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.