Use of Force and High-Intensity Tactical Police Flashlights: Policy Concerns

Article excerpt

During a recent police shooting incident, an officer parked his cruiser facing the direction of oncoming traffic in a narrow alley and activated the red, white, and blue roof lights; high beams; and takedown lights. He then exited the vehicle, drew his weapon, and positioned himself in the darkness behind the car. The suspect ran toward the bright lights, passed them, and entered the unlit area. Upon recognizing that a policeman--or someone--waited in his path, the individual extended his arms forward. The officer fired.

Law enforcement agencies routinely have used patrol car lights to create a wall of illumination for officers to maneuver behind; opinions exist that departments can similarly employ high-intensity tactical police flashlights (HITPFs). (1) Some experts consider them powerful new tools that give officers a nonlethal force option, one that can control potentially violent suspects by, for example, diminishing their vision, affecting their depth perception, intimidating them, and putting them at a mental disadvantage. (2) Further, they think that because of sensory overload, some individuals may become less prone to violence during an incident. (3)

Officer use of handheld and gun-mounted HITPFs presents serious considerations for departments. As with all police equipment, policy guidance proves critical--particularly as related to use of force.

Uses by Officers

Blinding illumination--whether experienced from a flashbulb or a tactical police light--bleaches out the retina. The length of time that vision becomes impaired partly depends on the intensity and duration of the exposure. The health of the retina represents another variable; while this may relate to age, (4) no scientific evidence exists that supports the theory taught by some trainers--that for every 10 years individuals age, they need four times the light to see what they used to easily.

Of course, suspects simply may close or avert their eyes and continue to walk, run, swing their arms, lunge with an edged weapon, or fire a gun. While the light, at least, obscures subjects' abilities to visually target, it seemingly does not apply any physical force or pain to gain control or compliance from these individuals.

Agency policy makers must decide for their departments if light is controlling or painful to determine where HITPFs fall in the use-of-force continuum. And, they must formulate or adjust use-of-force policy and training accordingly.


Deadly force refers to any means reasonably likely to cause death; nondeadly force entails any other method, including physical efforts used to control, restrain, or overcome the resistance of an individual. (5) In this regard, the Confrontational Force Continuum (6) represents an example of a model employed to train police officers in the appropriate application of force. It consists of seven levels.

1) Officer presence: Police assume control of the suspect through their announced or uniformed presence.

2) Verbal command: Presence has failed; officers now begin verbal persuasion and, if needed, issue commands or warnings.

3) Open hand: Where practical, police place their hands on suspects and advise them that they are under arrest. Officers counter any resistance beyond this point. Often, wrestling, grabbing, or pushing occurs.

4) Pain compliance: Police employ pressure-point control or pepper spray (which they sometimes may deem appropriate at level 3). This greater force could be justified when the officer encounters weapons, a larger suspect, multiple individuals, combative behavior, or persons under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

5) Mechanical compliance: These methods usually involve physical tactics that employ counterjoint pressures and leverage, such as wrist locks, arm bars, or other "come along" techniques. Officers may apply them using handcuffs or the police baton. …