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A shot in the dark

Island County Sheriff Deputy Rick Felici takes aim with his handgun recently at a nighttime weapon training at the Central Whidbey Sportsmen’s Association outside of Coupeville. The deputies practiced loading their weapons in the dark before heading outside for drills. - Jennifer Conway
Island County Sheriff Deputy Rick Felici takes aim with his handgun recently at a nighttime weapon training at the Central Whidbey Sportsmen’s Association outside of Coupeville. The deputies practiced loading their weapons in the dark before heading outside for drills.
— image credit: Jennifer Conway

“Stop! Police!” a dozen voices boomed in the dark.

A spray of gunfire quickly illuminated their figures, their feet continuously shifting side to side as their bullets hit targets in the shadows. For Island County Sheriff officers, this is what nighttime weapon training looks like. It is something they all need to know how to do, but it’s also training they hope they never have to use.

Commander Mike Beech, one of the sheriff office’s state qualified firearm instructors, led over a dozen officers through hours of exercises and drills on a recent night at the Central Whidbey Sportsmen’s Association near Coupeville. All of the department’s approximately 30 officers and 20 correctional officers are mandated by the department to complete four hours of firearms training every three months.

Although not mandated by state law, Beech said the particular training and skills taught in his agency are not something an officer should be without. About 90 percent of the training the department and other officers around the nation do revolves around an officer surviving a deadly situation.

“We have to train our guys to survive that lethal encounter,” he said.

The state standard, according to Beech, only requires one qualifying test per weapon for an officer every year. Up until 2003, the Island County Sheriff’s Office did not have quarterly drill requirements to keep the officers on the top of their profession.

“It’s a perishable skill,” he said. “If you don’t keep practicing you tend to forget.”

Typically Beech and the sheriff office’s two other instructors, Deputy Scott Fague and William Simons, lead officers in small training groups every few weeks. With deputies from the jail, north, south and east precincts, the lessons alternate between handgun, rifles and shotgun training.

On this particular evening, Jan. 19, officers honed their skills in the dark. If an officer ever has to use his or her shooting skills, Beech said they will most likely be needed in a near-lightless situation.

“The overwhelming majority of police shootings occur at night,” he said.

After emptying the ammunition from every firearm they carry, the deputies are allowed to enter the CWSA clubhouse. Inside, they review safety rules and the night’s training activities. Then, deputies form a circle around the perimeter around the room. With plastic dummy rounds to simulate a bullet, officers can practice loading their weapons in the dark. When fired, the plastic rounds do not act as projectiles, but rather pop out of the side of the weapon as a spent shell would.

For outdoor training, the officers load their weapons again with real bullets. Wearing bullet-proof vests, safety glasses and ear protection, officers stand “bad breath” distance — about 5 feet — away from paper targets stapled to the wooden boards. With just the light from the moon and sometimes a flashlight, they practice several drills. Instructors often check between drills to make certain the officers’ bullets are making their mark.

In other drills, a squad vehicle’s flashing strobe lights are turned on to simulate a roadside traffic stop. Typically, each deputy will fire up to 200 rounds during a night of training.

Night training lasts only as long as Whidbey Island’s winter: Deputies begin training again in daylight as the evening light of spring returns.

Unlike in many other departments, sheriff’s officers have to buy their own weapons. All street deputies are issued a department shotgun and some are issued AR15 rifles, which are locked in the trunk of their patrol vehicles. The sheriff’s office does require weapons used by deputies, detectives and corrections officers to be brand new, to be purchased through an authorized dealer and made by a reputable manufacturer.

Typically Beech said deputies carry a semi-automatic handgun, with Sig Sauer, Glock and Kimber being three of the most popular manufacturers. The guns range in size from 9 mm, .40 and .45 calibers.

Deputy Laura Price, one of the sheriff’s road patrol officers who completed her quarterly night training recently, said the realistic weapon training is likely the most valuable training she receives. She said deputies are motivated to participate in the real-life training, which gives them assurance to do their jobs outside of simulated range training.

“All the training that we’ve been doing now has been more what we’re going to see in the real world,” she said.

Beech said the sheriff’s office has not had any safety concerns or accidents because of the department’s strict safety standards when practicing drills. Even when they are not training and officers are on duty, Beech said it’s a rare occurrence officers are forced to draw a weapon on an individual, or pull their shotguns from the mount in the patrol car. In the 13 years Beech has been with the sheriff’s office, he said he cannot remember the last time a sheriff’s deputy fired a weapon on duty in Island County.

“Safety is number one,” he said. “It’s all there for a reason.”

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