Eight police officers toe the orange firing line spray-painted across the gravel before a row of cardboard targets, their hands at their sides -- but ready. At one end of the firing line, an instructor yells directions.
“OK, we’re going to place two rounds in the upper-left green dot,” says Officer Bill Garland, the Oregon City Police Department’s lead firearms instructor. “And then, we’ll shift our aim to the center dot, where we will assess what needs to be done next.
“Line is ready…Up!”
The sharp report of semiautomatic 9mm pistols breaks the calm, the smell of gunpowder on the breeze.
Another firearms training session is up and running.
Garland, assisted by Officer Nick Ennis and Detective Andy Kiesel, runs a never-ending series of training sessions at Sherwood’s Tri-County Gun Club. All officers are required to demonstrate firearms-handling proficiency four times a year with handguns. Officers also must qualify once a year with AR-15 rifles.
The qualifying sessions start with the officers reciting the four cardinal rules of firearms safety: Treat every gun as if it is loaded. Don’t point a gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. And be aware of your target, along with what’s behind it and in front of you.
“This has to be the basis of all safe firearms handling,” says Sgt. Matthew Paschall, OCPD’s training coordinator. “But every drill, every training exercise we go through, is designed to develop good judgment.”
That’s why the officers practice shooting, shifting their aim and then reassessing the situation.
“It’s what we call a ‘shoot/no-shoot’ exercise,” Paschall says. “At every step, they have to remain fully aware in what could be a changing situation. They have to figure out how much force would be appropriate for the safety of the citizens, the suspects, their fellow officers and themselves.”
The instructors are undisputed experts. Garland and Ennis are active competition shooters, with Garland holding a “Grand Master” ranking from the United States Practical Shooting Association. Kiesel, a former competition shooter, and Ennis both have served as firearms instructors for 5½ years; Garland for 10½.
The Tri-County Gun Club also is the perfect place to train. Bulldozers maintain the berms behind the targets and alongside each of the ranges in the complex. This greatly reduces the possibility of a stray bullet or a ricochet escaping. A Range Officer oversees safety measures for Tri-County, which also includes ranges for shooting rifles and shotguns.
Most of the officers carry and train with 9mm Glock semiautomatics issued by the Police Department. A few choose to buy their own sidearms manufactured by Sig Sauer, Springfield and Smith & Wesson.
Repetitive training – practice, practice and more practice – is the key to developing good habits that will become automatic during a crisis. The training includes drills on drawing a weapon, reloading under pressure, exercising trigger control, maintaining sight alignment, establishing a good grip and assuming a stable stance.
Training also is the ideal place to unlearn any inkling of bad habits before they take hold.
“All right, we’re going to start at the 10-yard line,” Garland tells the officers. “We’re going to practice shifting and adjusting. We will start by placing two rounds in the upper-right dot and then then one in the middle dot. Line is ready.”
The officers, equipped with protective eyewear and sound-deadening earmuffs, wait for Garland’s order to start:
A staccato chorus of gunshots echoes across the range.
Garland then leads the group through several exercises that force each officer to shoot, shift gears and then adjust before shooting again. These see-think-shoot drills are run from 15, 10, 7 and 3 yards before the officers step all the way in to arms-length from the targets, where some of the most dangerous and difficult situations may unfold.
“Of course, Paschall says, using deadly force is last on a list of responses to a dangerous threat.”
First, would be verbal commands, ordering a subject to stop and surrender.
Next would be physical contact – that is, using defensive tactics or holds to subdue a suspect who has ignored warnings and still poses a threat.
If the suspect is fighting back, officers could use less-lethal tools such as Taser electric stun guns, batons or 40mm foam grenades.
Finally, if the suspect still poses a threat, officers can consider deadly force.
“But if a suspect is armed, that may push an officer’s response to the end of the list right away,” Paschall says.
In May, Oregon City officers tried to serve an arrest warrant on a man accused of attacking his next-door neighbor and making derogatory comments about his sexual orientation. During a struggle, officers fatally shot the man.
The incident was investigated by the Clackamas County Major Crimes Team, which turned its findings over to the District Attorney’s Office. A grand jury subsequently cleared the officers of wrongdoing, noting that the man resisted arrest and pulled one officer into his apartment. During the ensuing wrestling match, the man grabbed a hammer and tried to hit one of the officers over the head. The officers then used a Taser, but it wasn’t effective.
When the man grabbed for the Taser –and then for an officer’s handgun – the officers shot him. He continued to fight with officers even after he was shot in the chest. Although officers administered first aid, the man died shortly afterward.
Police Chief Jim Band called the incident a “tragedy.”
But Band also noted that the officers used prescribed de-escalation techniques before going up the list of responses. They then took appropriate measures as the man and the situation became more dangerous.
Garland has the officers shoot, then drop the magazines from their pistols before reloading and shooting again. He emphasizes that the men are developing tools that they will carry with them wherever they go.
“The things we learn here don’t just apply to the range,” Garland says. “They will apply when you are out on the road.”