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Law Enforcement's Case for Night Vision and Thermal

Law enforcement recruitment and retention is declining across the United States. Remaining law enforcement officers face increased pressure to perform their duties. Night vision and thermal might be the key to reducing this pressure. In August 2021, the NYPD used night vision and thermal to find a lost autistic teenager in Riis Park. In 2013, the Boston Police Department used a thermal imaging camera to find one of the Boston Bombers hidden under a boat. Law enforcement might only have started using night vision and thermals over the last few decades, but their impact is already being felt.  

However, before law enforcement agencies commit to acquiring night vision, they must prepare for the costs and training to use them effectively.  


While the recent boom in night vision and thermal devices has reduced their cost, budget strapped law enforcement agencies could still face a problem prioritizing their cost. NVD’s cost thousands of dollars to purchase outright. Even leasing this equipment can run in the low thousands of dollars. This forces law enforcement agencies to make tough choices about what they prioritize. While the federal 1033 program gives law enforcement access to $6 billion of military equipment, including night vision and thermal, the politics surrounding this program and the lead time to get equipment from the program, cannot be relied upon.  


The 1033 program mandates that law enforcement agencies must use their new equipment within one year of acquiring it or be forced to return it. According to the Charles Koch Institute, military equipment from the program reduced crime rates, but it also led to an increase in law enforcement force against the civilian population. If a law enforcement agency acquires night vision, they must be properly trained on how to use it, so the equipment can be an affective asset. 


It is not enough for law enforcement agencies to add new tools to their toolbox. Law enforcement officers must know how to use them. While some law enforcement agencies draw their ranks from former soldiers with experience using night vision and thermal technologies, many do not. Using this equipment requires paying for specialized training and facilities, as well as time to execute that training. Not all law enforcement agencies can afford this cost.  

The drawbacks associated with night vision and thermal inevitably surround their cost, in the form of dollars or man hours. However, if a law enforcement agency has the resources, the benefits of night vision can be considerable. 


Whether it is searching for a suspect in the woods in a rural county or in a building in a dense urban environment, night vision devices and thermal improve the probability of finding a target. Night vision technology affords operators the advantage of searching day and night to find a target, nearly doubling operational capacity. Thermal imaging technology can help locate targets and objects that are otherwise hidden.  


A hostage negotiation, drug bust, and searching for a burglar can all require stealth for success. Performing a mission at night can give a competitive advantage. A law enforcement operator can place hearing devices near a target at night while remaining unseen. Drug busts can be executed at night when law enforcement officers have a distinct advantage and can catch suspects by surprise. Night vision can improve the effectiveness of any mission.  

Law Enforcement Safety 

Night vision and thermal improve law enforcement safety by giving them tactical advantages in low or no light environments. While flashlights and other equipment that can help identify targets, they also expose law enforcement officers to additional risk by revealing their location. Using night vision and thermal reduces risk of detection and improves safety. 


Night vision and thermal are not just for individual operators. They can be attached to a helicopter with a gimble system or on a car. This creates a distinct advantage in a variety of operations, from pursuit, when a law enforcement officer needs to keep their vehicle lights low or off, to improving helicopter pilot safety by using thermal to identify power lines and other obstructions. 

Law enforcement agencies must weigh a variety of positives and negatives when determining if they want to add night vision and thermal to their toolkit. They can be a massive asset to a team, but only if the costs and potential drawbacks are addressed first.  

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