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Threat Identification in Low Light Shootings

By Richard Johnson

Two Louisiana police officers were called murderers after they killed a young, unarmed man one night by repeatedly shooting him in the back.   The officers claimed the man was armed, but no gun was ever found.

In the aftermath, the police chief was fired, the officers were dragged through the legal system and the community lost faith in the police force.

What went wrong?

Mistake-Of-Fact Shootings

A mistake-of-fact shooting can be described as a shooting where the officer reasonably, but inaccurately, believed the suspect was armed and posed an imminent threat.

In recent years, police departments have started putting more training emphasis on shooting in low light situations. Not nearly enough training is being done, but at least it is a move in the right direction.

However, very little training has ever been provided to police officers on how to identify threats in low light conditions. The prevailing thought is “you’ll know it when you see it.” But what if we can’t see it?

If it was so simple as knowing it when you see it, then why do we have so many mistake-of-fact shootings? Consider this:

  • The ACLU has previously reported that about 25% of all police shootings were of unarmed people.
  • A study of Los Angeles County officer involved shootings (OIS) from 1998 − 2002 showed that 18% were likely mistake-of-fact shootings. About 75% of these were in low light situations.
  • Career law enforcement officer and researcher Tom Aveni studied OIS statistics from departments around the United States and found that mistake-of-fact shootings ranged from 18%-33%

The Eye and the Dark

The human eye is an amazing thing. It has two different sensors that convert light energy into images we use to see. Cones help us to see in well lit areas and rods help us to see during diminished light conditions, yet rods and cones are good at different things.

Cones work best with straight ahead vision, which is typically where we are focused. Cones help us to see detail and color while also providing depth perception and are located in the center of the eye.

Rods are very good for spotting movement, but are not good at all at detail and color. Rods are located around the periphery of the eye.

In bright light (photopic vision), the eye uses the cones. In darkness (scotpic vision), the eye uses the rods. In reduced lighting, or twilight conditions (mesopic vision), the eye uses some combination of cones and rods. The darker it gets, the more rods (and fewer cones) are used.

So, as light diminishes, the eye loses the ability to distinguish detail and color. This means it becomes a lot harder to identify a weapon. Unfortunately, that’s not all the bad news.

Body Alarm Response

Body alarm response (BAR) is a mode the human body goes into when it perceives a threat. The greater the threat, the higher the BAR. The BAR is sometimes called the “fight or flight” response too.

Among the many different changes in bodily function, the BAR causes the eye to focus at longer distance threats. This means that the eye is forced to focus light in the center portions of the eye where the cones are located. In low light conditions, that takes light away from the rods, further degrading night vision.

Age & Other Factors

The older you get, the harder it is to see at night. Each person is different, but on average, a person needs twice as much light for every 13 years of age. So, a 39 year old officer needs twice as much light as a 26 year old suspect to see in the dark. The same officer needs four times as much light as a 13 year old teen. Other factors, like smoking and poor nutrition, also degrade night vision.

If you start combining these factors together, vision goes downhill very rapidly for some officers. Consider the middle-aged officer working midnights, maybe he’s not exercising and eating like he should. He responds to a hot call and encounters a felony suspect in a partially lit parking lot. What are the odds this officer will be able to properly identify what is, and what is not a threat?

Treat Identification Study

Paul Michel, an optometrist and reserve police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, conducted a study on perception in low light. He took a group of police cadets with good vision and had them attempt to identify four objects in varying light conditions. The results were startling.

The recruits were not under stress, were relatively young, were all checked for good vision and were given a full second to make a determination on if an object was a threat. At the level of light equal to four times the light shed by a full moon, the cadets misidentified the object about 92% of the time. At 25 times the light cast by a full moon, these same cadets misidentified the the object about 69% of the time.

Think about how many times we navigate by moonlight, checking buildings or backyards. At 25 times that light level, young cadets who are not under any pressure are misidentifying threats more than two-thirds of the time.

How To Improve Threat Identification

There are relatively few ways to improve threat identification in low light. The most obvious is to bring more light to the party.

The use of flashlights, spotlights and headlights all help raise our ability to see and identify threats. This has to be balanced against the possibility that the light gives away our position or backlights one or more officers.

Interestingly, there are few confirmed reports of officers being shot because they were using a flashlight. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen; there just isn’t a lot of documentation to support the concern.

Since we know that BAR has a negative impact on our ability to see in the dark, stress inoculation would be a way to limit how severe the alarm response is, and therefore how much of an affect it will have on our vision.

Lastly, we must maintain healthy habits to prevent the negative impact of poor condition, nutrient deficiencies and tobacco use.


I started this article talking about an incident where an unarmed man was shot in the back by officers. The incident was real.

In March of 2003, Shreveport (LA) officers attempted a night time traffic stop on a vehicle operated by Marquis Hudspeth, which led officers on a five-mile pursuit. Just before the pursuit was terminated, Hudspeth pulled into the parking lot of a Circle K connivence store.

Hudspeth exited his vehicle, assumed a two-handed firing position and pointed what appeared to be a handgun at one of the officers who fired several ineffective shots. Two officers followed behind Hudspeth who began walking away.

Hudspeth again turned around pointing the gun at one of the officers before quickly turning his back to the officers again. This time, the officers began shooting until Hudspeth went down. Hudspeth was DOA, the “gun” he was pointing at officers was actually a cellphone.

The officers did the right thing. In similar circumstances, I would hope that all officers would make the same decision. However, the case is a perfect example of a mistake-of-fact shooting. Ultimately, the shooting was ruled reasonable by the department, local prosecutors and a federal court.

The Shreveport case is not isolated. Officers from my own agency recently shot and killed a robbery suspect who was unarmed, believing he held a pistol. The shooting happened at night, with little ambient light in a residential neighborhood. The pistol turned out to be a wallet.

Coupled with his threats to dispatchers to shoot responding officers and the way he pointed the wallet, the officers reasonably believed he was armed and posed an imminent threat to their lives. This too is a completely reasonable, but mistake-of-fact shooting.

The best we can all do is keep healthy and use light to our advantage.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Richard Johnson as a contributor on ITS Tactical. Richard is a Police Officer with a mid-sized department in the Tampa Bay area. Richard also publishes the police training site,

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  • Great article Richard, we are glad to have you as a contributer. Make sure to check out the Blue Sheep Dog website for other law enforcement articles.

  • Junebee

    Excellent explanation on how the eyes work (or don’t work) in low light. Thank you for the information.

  • Great article. If your interested in low light combat tactics you have to read RULE THE NIGHT WIN THE FIGHT by Ed Santos. I was lucky enough to attend his ILEETA instructors course earlier this year and picked up his book too. Full of great information.

    • Thanks for the book suggestion. I do not have that one, but will look for it.

    • NIC

      A year late, but I just figured I’d second ATSofLA’s book suggestion for anyone else who might be reading. I’m fortunate enough to be within 10-15 minutes of Center Target Sports, the facility owned and operated by the author of that book. In fact the first time I heard about the Hudspeth case was during his 8-hour CCW course.

  • Cpl. Adams

    As a security guard, I use my big O’ surefire I used to sweep buildings in Iraq with. I make sure I point the thing in their eyes like their seeing Jesus! Good article my man.

  • Bravestar

    Great article, We do a small amount of low light/strobing blue/red light live fire training and also use a virtual training environment with co2/laser dummy guns where scenarios play out and you either shoot or dont, thousands of scenarios and in some the suspect will pull his wallet and the next it could be a gun. It can be very difficult to tell whats in a hand when it moves fast and comes to rest pointing at you… until you hear the bang that is!

  • Failure Drill

    Great article. After many years on “mids” its nice to get the word out.

  • John

    I’m sorry, but shooting an unarmed suspect has rightfully subjected both the beat cops AND their department to local scrutiny in Louisiana. The over-militarization of police and the a priori treatment of any ‘mundane’ as a threat has resulted in this and other travesties of justice. Sure, maybe they lacked training and better tools, and their age-impacted low-light vision wasn’t at 100%, but most of all they lacked the self-control not to fire at a suspect that was running from them, using that final gun safety, the trigger finger, to prevent this tragedy. How many such ‘justifiable’ use of force incidents around the country will it take to de-militarize the civilian police force? What the LEOs have forgotten is that they ARE civilians by definition, fellow citizens, and that their heritage is in being PEACE OFFICERS, rather than sheep-dogs driving the blind sheep by enforcing unconstitutional and immoral directives. This culture is to blame for such tragedies as the Louisiana incident described. Until law enforcement officers are held responsible for their actions and not allowed to hide behind the blue wall, this sort of incident will be repeated many times over. The science of eyesight may explain the difficulty they faced, but not their actions in light of that difficulty.

    • Phil

      Easy for you to say sitting comfortably at your computer all cozy and warm where you have all the time in the world and the facts to make the right decision. Unfortunately, cops in the field don’t have that luxury, they have a split second to make the decision to shoot or not shoot, a decision that could possibly cost them or their partner’s life. Or are you saying that the police should never shoot until they are 100% completely positive that the suspect is indeed armed and shoots them or innocent bystanders first. I always love it how people make it seem like it’s so easy for cops to make these sorts of life and death decisions, in the dark, with only a split second to decide. In the same situations I bet that 9 times out of 10 these whiners/bleeding hearts would do the exact same thing and probably even shoot in situations where most cops wouldn’t.

    • fiveIXzero


    • tiger27

      First off…
      This is a great article, thank you Richard.
      Bottom Line… Tango Down. A 5 mile chase… exits the vehicle in a poorly lit parking lot… refused to obey an officers lawful command, points a black object at officers from a shooting stance… light or no light… WTF!!! The world is a better place and for our brothers in blue… please don’t lose one night of sleep over it, thank you for your service and comitment to your community. Could it have gone down differently… perhaps… bottom line is the perp made his choice. lights are great but WTSHF its your life or theirs.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your comments, even though many of them aren’t addressing this topic. Of course police officers are civilians, and of course they are bound by the US Constitution.

      If you want discuss how the US Constitution applies to the Louisiana shooting described, we can do that. You have to start at the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits “unreasonable” seizures of a person (like shooting them.) This idea was most clearly described in two Supreme Court cases, Tennessee vs. Garner and Graham v. Connor.

      In effect, the Justices reinforced the idea that the use of deadly force was inappropriate for the apprehension of non-violent offenders, even felons, which was a step away from common law and statutory law that had been in effect until then.

      The Court also described that Monday-morning quarterbacking was inappropriate for determining reasonableness. Rather, the Court clarified by stating that the use of force should be from the perspective of the officer on scene dealing with the facts as he or she knew them. The benefit of 20/20 hindsight was not acceptable.

      In this case, you had a subject who refused to stop for police for a traffic offense (possible DUI), the suspect increased the danger to the public by fleeing at a high rate of speed, when he did stop, he produced an item that he CLEARLY INTENDED for the police to believe was a firearm, and he continued to refuse their lawful commands. The officers are clearly reasonable in their actions.

      If Hudspeth had been armed, and the officers did not stop him, Hudspeth may have killed an innocent bystander. Then would you argument be that the officers were fools for not shooting Hudspeth?

      John, I really do hope that you take a deep breath and understand that cops are not the enemy. They are your neighbors – people from your community. Just like you and others from your community, they sometimes make mistakes. When they do, they are entitled to the same rights you are.

      Thanks again for your comments.


    • LAPD officer/citizen

      I could type out a long and pointed response to “John”. But, it’s been to my experience, that waxing intellectual with an obtuse and malcontentious bloviator, is like trying to speak rationally to a tweaker on his 5th day awake, after mainlining methamphetamine for five days straight. John is far to ignorant to the ways of the world to be able to render any educated judgment on the day to day operations of law enforcement. He’s a typical bed-wetter who watches far to much television, and gets spun around the axle about things he is demonstrably ignorant about. John, stick to pocket protectors and diapers. Those two things seem to be the only ones you’re operationally qualified to speak about, in terms of self-application. Rinse, wash & repeat!

  • Wilbur

    Good article. I had a low light incident here in Australia many years ago where a drunk driver suddenly pointed his cellphone and wallet at me in the dark, as if to say “here it is”. From where I was standing it certainly looked like a firearm. Both my partner and I started reaching for our firearms- fortunately, he had the presence of mind to drop what he was carrying before my pistol even cleared the holster, and a tragedy was averted. He had reacted to us reaching for our pistols, and what we were yelling. Nice guy, too- he even apologised afterwards for scaring us accidently. I was too busy trying to say sorry to him!

    I cannot even begin to describe how much what he was holding looked like a pistol in the dark.

    John- I have doubts about suggestions that police forces are becoming “militarized”. In fact I think they went the other way a long, long time ago. For a long time, police services in both your country and mine were staffed by a large group of ex-military people. There was a glut of former servicemen after WW2 & Korea, and further influence from the days of the draft / national service, where almost everyone in policing had a prior military career, many of them infantry. Today, though, military veterans are much rarer in policing. Vastly increased recruiting of women has changed the mix too (not for the worse, it just biases the demographics against ex-army types serving) . Whatever may go wrong in low-light, I don’t think “militarization” has anything to do with it. In fact, anyone with a modern infantry background has a lot more training on low-light weapons handling than most police do.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Wilbur. I’ve shown the Sherveport video to dozens of cops, and every one of them “knew” it was a gun, until I explained what really happened. Even watching it a second time, most people can’t tell it is a cell phone.


    • Martin Bishop

      Due respect Sir,

      But you opinion is coming from a country whose populace not long ago laid down and rolled over when faced with the decsion to immediately surrender their firearms immediately or face arrest. Australians were basically castrated of their right to protect themselves virtually overnight.

      I think it is hard for someone in your position to comment on what happens in the States on either side given the status of you and your fellow LEO’s who suddenly found themselves standing in front of an entire country who chose to submit, and moreover, I doubt you carry the same amount of fear in a largely disarmed population than an officer here may.

      At the very least your views on miilitization of Police officers I think both sides here would agreee is completely false. Large departments were not often in the 40’s 50′ 60’s and so on, were not often faced withan attemptted threat of the desire of small group of people trying desperately to carry out the mass murder of as many men women and children as possible. This has more or less become one of the more major responsibilities of modern big city first responders.

      You also didn’t see a lot of officers carrying patrol rifles day in and day out often in addition to a 12 gauge. Nor was the presence of APC’s a common sight for police departments back in the 60’s and 70’s

      And finally im not sure where you have been the last couple years, but our nation has been actively engaged in two (some would argue soon to be 2.5) separate and ongoing wars standing alongside the men of your nation in two different theaters. Do you honestly think that returning soldiers especially those who were 11b or MP’s are not seeking out work in LE? really? Also Women in this country have been actively serving in the USMC for the past 96 years. It shouldn’t come a total shock to someone that the type of woman who is drawn to serve in the Military may also be drawn to a civilian life as an LEO?
      was completely and totally stripped of their right

  • Enzo


    Spoken like a man who has never stood a post.

    Dilettante’s like you enjoy a sense of protection and freedom, while you question and demean those who do there best to provide that very freedom.

    Please don’t assume that “peace officers” are any less human than the rest of society.

    But if you think that guys are not doing THERE BEST, TO DO THE RIGHT THING, then you are being disrespectful of an impossible job that routinely provides impossible situations.

  • Martin Bishop

    wow johnny boy arent you a special one. Unfortunately for us, unlike you, we actually have to live and work in the real world, with real bad guys, who really want to try to kill you.

    Ask any regualr LEO from any major dept. what day in and day out they would consider the most dangerous part of their job, the vast majority of them are going to tell you its the average, run of the mill ‘mundane’ traffic stop. They are usually alone, and must approach a partially obscured driver with absolutely no idea what their actual intentions may be.

    What in you eyes is a perfectly avarage, boring, 100 percent safe, warning about to be issued to a driver who just changed lanes without signaling, too the driver who just finished beating his girlfriend half to death, or is a week out after his second conviction in a freshly stolen car with a bag full of coke and a pistol in his lap it couldn’t possibly get more violent then what is about to happen in the next 15 seconds.

    Unfortunately, the difference between a ‘mundane’ traffic stop as you describe and a now dead officer laying there bleeding to death on the side of the road can easily take place in the amount of time it takes for the first round to travel sbout 8 feet while moving at 1200 ft/s.

    So ya, shit happens. In G/d we trust, everyone else can keep theirs hands where I can see them.

    and of course as the great philosopher Chris Rock once said, if the police have to chase you, don’t be surprised when they bring an ass kicking along with them. roughly translated play stupid games, win stupid prizes, its not rocket science.

    There are certainly things we can all be very critical at LE about. Most notably in my opinion with the frequency of use, and way to common problems that have been occurring during the execution of no knocks in many areas. But that’s a different discussion for a different time.

  • TacticalTom

    Thanks for the article. I would also add that you have a blind spot when you look directly at something in the dark. I would imagine this is because the rods are located around the rim of the eye. It is best to use your peripheal vision when searching at night.
    To John, I think everyone else has said it all.
    Another good tip is to have a backup flashlight. Too many people I work with only have one cheap flashlight, with batteries that last 3 minutes, and barely put off enough light to see a that UFO from Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind!

    • Tom – Excellent point about the flashlights. I always try to have three available. My primary bright rechargeable (Streamlight DS LED currently) with some backup (currently an inexpensive Fenix L2D) both on my duty belt. A third Magcharger sized light stays in the car for when I suspect I might be outside in the dark rather than inside (traffic stops, alarms, etc.).

      Off topic, my dept issues the Magchargers, which are ok. I always liked the Streamlight 20 (?) better. I find that the current generation of D-cell LED lights are as good, if not better, than the old rechargeables. I’ve got a DeWalt branded 2 D-cell LED light that is brighter than the Magcharger. Go figure.


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  • Sheep.Dog

    As a LEO in Louisiana, I’ve heard this incident told to me to the point where I know it by heart. Seems everybody always has a comment for it when its brought up too. This one and Trooper Coates are the two I always throw out in to my classes. I’ve arguments down to out right fights on these subjects.

    Great article though. low light/no light shooting is all to forgotten about and far to hard to get the admins to approve! (hint, hint for any LEO brass out there. lol)

    • Sheep.Dog

      Typo fix: I’ve had arguments…

  • Excellent article. And some good discussion comments (Richard, et. al)

    Brings up a lot of salient points specific to low light I hadn’t fully incorporated into my mindset.

    A lot of this ties into some of the factors specific to human perception when faced with a furtive movement.

    The criteria for a furtive movement make the above mentioned examples a justifiable shooting even in daylight.

    Night time obviously compounds the error margin, in ways well described in detail within the article.

  • JLS

    Great article!

  • Very good article, thanks for taking the time to write it. I think your point about stress inoculation is spot-on. We run a lot of stress courses in our training and students always get better each time they run them. Even though it’s a kick in the butt, they usually say its the best part of the course. Stay safe and thanks for your service.

    • Ken

      When you live in a country that mass produces guns like none other, where an 18 year old kid can shell out a few hundred bucks for an assault rifle, people are going to get shot and killed, low light or not. With that said, God bless America and the LEO that police it..

  • Steven

    This is why a good weapon mounted light can save lives. That final 10th of a sec before you pull the trigger their is no excuse to not light up and properly identify the target with a good tac light 95% of the time.

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