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Firearms training: Recruits aim for the next level

Shots rang out and hot lead casings streamed through the air in a swift arc to the floor.

Federal Way police recruit Carl VanDyke practiced his shooting Feb. 20 during Basic Law Enforcement Academy firearms training. Recruits had the opportunity to test the skills they learned in the classroom. The training focused on perfecting marksmanship, maintaining accuracy, correcting errors, evaluating causes of misses, fine-tuning trigger control and alignment, anticipating the noise produced by the firearms and practicing fundamentals.

"(We're) trying to work on the basic skills to help them survive a lethal force encounter," lead firearms instructor Kelly Pitts said.

Training took place at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien. In pairs, the men and women lined up nearly shoulder to shoulder: One shooter and one safety officer per each of the 15 lanes.

From a room behind the recruits, firearms instructors operated the paper targets. An instructor told recruits when to prepare their guns and let recruits know how many shots they were to take — and from what range of distance. On cue, the recruits took aim and fired. The scenario repeated itself throughout the morning.

Though the drills were not scored, accuracy was measured. The officers-in-training will be expected to control their weapons with precision before they can graduate from the academy.

They used a 10-ring scoring system to evaluate their progress. Four shaded rings circled the torso of a human silhouette on the targets. A perfect score was 500. A shot placed outside any of the rings called for a 10-point deduction. Hitting the outermost ring called for a 3-point deduction; Striking the second ring was a 2-point deduction and the first ring a 1-point penalty.

A bullet in the center ring was ideal. VanDyke, who spent time in the military before police training, appeared comfortable with his firearm and scored well.

Sharpening skills

A final firearms test will come at the end of the nineteen-week academy.

The test could include several tricky obstacles and require VanDyke to make split-second decisions. Instructors may bring a vehicle into the indoor range and have recruits perform a simulated traffic stop. Just as in reality, the stop could go well or the subject could pull a gun.

During final exams, sirens and flashing lights can be cued in a deliberate effort to increase recruits' heartbeat and stress levels.

"The thing that we try to stress the most is that we're trying to get them to survive a gun fight, not just shoot a target to score well," Pitts said.

By the conclusion of the academy, each recruit will have shot thousands of rounds and put in numerous hours to prove he or she can maneuver a handgun. VanDyke and his peers will fire approximately 2,300 bullets and spend about 86 hours practicing their skills, Pitts said. About four hours are dedicated to achieving the correct mindset when handling a firearm. Approximately 40 hours are spent on marksmanship and the remaining time is focused on tactics and decision-making.

Police recruits will dedicate 720 total hours to the academy. In that time, they will learn the basics of becoming a police officer. The recruits could spend those hours just learning about their firearms and still need to perfect their skills, Pitts said.

"They aren't going to get all of it here," he said. "They need to continue working on those skills."

Check it out

This is the second in a series of articles that will follow Carl VanDyke as he progresses through the Basic Law Enforcement Academy, moves on to the field training officer program, then becomes a full-fledged Federal Way police officer.

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