By Jean Reynolds

Police equipment such as sirens, radios, riot gear, and armored vehicles conveys a powerful message about the presence of law enforcement and its readiness to take charge. In some situations, however, police equipment can have a negative effect. Police officers need to consider both advantages and potential hazards when they’re selecting equipment for dealing with a developing situation.

Police equipment conveys a powerful message that law enforcement is present and ready to take charge. But not everyone will respond favorably to the sights and sounds associated with police in action—and that is true of many people in addition to criminals. Children, persons with autism, elderly persons, and patients with mental illness may be alarmed by riot gear, flashing lights, and sirens.

A case in point is a hostage situation that took place in a suburb of Paris in 1993. A gunman invaded a nursery school and used the children there as hostages. Effective police work saved the day: commandos erected a barrier of mattresses so that the children would not see the execution of the gunman.

But some commentators said the children could have been traumatized by a detail that police overlooked: The commando gear the rescuers were wearing. A widely circulated news photo depicted a little girl in the arms of an officer wearing a huge helmet that partially concealed his face.

What was a three-year-old girl feeling when a man in oversized gear scooped her up and carried her outside? A wiser move might have been to have plainclothes officers standing by to take the children out—or at least ordering the commandos to remove their helmets before approaching the children.

Riot gear and military-style vehicles can send an unintended and inflammatory message that police are expecting trouble from a crowd. In November 2014, after a grand jury decided not to charge officer Darren Wilson in the death of an unarmed black youth, there was wide anticipation of rioting. But police leaders in St. Louis made the wise decision not to have police wear protective equipment. As a result, most of the protests in St. Louis were peaceful and calm.

It’s important for officers to think about the consequences of using even ordinary police equipment, such as a siren, flashlight, or radio. Consider, for example, an officer who’s trying to apprehend a suspect who’s been painting graffiti on garage doors or throwing bottles at schoolchildren. The best course would be to park where the car can’t be seen, silence the radio, and approach the address quietly.

But in a home invasion scenario, when harm is about to occur and seconds count, a siren and flashing lights might save a life by signaling that law enforcement is on the scene.

It’s always wise to assess a developing situation and plan your response before you begin to act—and to remember that police equipment can escalate a situation or help to keep everyone safe. Choose your course wisely.