At Home, Sort Of, On the Range
Niles police let academy civilians test their nerves and hand at practice shooting targets.
So far, we've gotten to dust for fingerprints, ride along in a police car and try our hand at training scenarios that involved stopping law-breaking drivers. It's all part of the Niles Police Department's Citizens Police Academy class that about 20 people, including myself, have been taking since September.
The class opens up the world of law enforcement to the civilian Joe or Jane, and it lets us see things from the police perspective.
We got to add another experience to our repertoire during last week's class--shooting a gun at the department's firing range. Officer Nick Zakula led us to the facility, where each officer gets about 20 hours of practice each year.
Very rarely do police actually draw guns, Zakula explained. But when the situation calls for it, an officer must have the training that lets him respond automatically, and accurately, in a tense situation in which things are happening very fast.
"Why do we do the training?" he asked rhetorically, his brown eyes earnestly searching the students in the class. "In order to protect me, and in order to protect you."
He showed one of the M-16 semi-automatic assault rifles that Niles police now have access to in the wake of a 1997 North Hollywood, CA, bank robbery that was pivotal to the law enforcement world.
In that incident, which Detective Sgt. Joe O'Sullivan described to half the class upstairs while the other half was downstairs at the firing range, two bank robbers dressed from neck to toe in body armor. When the first police officers on the scene shot guns at them, their bullets bounced off the suspects' armor as police took return fire from semi-automatic weapons. Though the two heavily armed gunmen were eventually killed, it was not until 11 police officers and seven civilians were wounded in the nearly hourlong gun battle.
Never wanting to be caught in a situation in which they would be unable to protect themselves and the public, Niles police now can bring heavy firepower to bear in those rare cases when it might be needed.
After Zakula answered all of our questions, he introduced our three instructors: Detectives George Alexopoulos, Jerry Mercado and Joseph Paglia.
Imagine a bowling alley with only three short lanes, and you've got the approximate size and shape of the firing range. Most of us clustered in a glass viewing booth to watch our first classmates enter one of the three shooting bays with an instructor, learn how to hold the gun and then fire off six shots at a paper target.
Then it was time for the next three, including me. I'd never touched a gun before, except for toy guns or shooting games at carnivals. I've always been one of those moms that would never buy toy guns for their children, but the weapon somehow had a way of showing up in the house anyway.
And I was paranoid enough to tell the children, when we were out in the car, "Don't point that toy gun at anybody! Somebody might think it's real and shoot you!" That was always good for eliciting bewildered looks and rolled eyes.
So now, we had Paranoid Mom stepping into the shooting bay, thinking, "I don't know how this is going to go, but if the rest of the class is doing it, count me in."
Alexopoulos patiently demonstrated how to stand--with knees slightly bent and leaning forward to counteract the gun's recoil. Then he showed me how to get a good grip on the weapon, position my finger on the right-hand side and tuck my left thumb over my right.
We both put on our ear protectors. With the first shot, I could definitely feel the recoil, but it wasn't as strong as I expected. It felt somewhat like the guns you shoot at carnival games, only more powerful. I worked my way through six shots, and then a pulley system brought my paper target toward the bay.
After three more classmates took target practice, we trooped back upstairs where O'Sullivan was wrapping up his talk on police history and the use of force. As the other half of the class prepared to go to the range, one man started to grab a sweater.
"Oh, no, you won't need that. It's warm down there," I said.
"No," interrupted one of the men who had been down at the range. "It's chilly down there."
"I felt really warm," I said, and then something clicked and I started laughing. "Oh, it must have been because I was sweating," I said, and several others joined me in the kind of laughter that said, "Yep, we were a little nervous too."
Overall, it wasn't a bad experience. But for the time being, I think I'll go back to shooting a camera.