Warning: Laser in use

The use of lasers is very common; they serve as valuable tools in many aspects of our lives. Lasers come in a variety of forms and are used by doctors to correct our vision, to scan barcodes, or to create brilliant light shows at amusement parks...

As more and more powerful lasers are sold, it may be only a matter of time before it becomes a serious problem in everyday policing. With a 1,000mW laser, an arsonist could pull over to the side of the road and use the laser to ignite dry brush, causing a fire. There would be no evidence—no propellant or matches—indicating how the ignition started. Drivers on the freeway could easily be blinded from a suspect sitting atop a hill a mile away. Hitting the target is not difficult, either. A 200mW laser at five feet casts a dot about the size of a pencil eraser. At just 400 feet, the laser dot is the size of a pizza. While testing a 500mW laser, the beam covered the entire front hood and cab of a police car from more than half a mile away (3,168 feet) and continued on through the back window for several blocks until a row of trees stopped it.

A suspect entering a business to conduct a robbery could have a partner render the surveillance camera useless by simply aiming the laser into the lens, thus producing a video recording depicting only a splash of bright light.

Perhaps the most serious example might involve police confronting a high-risk car stop or armed encounter. If a suspect or layoff accomplice leveled the beam of a powerful laser into the officer’s eyes, the officer’s sight would be immediately compromised and the suspect would have a distinct and potentially lethal advantage. Just brief but direct contact with a powerful laser may cause serious and lasting retinal damage. During a vehicle pursuit, a suspect’s passenger could easily force the pursing officer to back off or terminate the pursuit to avoid being blinded. High output lasers can also be commercially mounted to rifles, providing them with pinpoint accuracy at greater distances.


The best defense an officer can deploy against powerful lasers is knowing they exist in the first place. Defense against this high-watt weapon is simple and calls for the immediate protection or blocking of the eyes, the effective use of cover and concealment, and using multiple officers to locate and confront the suspect.

One huge advantage for police is that high-watt lasers beams are visible from the laser to the point of contact, especially at night when they are most often used. Those suspects who attacked aircraft with lasers and were later arrested were caught because their continued or repeated operation of the laser allowed ground units to follow the beam to its source.

Possible benefits to law enforcement

Despite the negative aspects, big lasers may have benefits for law enforcement and also serve as a tactical part of our standard equipment. Using the same speculation to determine possible dangers, a number of possible uses and benefits should be considered.

Throughout the country, many jurisdictions field officers in vast rural patrol areas where backup may be many miles away. If an officer was hurt and without radio contact, or found himself or herself in an area that had no roads, a high-powered laser may allow searching officers or airships to easily locate him. Some of the high-end lasers are equipped with a strobe and Morse code that flashes the distress signal, “SOS”. Aggressive dogs commonly confront officers serving arrest or search warrants. Even the most vicious dogs might be driven back, even at great distance, when brilliant flashes of light confuse and minimize its ability to see its target.

When police helicopters are assisting with foot pursuits or searching for suspects, the airship utilizes a powerful spotlight and thermal imaging. Commonly, officers are verbally led by the airship to the suspect via the radio, as the helicopter crew maintains the suspect’s image on the thermal imaging system.

When suspects are in rural areas or in the middle of track housing, the airship must rely on landmarks to direct officers, “Go to the rear yard of the two-story house…Turn left…He jumped over the south fence”. As officers are following directions, they are also following the airship’s powerful light. When the officers get close to where the suspect is hiding, the airship’s light often also illuminates the officers as they close in.

With the use of even a lower watt laser (100mW to 300mW), the airship could turn their spotlight off, monitor the suspect on FLIR, and place the laser spot right on the suspect while officers simply follow the beam directly to the suspect’s hiding place, and all without illuminating the officers or relying on radio traffic that suspects might overhear.

Lasers are also used very effectively to trace bullet trajectories and detect trip wires. They are also used to guide rescue Medevac helicopters, and can be deployed to maintain a very sophisticated security perimeter.

  • Enhance your experience.

    Thank you for your regular readership of and visits to Officer.com. To continue viewing content on this site, please take a few moments to fill out the form below and register on this website.

    Registration is required to help ensure your access to featured content, and to maintain control of access to content that may be sensitive in nature to law enforcement.