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Flashlights on guns can cause cops problems

Having a flashlight attached to a gun is a useful tool for police, however the location of the switch varies.

 

Most officers are allowed to use weapon-mounted flashlights that have switches on the side, while only SWAT officers are allowed ot use flashlights with switches below the trigger.

The latter kind has created controversy, because some say it could cause a misfire.

It was a routine piece of police work that almost went horribly and tragically wrong.

On the morning of Feb. 20, San Diego police Officer Neal Browder was with other officers at an apartment on Bayview Heights Place, checking if a 30-year-old resident was complying with the terms of his court-ordered probation.

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As Browder went to search a dark bedroom, he tried to activate the flashlight attachment mounted on his handgun.

Suddenly a shot rang out. No one was hurt, but the bullet struck a baby's crib in the room, ricocheted and lodged in the wall.

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The near tragedy came less than a year after Browder had shot and killed Fridoon Nehad in an alley in the Midway District. The veteran officer said he believed Nehad was armed with a knife and was a threat to him, but it turned out the 42-year-old man was carrying a pen.

While police have released few details about the second shooting in the apartment, recent court documents filed in a federal lawsuit brought by Nehad's family against the city of San Diego reveal that Browder fired into the crib while trying to turn on the flashlight using a switch located directly below the trigger guard.

That "remote contour switch"  is activated by applying pressure from a finger.

The crib shooting wasn't the first time that gun-mounted flashlights, including those with the same pressure switch design as Browder's gun, have been involved in accidental shootings. At least one person has been killed and several others injured, according to court records and news reports.

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In 2014, the Denver Police Department banned their officers from using flashlights where the switch is located below the trigger guard. The action came after two accidental discharge incidents by officers in less than a year.

The San Diego Police Department has three authorized gun-mounted flashlights that patrol officers can use, including models made by Fountain Valley-based SureFire, but patrol officers are not allowed to use lights with a pressure switch, said police spokesman Lt. Scott Wahl.

However, SWAT officers are authorized to use pressure switches. Those officers go through extra training, including night training, using the pressure-switch configuration, Wahl said.

Browder is a 28-year veteran of the department and has been a SWAT officer for 22 years, according to his testimony at a deposition for the civil-rights lawsuit filed by Nehad's family.

By contrast, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department authorizes one type of flashlight manufactured by Streamlight, which does not use a pressure switch, sheriff's spokesman Ryan Kiem said.

How many people have been injured or killed in accidental shootings by police officers using gun-mounted flashlights isn't known.

The statistic is not tracked, but deaths or injuries appear to be rare. The Denver Post reported in 2014 it had found four cases since 2005 where someone was hurt when an officer mistakenly pulled the trigger instead of flipping on the flashlight.

Experts on firearms and police training said that the flashlight mounts can be useful but emphasized proper training is crucial.

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"Training is really the key," said Harvey Hedden, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. "You want to make sure you're activating the right thing."

That wasn't the case in a well-known accidental shooting by a police detective in Plano, Texas, in 2011. The detective tried to turn on the flashlight — it had a pressure switch under the trigger guard —  and instead pulled the trigger, killing 25-year-old Anthony Alcala.

The family ended up getting a $245,000 settlement from the city and later sued the flashlight manufacturer, SureFire, over the design.

Luke Metzler, the Dallas lawyer who represented Alcala's family, said the case settled for a confidential amount in 2013. The company, which did not respond to repeated phone and email inquiries this week, didn't admit liability.

"Unfortunately, these types of errors and mistakes are going continue to happen," Metzler said. "My opinion is it's a bad idea to put anything on a gun. It's a particularly bad idea to put anything on a gun that increases the possibility of an unintentional trigger pull."

In a 2011 case in New York, a man in the Bronx was shot in the stomach by a police officer using the same type of flashlight as was used in the Texas case.

In March 2014 in Denver, an officer accidentally fired his gun while trying to turn on a flashlight at a traffic stop, according to a report from the city's Office of the Independent Monitor.

That shooting was the second accidental firing in Denver involving flashlights with switches below the gun triggers in a year. It led to Denver's police chief issuing an order authorizing only flashlight attachments with a different configuration: those where the switch was located in front of the trigger guard.

Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force expert, is a former San Diego police officer and now an Inyo County deputy sheriff. He said many police departments ban flashlights with a switch under or near the trigger.

"The overwhelming majority use a style where the light is manipulated by a toggle switch and not a pressure switch," Obayashi said. "And it's up front so the finger can't be anywhere near the trigger in order to activate the flashlight."

It's unknown what type of flashlight Browder was using when he accidentally fired into the baby crib. San Diego police spokesman Wahl declined to answer specific questions about the type of equipment Browder had, citing the need for "protecting the specialized equipment our SWAT team uses to maintain a tactical advantage during a critical incident."

The crib shooting did not come to light until May when The San Diego Union-Tribune reported the incident and interviewed apartment residents. At that time, the role of the flashlight was not publicly known and police did not provide details of the incident.

Browder testified about the event at a July 12 deposition in the Nehad family lawsuit. That portion of the testimony was sealed because city lawyers said questions about the crib shooting were unrelated to the fatal shooting and therefore irrelevant.

Lawyers for the family pressed the case, however, and after the deposition asked a judge to order the city to turn over reports and other information about the accidental shooting.

In its response, city lawyers said in court documents what Browder had testified to. "Officer Browder attempted to activate his weapon's light to see inside the bedroom," a city lawyer wrote in a declaration. "As he attempted to activate the light attachment, he unintentionally discharged his handgun."

In the fatal shooting, the Nehad family alleges he was shot without provocation and posed no threat to the officer. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis concluded last year that Browder was justified in using deadly force.

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SDPD Midway shooting video

A video of the fatal encounter captured by a nearby security camera has become a key point of contention in the case. It shows Browder's patrol car pulling into an alley and Nehad walking toward it, then slowing.

Browder emerges from the car and within seconds fires a single shot.

Obayashi, the use-of-force expert, has reviewed the video and said he does not think Browder mistakenly pulled the trigger when he meant to turn on the flashlight.

sd-me-g-flashlight-gun Weapon-mounted flashlights T he r e a r e t w o major t yp e s o f w e apon-mou n t ed f lashlig h t s . One kind has a s wi t ch a w a y f r om the trig g e r . D ANIEL WHE A T ON, AA R ON A TENCIO & SHAFFER G R UBB U - T An o ther t ype has a s wi t ch bel o w the trig g e r . T his kind is only all ow ed t o be u s ed b y S W A T of f i c e r s .

The video shows two flashes of light in quick succession. The first is the flashlight coming on and the second the muzzle blast, Obayashi said. There is a split second interval between the two.

"The flashlight isn't an accident," he said. "He meant to turn it on."

In Browder's deposition, he was questioned extensively about the sequence of events that led to the shooting. He did not mention nor was he ever asked about the flashlight.

When the lawsuit over the fatal shooting in Plano was filed, SureFire said more than 100,000 of its flashlights were in use, including tens of thousands with pressure switches beneath the trigger guard.

The manufacturer said the 2011 Plano shooting was the first reported incident involving the flashlight in 25 years.

Even so, Metzler, the lawyer for the family in that case, isn't convinced the flashlights are totally safe.

"No question, SWAT officers receive more training than a field officer. But it's nowhere near the intensity of training the military personnel, who this device was designed for, receives," he said.

Metzler said the equipment was first developed and used by Navy SEALs, who train extensively with the flashlights on their weapons. Like other weapons that were first developed for military use, the equipment was eventually marketed and sold to local police agencies.

Before gun-mounted flashlights, an officer would carry a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other, said Hedden with the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. Mounting flashlights on guns is an improvement, he said.

"But like anything, pepper spray or a baton, it requires some training to use it effectively and safely," he said.

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