One of my earliest flashbang stories comes from entry training at a house scheduled for demolition. When night fell, the decision was made to use our new diversionary devices. Unfortunately, the officer assigned lacked proper training and was not a sharp observer of the obvious. While the entry element staged at the door, he and two others moved to what he presumed was an open window. His two partners were to “port” this opening after the device initiated. However, the officer missed the small fact that the window screen was still in place, which then became a vertical flashbang trampoline. The device landed near three pairs of shaking boots. The choreography of this tactical function then went dramatically dysfunctional. All three tried to escape their fate, but failed. While two felt the heat and heard the thunder, the device initiated so close to the third that it caused minor burns to his legs. Our humiliated flashbang officer went through a serious, four-letter-word laced debrief shortly thereafter.
Still, it was clear that this tool could make a positive difference during tactical operations. When we considered how a suspect would react to such a release of energy, the effects would surely be beneficial to SWAT missions. But we had to also recognize that the potential for injury could be equally significant.
Law enforcement has recently witnessed this dangerous side of diversionary devices. A Texas officer was severely injured, and worse yet, an experienced SWAT officer in North Carolina died due to a flashbang’s power. I don’t know all the details and I don’t want to speculate. There’s already been credible discussion, notably from Maj. Steve Ijames.
The intent here is to help the SWAT leadership and instructors understand related issues. When people are hurt without justification, there’s a good chance tactical tools weren’t used in a proper manner. If this is the case—as it’s been in the past—then defending their use is a tough proposition. It may even lead to civil penalties and court-imposed sanctions prohibiting future use. Two relevant court cases should be reviewed for greater understanding of these issues: the 9th Circuit Court’s decision in Boyd v. Benton County (374 F.3d 773 (9th Cir. 2004) and Langford v. Gates (43 Cal. 3d 21, 729 P.2d 822 (1987).
Training is Key
It’s important that operators know and respect what diversionary devices can do. Used correctly, they provide a short-lived, shock-and-awe effect that’s saved lives and yet is minimal in impact.
I know. My personal flashbang exposure log has hundreds of entries. But if those who use them aren’t properly trained, and important truths aren’t reinforced on a regular basis, it becomes a matter of confidence and competency vs. carelessness and complacency.
When your tactical team trains, watch how they treat their diversionary devices. If neglect is evident—no safety equipment worn, casual handling, etc.—then it’s time for proactive training. Like firearms, these devices can cause serious injury to civilians, cops and crooks if SWAT operators don’t use them in a sound manner. Please don’t identify a training need and then fail to take measures to correct it. That may literally blow up in someone’s face.
What the Department Says
An important element is a legally defensible diversionary device policy. In my mind, flashbangs constitute a use of force. This requires direction from the department on such issues as criteria for use, the “look before you deploy” mandate, emergency use vs. planned deployments and proper safety rules, handling techniques and storage (both personal and as teams), as well as introductory and maintenance training.
A “no-bang/exterior disposal” provision may be included to address what an officer should do if the door opens, revealing something—such as a baby crib—that cries out “Don’t do it!” Using similar language, as well as specific training, the policy shouldn’t permit attempts to “re-pin” with the original pin. It won’t work, and as we’ve seen, it can be tragic in its results.
The policy should also require accurate documentation. There may be a mandate as well that those who experience an unprotected flashbang close-encounter be medically cleared prior to booking or release from the scene. As an additional consideration, the policy may specify that an officer-involved shooting protocol should be used if there’s a serious flashbang related injury during an operation.
A good policy also requires that the team have a knowledgeable instructor. The instructor and the team leadership must monitor the operators’ mindset and proficiency, correcting unsafe techniques early and directly. Finally, the command staff must also have an understanding of diversionary devices.
Know Your Device
A flashbang is classified as a “low explosive.” It’s similar in function to another life-saving device: a vehicle’s airbag. Both produce a pressure wave and a relatively localized release of heat and light accompanied by sound and smoke. However, the diversionary device requires a solid familiarity, especially with the safety features, such as the safety pin/ring combo.
There are two common designs. One incorporates a safety clip: To pull the pin, the operator must first grasp the safety ring and rotate it clockwise before the safety pin can be extracted. Another, more traditional design comes with the safety pin’s ends flattened along the side of the fuse. For easier removal, the ends can be formed into a V-shape before the pin is pulled.
Both designs require training and practice. Instructors must never assume that operators can handle flashbangs safely: It must be confirmed. Most SWAT cops are alpha types: They learn best through hands-on use. An alternative to costly live devices are “training bangs,” which have the same manipulation and functioning as the real thing, but much less power. Combined Tactical Systems (CTS) makes such a simple, easy-to-use training system.
Some Assembly Required
Using expended flashbangs for dry fire training is another option. This requires saving the safety pin/rings and safety levers. To avoid confusion, spray paint the expended flashbangs blue or another color before assembly. As a learning process, have officers try to reassemble the devices by straightening the pin, forcing the striker into its cocked position and capturing it as the spoon is muscled into place. The officers should next try to insert an original safety pin.
This exercise will demonstrate the truth of trying to re-pin: Attempting to do so with a live flashbang is very difficult and equally dangerous. Once this fact is understood, your officers can let the striker go forward. With it in this position, they can then reassemble the safety pin and lever without having to control the striker. When completed, these resurrected bangs are ready for training use. Extra safety pins will be needed for repeating the process as they often break.
You Do What?
One dangerous technique, used in combination with a long gun, teaches carrying the flashbang with the support hand’s pinky finger through the safety ring. To deploy, the officer takes the strong hand off the weapon and pulls the device from the support hand—that at the same time is supposed to maintain control of the gun—theoretically removing the pin in the process. Another flawed technique has an operator trying to pull the pin while also holding onto a pistol.
There may be an extreme exception, but to me, it’s just not safe for an operator to try to simultaneously carry out two such potentially dangerous functions. In both cases, dividing attention between controlling a firearm and a flashbang at the same time is unsound. The correct approach is one officer, one job. Deploying a flashbang correctly and safely demands undivided concentration, while a cover officer provides the protection. The agency’s policy or training protocols should spell this out.
Palm Up or Palm Down?
Operational diversionary device use requires correct and accurate deployment. Duh! Officers who aren’t flashbang confident experience more nervousness and adrenaline dump than those who are well trained. This is especially true for a SWAT cop staged at the door, device in hand, waiting for a positive breach at the beginning of an assault.
Afterwards, it’s been my experience that the poorly trained officer often believes the device traveled just a short distance. We find, however, that due to both a lack of self-control and a poor focus on accuracy, the device is often hurled much deeper into the room than desired.
One method for better placement begins with the deploying officer in a crouched or kneeling position rather than standing. Before delivery, it’s necessary to first look inside, so the officer “pies” the opening with a cover officer. Next, rolling the flashbang off the finger tips provides for a lower and more controlled delivery. (Note: I don’t use words such as throwing or tossing. Instead, the terms deploy and delivery provide a more precise connotation for proper use.)
An alternative method is a palm down orientation. This can help reduce the potential for a flashbang ending up too far across a room. In addition, it may keep the device properly orientated so that it lands relatively level rather than vertical. Most devices have venting ports at both ends. If a device initiates in a vertical position rather than level, or if one end lands against a solid object blocking its ports, the flashbang can become a dangerous rocket.
As Major Ijames suggests, an even more precise deployment tool is the “bang pole.” If you don’t have one, get one. This equipment allows for more controlled and safe flashbang use. There’s some additional tactical choreography required but nothing a good team can’t master. Personally, I like J&N Tactical’s bang poles (www.flashbangpole.com). They’re designed by a SWAT cop for SWAT use.
I strongly believe in the value of diversionary devices. They’re truly effective. It’s conceivable, however, that if cops aren’t properly trained and more people are seriously injured, we may be ordered to stop using them. For an instructor, this means that there’s more to learn and share than just what we’ve discussed. Steve Ijames is an excellent resource, as are any writings by Charles “Sid” Heal, including his Diversionary Device Instructor’s Manual (available through the National Tactical Officer’s Association). Do your part to keep people flashbang safe and ensure that we don’t lose these effective tactical tools.
Train Safe. God Bless America.
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