities can add to criminal evidence or to your safety.

“Law enforcement personnel who have experienced military tours in Iraq have gotten very comfortable with night vision and understand how varied its rewards can be,” says Kyle Harth, a veteran of the Army Special Forces and Training and Sales Manager for ITT. “Coming back home to street patrol, they push their departments to provide it because they can imagine all kinds of ways it will benefit domestic policing.”

It’s worth noting that night vision gear is starting to be found more often in the possession of suspects, just like soft body armor. “So far this seems to be most prevalent among drug smugglers and other narcotics offenders,” one source told PoliceOne.

“But it is a serious issue,” the source says. “If criminals have this equipment, law enforcement must have it. We can’t have officers walking around with flashlights and criminals with night vision. That won’t end well for the officers.”

Equipment options

The most popular night vision for patrol is a monocular version that can be hand-held or mounted on a helmet, weapon or camera. “A lightweight monocular allows you to maintain normal vision with your unaided eye,” says Harth. “This gives you a better field of view and allows you to orient more easily, while leaving your hands free.”

Binocular goggles, where an illumination level 6,000 times greater than normal is provided to both eyes, are often favored by helicopter personnel. Goggles can help airborne crews identify hazards such as power lines, sign posts and fences while still well above the ground and also can aid in spotting distant clouds and fog banks not visible to the naked eye. Coordinating with ground officers who have night vision capability, goggles in the air, of course, can be invaluable in search-and-rescue operations.

Quality is an important consideration with night vision equipment. You may find relatively crude, bargain-basement units with limited capabilities at Wal-Mart or Costco, but for professional use you want what’s called Generation 3 technology--advanced design sophisticated enough to allow for facial recognition and license plate reading at a distance in dark surroundings.

“Generation 3 requires very little ambient light to provide amazingly clear vision,” says Dugan. “It’s an invaluable tool for nighttime and low-light operations.”

Financing the purchase

Financial aid for departmental purchases abounds through a variety of federal programs, regardless of your agency’s size. ITT Night Vision maintains a full-time grants specialist to help free of charge in locating, applying for and getting either funding for this equipment or the gear itself. For more information on this assistance, contact Margaret Stark at (704) 540-0981 or at mstark@ittgrantinfo.com. ITT also provides free familiarization training for units acquired, to ensure that they’re put to use and don’t just gather dust in a property room.

“Night vision equipment for patrol personnel is an investment that can more than pay for itself,” says Dugan, “not just in better crime stats but, more importantly, in decreased officer injuries.”

A survey by the SafeShield committee, part of the State Associations of Chiefs of Police (SACOP), has shown that most officer injuries occur during hours of darkness, from 6 p.m. to midnight. In one 12-month period, some 700 agencies responding to the survey reported more than 2,800 injuries among their officers, with more than 24,000 lost workdays.

Among other things, improved equipment and training would prevent many of these costly mishaps, SafeShield concluded.

Take one patrol officer who entered a darkened abandoned building to check out a complaint of a suspicious person being inside.

Groping through the place with minimal use of his flashlight to hide his presence, he stepped into a hole in the floor. He plunged three stories and was so badly injured that he was forced to retire.

“That call was a very average, everyday situation--not a SWAT high-alert crisis,” says Dugan. “If that officer had been able to see in the dark, the outcome might have been very different.”

[For more information on night vision gear, visit www.nightvision.com or call (800) 448-8678.]

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