Lifelike targets to train officers Baltimore Co. is first in Md. to use device

February 26, 1996|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

For Baltimore County Police Officer Frank Ray, shooting practice used to mean firing his 9 mm pistol at faceless silhouettes.

But these days, targets at the police range are eerily real -- with eyes that stare menacingly back and hands that aim a gun at an officer's chest.

Baltimore County's police department is the first in Maryland to use lifelike targets, an increasingly popular training device, for its twice-yearly test firings required by state standards. Howard County will begin using similar ones this spring.

Advocates say the targets -- which depict men and women -- help train officers to exercise judgment about when to shoot and when to hold their fire.

"This is much more realistic," said Officer Ray of the Garrison Precinct. "With the black silhouettes, it seemed more like target shooting. This makes you think more and it is a real target."

The lifelike pictures -- some depicting criminals, others depicting bystanders or police officers not to be shot -- are especially useful teaching recruits to shoot, said Michael Kernan, training coordinator at the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

"It impresses upon them that they will be faced with real people," he said. "Police officers often have to make an instantaneous decision that is forever debated in courts and in the media."

Baltimore County used silhouettes marked with numbered target rings until about a year ago. In 1994, firearms instructors at the indoor range in Dulaney Valley began looking for a more realistic way to train officers who, once on the street, might find themselves facing real people toting guns -- not a blobbish silhouette.

The department found what it was looking for in Wilmington, Del., where law officers were using life-size black and white posters of models posing as police officers or gun-wielding criminals. Baltimore County began using them last year.

Target vs. combat shooting

Out on the street, police officers do not target shoot, said Lt. Kevin Flaherty, a supervisor at the range. "They do combat shooting, which is a totally different thing."

Target shooting focuses on firing at a stationary target. Combat shooting is firing at a moving object. Police officers are trained to shoot to incapacitate.

"If all goes well, the officer goes home safe and the suspect lives," said Sgt. Richard Flichman, a firearms instructor.

The targets, produced by Law Enforcement Targets in Minneapolis, cost about 18 cents each. About 100 departments across the nation use them, said Jeff Brown, a company manager.

Some open to idea

"It's a pretty new idea," he said. "It has been our experience that there are younger people in police training units and they are more open to these things than those who have been there 30 years and have always done it a certain way."

In Baltimore County, police officers are required to be retrained with their 9 mm semiautomatic weapons twice a year, and to qualify for accuracy in firing from different positions at the targets.

Like other departments requiring similar training, county officers also go through an "adversarial" shooting exercise in which four booths are each set up at varying distances -- each with three possible targets.

But two of the images in each booth are "good guys," and one the "bad guy." A good guy could be a police officer with a badge and gun or a man holding a Coke can. The "bad guys" are a masked man carrying a gun, a scantily clad woman peering around a wall and pointing a gun, and a tough-looking young gunman dressed in a tank top and shorts.

The lights are turned down and officers run into a booth where the pictures, hooked to a ceiling mechanism, turn or charge. The officers, who have to decide which to shoot, fire 50 rounds before running to the next booth for their next confrontation.

Quick thinking needed

After the first run-through, the targets are changed -- the guy with soda may instead have the gun, or wear a badge, or the image of an attacking dog may appear.

"You really have to concentrate," Officer Ray said.

The idea of the exercise with realistic targets is to give officers a feeling for the type of stress they will be under if they are involved in a shooting.

"That was very intense," said Officer Brian Wolf, also from the Garrison Precinct. "It was really about quick thinking and instinct."

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