Safety changes at rifle range still undecided

State officials unsure about what alterations should be made, cost

Review took six months

Errant shots could stray to police track, hospital grounds

May 28, 2000|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

After spending six months evaluating the modifications needed before opening the rifle range at the new $4.6 million police firearms training facility in Sykesville, Maryland officials still aren't sure what must be done, how long it will take or how much it will cost.

Peta Richkus, secretary of the Maryland Department of General Services (DGS), shed little light last week after it was disclosed that errant shots or ricochets could hit a nearby police driver-training track or the grounds of Springfield Hospital Center a half-mile away.

"We expect to spend some money to fix it," Richkus said. "Whether the fixes will be slight modifications or major changes, we don't know yet."

Until modifications are made to the $800,000 rifle range, which was supposed to have opened nine months ago, law enforcement officers seeking training will most likely go to facilities operated by the military.

Many law enforcement agencies in the Baltimore area use Fort Meade in Odenton, where Keith Lehr oversees two rifle ranges.

"Behind the target area is a 10-foot-high berm and beyond that, 4,000 to 5,000 yards of nothing but wilderness," Lehr said. "That's typical for most military ranges."

The few ranges built in urban areas have high berms or are enclosed, as is the 100-yard Secret Service range in Beltsville, said 1st Sgt. Dean Richardson of the Maryland State Police's Westminster barracks.

In Virginia, "troopers for our tactical units train at a National Guard range in central Virginia, where the target area is wide open with nothing but wilderness behind it," said Virginia State Police Sgt. H. M. Chapman.

Delaware State Police, said state police Cpl. Walter Newton, have their own pistol and shotgun range, but specialty tactical rifle training is done at Fort Meade or at the FBI's 1,000-meter range in the woods at Quantico, Va.

Maryland officials wanted to place a $40 million law enforcement training center on the grounds of Springfield Hospital Center in semirural Carroll County outside Sykesville and persuaded legislators to begin paying for it in 1997.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, recalled hearings when lawmakers questioned state officials seeking money for the $4.6 million firearms training facility, part of the $20 million allocated for the first two phases of the center.

"It didn't take a rocket scientist to know putting a firing range so near the hospital wasn't a brilliant idea," Hoffman, a Democrat who represents Baltimore City and Baltimore County, said last week.

Richard N. Dixon, state treasurer and a former Carroll County legislator who has long been a proponent of a law enforcement training center in Sykesville, said: "I am not aware of the costs, or when this project will be done, but I am committed to its completion regardless of the cost. There is not a flaw in the range. There is a flaw that allows a bullet to go astray sporadically."

Questions about the design of the range were first raised by Shannon Bohrer, who was hired to run the firearms training center in April 1999, well after construction had begun.

Bohrer referred questions last week to Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Sipes said Bohrer raised concerns shortly after he was hired about 100 percent containment at the rifle range and voiced those concerns at many meetings between April and November with representatives from DGS, the contractor, the architect, and the police and correctional training commissions.

"From the very beginning, the goal was always to have 100 percent containment 100 percent of the time," Sipes said.

Bohrer and Ray Franklin of the police training commission spelled out their concerns in a Nov. 5 memorandum to DGS officials. By then, Richkus said, EnviroServe Inc. of Sykesville, the general contractor, had completed its work at the rifle range. Also by then, the company and the state were involved in a dispute over the time it took the contractor to complete the work and over about $2.4 million in cost overruns.

"Since DGS was in dispute with the contractor, a decision was made to hire another contractor to complete any modifications at the rifle range," Richkus said.

No modifications have been done at the rifle range, but DGS officials have said that work at four pistol ranges next to it has been completed.

"They [DGS officials] don't want to admit it was a design disaster," said William Huddles, a Columbia attorney representing the contractor.

Dave McCormick, a spokesman for Whitman, Requardt & Associates of Baltimore, the architectural firm that designed the rifle range, said operational needs changed after Bohrer arrived. "The rifle range was designed for expert-level marksmen," he said.

"If training needs change along the way [in the construction process], some design modification may be necessary," McCormick said. "It doesn't mean the original design plan was wrong. It just means it has changed."

Sipes agreed. The original plans called for "experienced shots" to use the rifle range.

"It was designed primarily for expert shooters, but even experts can make mistakes," Sipes said. "That's why 100 percent containment was always a requirement."

"If the police and correctional training commissions want a 100 percent safe range and don't want to be dependent on procedural and operational restrictions, then it should be fully baffled for absolute containment," McCormick said.

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