Night vision technology, currently in its third-generation of advancement, has been helping law enforcement take away the nighttime advantage from the criminal element and put it back in the hands of the good guys. From its earliest iteration as a grainy-image, bulky unit from the '60s to today's crisper, lightweight devices, the technology has proved invaluable for low-light, covert surveillance as well as in search and sniping scenarios.
Decades of duty
Night vision allows the human eye to see in darkness by taking any ambient light, like starlight, moonlight or a distant street light and intensifying those faint sources, enhancing what one can see at night.
Retired municipal police Sgt. Rob Lowe has been working with a night vision technology company for two years. His background in both military and police work, as well as his current position, allow him a rounded insight on night vision capabilities and today's generation of technology.
"[Generation] 3 is state of the art when we're talking exclusively about night vision equipment," Lowe says. "In terms of the level of resolution that you get in a low-light environment, it's better and improved over earlier versions." Lowe explains the improvement has to do with the number of line pairs in the night vision itself, the image intensification tube and how it relates to what the human eye can detect.
Retired marine and SWAT sniper Jim Reifinger agrees. With decades of both military and law enforcement experience, and just as much time using first, second and today third-gen night vision, Reifinger has as good a grasp as any on where the units come in handy.
"The stuff today is pretty amazing," Reifinger says. "When I was teaching ... marine teams who were going overseas, some of their day and night vision rifle scopes shot out pretty close to 600 yards at night and had no problem picking up on the target."
Reifinger spent 42 years collectively working for the military and as a police officer. He is a former cop and SWAT team leader. With the Marines, Reifinger served in Vietnam and Beirut. As a member of the police department, he was a SWAT sniper and instructor in North Carolina, and in recent years worked protective services in Haiti and was in Iraq with security duties. "I spent most of my time in the infantry and the reconnaissance field," Reifinger says. "I was in Vietnam for three years; I was in Beirut in '83. I joined the police department right after I retired and [later] became a SWAT officer. But most of my career I spent on the police department."
For military and police vets like Reifinger and Lowe, identifying night vision's use depending on the mission is simple.
The law enforcement applications for night vision fall largely into two categories, explains former Phoenix-area officer Lowe: One is the tactical operations world, or more commonly known as SWAT. The other is for surveillance operations such as clandestine observation of criminal activity or pre-search warrant service.
Lowe, who now works as the law enforcement marketing manager for Nivisys Industries, explains he has seen night vision applied in combination with a variety of tools.
"[Police] can use it for observation," Lowe says. "With just the use of a night vision device; you can also employ other technology such as digital SLR photography or even video camera recording for specific events. The nice thing about using night vision in that environment is that the suspect or the subject would never know that he's under surveillance. That's the key."
Intel after dark
Once Reifinger's department was able to acquire a night scope, the sniper team could see an area and detect movement late at night. That ability better protected the advancement of the entry team into the incident area and gave the observer good information regarding people and obstacles. Without this intel information, team members would have been slowed or may have put themselves in additional danger. Its value soon became apparent on one dark, early morning in Oslow County, N.C.
"I remember one case where we were looking for two guys who had just murdered a cab driver," Reifinger details. "When we got out there, one of them had committed suicide and the other one ran off. Before it got light in the morning, at least I could search the tree lines with the scope of my rifle to see if there was any movement. It was pitch black dark and there was not much anyone could see."
With the use of information seen via night vision, Reifinger's team was able to secure a perimeter and the suspect in hiding was chased out of a field and into the cuffs of a police team awaiting him on the other side.
Keep the after-dark advantage
Night vision's covert supervision is protective because, of course, turning on a light to search for suspects in darkness would give away location and make the team a target.
Reifinger says police need to remember when using night vision, especially those enhanced by an infrared capability, that a signal is put out to anyone else who may be using a night vision device; and he reminds that various night vision-capable units are available to the civilian world (including older generations). To avoid detection or fire from an armed suspect, he suggests moving the enhancing infrared source away from the officer positions so if a suspect aims fire at the infrared signal, no officers will be hit.
"That's something that you have to be careful of not only in the military, but now in law enforcement," he says. "Because some of the threats in domestic law enforcement have weapon systems that may be just as good as those in law enforcement."
Driving in the dark
From Nivisys, the most affordable model (and Lowe says is the company's most popular), is its Multi-Use Monocular, or the MUM-14.
The Multi-use MUM-14 Mini-Monocular is a passive handheld night vision device that utilizes a single Generation 3 intensifier tube to provide clear images in dark conditions. According to the company, the MUM-14's single eyepiece approach is based on the concept that independent use of each eye maximizes the ability of the user to operate under a wide range of low-light conditions and maintain maximum situational awareness.
Reifinger seconds that view, especially in tactical night driving, which he recently taught using night vision in Texas.
"You can work both eyes at the same time, and you can drive looking at your monocular out the window, but you might have stuff inside the car that you want to see, too," such as the dash and controls, Reifinger explains. He also says using a monocular in this application can impair depth perception, but offers this tip: Using a monocular device while driving "will affect your depth perception, especially at high speeds. There are a few tricks [to avoid loss of depth perception], such as keeping a sideways back-and-forth head motion," he says.
Looking for funds
In the mid-'90s, Reifinger explains that night vision units were expensive for a local police department. Most departments have a tough time spending that kind of money on equipment, and today's stretched budgets further exacerbate tight spending. The savior, says Reifinger, has always been the seizure money that's available for law enforcement through large drug cases. "That's really where most departments can afford to buy night vision," he says.
Lowe says he is often questioned by his customers about funding, and advises agencies interested in acquiring night vision to look into federal or state homeland security funding sources, which have allowed teams flexibility in the past to get this type of equipment deployed.
"Proceeds from drug sales or from any type of criminal activity, all of those are good sources of funding for this type of equipment," he adds.
With experience in both law enforcement and military use of night vision, Lowe and Reifinger can both testify to how much night vision benefits a team and department.
With his six years military experience, Lowe has an additional angle of understanding the difference between the demands made of an NV device by a law enforcer versus military use.
"Law enforcement in general has a far more rigid set of rules of engagement before a lethal force decision is made, as compared to most military units." Because night vision is clearer and can view farther today, snipers can more confidently ID a suspect prior to firing.
"Police sniping demands a very, very strong accuracy capability because of the liability [law enforcement faces]," Reifinger adds.
In the future, Reifinger says he'd love to see night vision that can distinguish true colors, as opposed to the black and green imaging seen in the current generation. In the early days, Reifinger says he would have had several requests for manufacturers.
"If you would've asked me 10 to 15 years ago, I would have had a real long list for you, especially as a sniper. But as the years passed, the manufacturers have stepped up to the plate and made some amazing improvements in size and abilities."
As for what's foreseeable, Lowe says the most logical progression will be marrying thermal imaging and night vision in a single device. Nivisys currently has fusion technology that combines night vision and thermal detection.
Night vision affords law enforcement the confidence it needs when on mission under dark, and provides more confident, positive identification in instances like sniper shooting. Further, it takes away many of the vulnerabilities the criminal in low light is counting on, giving the upper hand back to the good guys.