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 have only started using night vision and thermals over the last few decades, but their impact is already being felt.  

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. However, there are important things to consider before adding a new tool to your toolkit.  

Cost – While the recent boom in night vision and thermal devices has reduced their prices, 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.

Effectiveness– The 1033 program mandates that law enforcement agencies must use their new equipment one year within acquiring it or be forced to return it. Some studies showed that the military equipment from the program reduced crime rates, but also an increase in law enforcement force against the civilian population[1].

Training – It is not enough to add new tools to your law enforcement toolbox. You must know how to use them. While some law enforcement agencies draw their ranks from former military members with experience using night vision and thermal technologies, this is not always the case. Using this equipment requires paying for specialized training and facilities, as well as time to execute that training. These things have a cost that not all law enforcement agencies can afford.

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.

Searches – Whether it is searching for a suspect in the woods in a rural county or a building in a dense urban environment, night vision devices improve your chances of finding your target. A combination of infrared NVD’s and thermal imaging systems can get the job done. Not everyone on your team needs both forms of equipment to execute a successful search. A team might only need one or two officers to have thermals to locate a target’s location, with a few other team members with NVD’s to confirm the target’s identity. This can improve mission efficiency and reduce cost, since not everyone on the team needs every device.

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.

Stealth – Whether it’s a hostage negotiation, drug bust, or searching for a burglar, stealth is key in executing your mission. Performing your mission at night can give you a competitive advantage.  

Vehicles – 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 you need to keep your 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 pros and cons when determining if they want to add night vision and thermal to their toolkit. They can be a massive asset to your team, but only if the costs and potential drawbacks are addressed first.


[1] https://charleskochinstitute.org/stories/militarization-of-police/