Range of possibilities: Firearms training worth investment
I recently took a field trip to Dane County with our sheriff, Dave Graves. The purpose of the trip was to look at that county’s outdoor firearms range near Waunakee as well as to tour an indoor police training facility run by the city of Madison. Our 2013 budget proposes a $1.5 million renovation of our own firearms range located on Hodges Road in the town of Lafayette. There is no substitute for seeing a few real-life examples of other ranges and talking to the people who run them before starting work on ours.
Walworth County’s range training facility, which is used by the sheriff and law enforcement agencies throughout the county, actually consists of two separate ranges, one indoor and the other outside. Both ranges are showing their age and are in need of updating to improve safety and provide a better training environment.
The Madison Police Department was our first stop. Officials there are in the midst of constructing an addition to their state-of-the-art training facility that includes a new indoor range. To be sure, the Madison Police Department has considerably more officers and a much larger budget than our sheriff’s office. Still, there are many features of Madison’s new training facility that would be great to copy, if even on a smaller scale.
Before I became familiar with the issue, I knew that law enforcement officers needed to fire their weapons periodically to be proficient in their use. I assumed this meant standing on a firing line shooting at paper targets until the officers hit enough “bull’s-eyes” to qualify for another year. In my defense, I think that training was probably more like that years ago. Today, however, firearms training focuses on placing officers in the types of situations they may actually find themselves in when they have to use their weapons. This is where the sport of competitive target shooting diverges from law enforcement training. An officer may be able to hit the center of a target by carefully aiming a pistol on a well-lit range. That’s an important skill, but perhaps more important is how he or she will react in low-light conditions, in the rain or snow or with someone shooting at them. These are the types of conditions that the Madison facility attempts to replicate by incorporating a number of interesting features:
-- Live fire range. While it is important for officers to use their weapons out in the elements, indoor training has its place as well. I know my attention span is fairly limited when temperatures drop below freezing. The indoor range improves the quality of training by allowing officers to focus on instruction rather than frostbite. Madison’s indoor range was built without a fixed firing line to allow shooters to fire at a variety of targets from different positions and distances. It even has room to accommodate a squad car. Being able to exit a car and use it for cover are pretty important skills to master. Like a football team that practices with blaring music to simulate crowd noise, Madison’s range had its own built-in “stressors.” Flashing strobe lights and pre-recorded gunfire were among the distractions that officers could expect to face during training sessions.
-- Airsoft. If you have a teenage boy at home, you may have shared my experience of stepping on an airsoft pellet in your bare feet. Airsoft guns are similar to the BB guns that guys my age used to shoot when we were boys. Unlike my Red Ryder, however, these guns can be very realistic, having the look and feel of an officer’s service revolver. Because they use plastic, rather than metal pellets, they can be shot at people. The facility in Madison had a mock-up of an entire apartment devoted to airsoft simulations. This made sense to me because an officer may be required to use his or her weapon in a similar setting. Unlike paper targets, the bad guys in this apartment could shoot back, providing even more realistic training.
-- Simulators. The Madison facility included a number of very realistic computer simulators. In one, interactive “movies” are displayed on the walls, and an officer has to decide whether to shoot or hold his fire. Being able to distinguish between whether someone is holding a cell phone or a gun in his hand can benefit both officers and the public.
Our budget may not permit us to build all of the amenities found in the Madison facility, but the tour convinced me of the need to update our ranges. So far our county board has kept the range project in the 2013 budget, but they have attached a few “strings” to the money. Prior to releasing funds, supervisors want to see the sheriff’s plan for operating the facility. Addressing concerns of the neighbors regarding hours of operation and making sure that the range is well-maintained in the future are two of the six elements that are required to be included in the plan.
One and one-half million dollars, the proposed cost of our range renovation, is a lot of money. Using lethal force, however, has life and death consequences for our deputies and the public. In my opinion, we owe it to both groups to make sure we provide quality firearms training.