Police officer training is a much debated topic and insatiable in its consumption of agency time, budget, and personnel/resources. The focus on this issue is driven by a variety of factors, including:
• Civil liability (real or perceived);
• Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) mandates; and/or
• A commitment to preparing officers for the tasks at hand.
The Supreme Court has established guidelines concerning police training in cases such as Canton v. Harris and the City of Margate v. Popow. The justices directed agencies to train their officers AND do so in a practical manner consistent with the tasks likely to be faced on the job. The practicalaspect is the most challenging, as agencies attempt to address divergent training needs in an expeditious and fiscally responsible manner.
One Agency’s Experience
The purpose of this article is to focus on one step in the “practical” process; specifically, the creation of a live fire ballistic shooting house. The reasons for considering such an undertaking are varied, but generally involve a catalyst event(s). In the case of the Springfield, Missouri, Police Department, the catalyst was a dramatic increase in elevated risk calls for service.
In 1990, the community found itself at the center of the fastest growing methamphetamine network in the nation. Search warrant/barricaded suspect incidents exceeded 275 that year, and a full-time Special Operations Team was created to address the tactical call load. Additional training came with the assignment, in hopes of improving the decision-making skills and operational readiness of those tasked with high risk assignments in residential environments. Unfortunately, it was quickly determined that ordinary exercises and training facilities were not “practical and consistent with the tasks likely to be faced on the job.” The team operated almost exclusively indoors, engaging suspects, children, and animals while moving over every type of clutter imaginable. This was in stark contrast to their manicured firing range which was geared towards static daylight shooting from known distance/debris-free concrete firing lines. Exposing officers to a more realistic training environment would require a philosophical shift in the training mentality and a physical shift in the “square range” paradigm.
This article deals only with the physical side. It is an overview of the “shooting house” construction process and a ten year after action report concerning the durability of the chosen design. It is not intended to be all-inclusive or address every concern about shooting house construction and use. The facility is a long way from perfect and was built with specific, limiting, objectives in mind. Those who take on a job like this will face opposition as they compete with other projects for funding, command staff support, etc. To be successful in such a process, you generally must be diplomatic and willing to compromise. As a result, the end product may not be exactly what you wanted, but will likely be a significant improvement over what you had. The goals of the live fire project were as follows:
• To create a structure offering 360° external wall ballistic protection capable of stopping any projectile likely to be found in the police arsenal. It is important to note that “capable of stopping” is not to be confused with “intended for use.” The house was not designed for rifle rounds or 12-gauge slugs. Likewise, for safety reasons, it was decided that the walls must be able to stop such rounds should they somehow end up being fired inside;
• To provide ballistic protection for the interior walls capable of stopping the handgun/submachine gun rounds intended to be used inside;
• To be neat in appearance – The range facility is well manicured and very attractive. The shooting house was not to detract from that and, in fact, every effort must be made to ensure that it adds to the overall range appearance;
• To be durable – The shooting house was to have a service life of no less than ten years. Service life was defined as maintaining appearance and functionality with minimal upkeep; and
• The total cost of the project (not including police labor costs) must not exceed $10,000.
Receiving the Go-Ahead
With approval to proceed and the guidelines established, the project was set in motion. The first step was deciding which type of house to build. There were a number of options, including but not limited to:
• New or used sand/dirt filled “tire houses”;
• Heavy frame construction (2 x 6 – 2 x 8), covered in plywood sheeting, then filled with a ballistic medium, such as sand or gravel;
• Steel/heavy wood frame with various types of synthetic coverings capable of stopping/trapping the projectiles; or
• Railroad ties/heavy timbers (new and used).
In order to obtain a firsthand perspective of each design, team members visited a variety of shooting houses across the country. They took notes on layout, appearance, structure, and lessons learned during and after the construction process. In a number of cases, team members conducted live fire training and got an “operator’s view” of the houses in question. The officers returned home, compared notes, and conducted range/ballistics tests on a variety of materials. They ultimately decided that brand-new oak railroad ties would best meet their needs and project criteria. Range testing revealed that a single tie offered excellent ballistic protection, with submachine gun rounds stopping within an inch of penetration. They were also:
• Durable and extremely weather-resistant;
• Uniform and neat in appearance; and
• Cost-effective due to Springfield being the home of Burlington-Northern Railroad’s largest tie yard. The city has a contract with BN and is able to purchase the ties at a very reasonable rate. Obtaining them from an out of area source would have made them cost prohibitive, due to issues relating to weight and shipping.
It is important to note that, in some areas, EPA issues will prevent the use of treated wood, creosote products, and other chemicals which may be “hazardous” by definition. Agencies facing such issues should still consider the design concept and utilize timbers which are untreated. Service life of the structure will be reduced, but steps such as adding a roof or “tarping” when not in use, can protect the timbers from decay.
Based on the limited availability of range space and budgetary constraints, the size and layout of the structure was determined. It is represented by the accompanying blueprint.
The construction of the house was then begun, with team members providing skill/labor by day and serving search warrants by night. A general overview of the building process is outlined as follows:
• Survey, grade, and establish the corners and support beam locations for the interior and exterior walls;
• Procure and assemble the timbers, base rock, and other related building materials at the scene;
• Use a tractor mounted auger to drill the corner and wall support timber holes 36 inches into the ground;
• Set the corner and wall support timbers vertically in concrete. The following photographs and graphic provide details of this process:
• The interior and exterior wall timbers were then stacked eight feet high, between the previously set support posts. Two inches of asphalt roofing cement was laid between each tie to minimize “gap” potential as the timbers aged. The tops of each support post were then banded together with steel strapping. This was done to prevent any outward pressure from forcing the supports apart over time. Based on the ballistic requirements, the exterior walls were set two timbers thick, separated by seven inches of packed base rock, for a total thickness of 21 inches. Base rock is a finely crushed limestone product similar in consistency to sand. It is readily available in this region and various other types of material (sand, reconstituted road asphalt, gravel) could have been substituted if base rock wasn’t so inexpensive. The interior walls were set one timber thick. It is important to note that the ties weigh several hundred pounds each and are “exciting” to handle by hand – especially at levels above the waist. The use of a front-end loader and railroad “tie hooks” are strongly recommended when raising timbers above the third level;
• The front-end loader was then used to dump twenty tons of base rock over the walls for spreading and compacting on the floor of the house. The base rock would offer a relatively solid surface (after exposure to rain), but would not be so hard that a ricochet potential would exist;
• The CCA/pressure treated observation deck was then constructed. It was designed to allow full viewing of the entire house during training exercises and is a point from which a safety officer would have absolute control/authority to safely “whistle stop” an exercise should the need arise;
• The interior and exterior doors were then set in place. All interior doors were standard hollow core. The exterior doors were a combination of solid wood, heavy-duty metal with rubber padding for “ram” training and a double supported steel commercial door for explosive breaching;
• The final step on the interior was the installation of portable moving/nonmoving three-dimensional targets, a full array of furniture consistent with the type of room (i.e., full appliances in the kitchen; beds, dressers, and clothes on hangers in the bedrooms; couches, end tables, pictures, and lamps in the living area; toilet, sink, and vanity in the bath), along with copious amounts of “tangle foot” toys, trash, etc., on the floor for “realism”;
• The sidewalks leading up to the doors were formed and poured in concrete; and
• The area surrounding the house was backfilled with topsoil and landscaped with rocks and plants. House numbers, a mailbox, and exterior lighting were added as well.
The breakdown on actual construction cost is as follows:
1) Land – provided by the city of Springfield
2) Labor – provided by the city of Springfield Police Department
3) 630 new 7″ x 9″ (by 9-11 feet) railroad ties – $6,457.00
4) Eight yards of concrete – $394.00
5) Asphalt cement and small hand tools – $69.19
6) Lumber and fasteners – $897.90
7) Landscaping material – $214.53
Total expenditure – $8,032.87
The shooting house has been in continuous use since 1991 with the tactical team, patrol officers, and a wide variety of area agencies using the facility on a weekly basis. The walls have “sucked up” thousands of rounds and not a single tie has needed to be replaced; though, the construction process will allow this, if required. The longevity is likely due to a very well thought-out process of target positioning, to avoid repetitive shooting at the exact same location. There were also periods of time in which steel targets were used which would obviously have reduced the potential for damage to the timbers. The practice of using steel targets with duty ammunition was discontinued in 1995 after reports (nationwide) began to surface concerning officers being injured by splatter/ricochet when using such rounds/targets at close range. Hollow point, frangible, and
SIMUNITION® rounds are the type of projectiles used at this time.
It is important to note that not a single injury has EVER occurred in this facility. This is a credit to its design and the diligence of team members and range staff concerning the use of safety equipment, and the preplanning process which goes into each and every training event which occurs in the house. LIVE FIRE FACILITIES SUCH AS THIS ARE DANGEROUS. There must be specific policy in place which is strictly enforced, concerning:
• prerequisite training prior to even entering the house;
• who is authorized to use the house and in what capacity;
• what type/level of supervision is required in order for such use to occur; and
• determination of target placement and team movement throughout the exercise.
Maintenance on the house consists of changing soft furniture every few months (due to weather) and rolling on a coat of black driveway sealer every two years. The structure looks almost as good as the day it was finished and is expected to serve the agency for at least another ten years.
Since the completion of this project, 52 other police agencies have used the blueprint to create similar houses. They have found that the design is safe, functional, cost-effective, and able to offer “practical training, consistent with the tasks likely to be faced on the job.”