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Ready, aim, fire!


This is the fourth installment in an occasional series about becoming a law enforcement officer

The cadets are almost there. Graduation is less than a month away for Susan Harmison and the others in Law Enforcement Academy Class No. 29 at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

The cadets are learning how to shoot guns, the last major skill they have to acquire in order to graduate.

In these final weeks, all the individual lessons are coming together. Even basic things, like the way a police officer stands when interviewing someone, are used for everything from traffic stops to firearms training.

"(Things) become more natural," Harmison said. "All the sudden, it's like someone turned a light on. It just clicks."

Cadets learned how to shoot both a handgun and a shotgun last week.

"Some people have never held a shotgun before, so it's totally new to them," Harmison said.

That was evident Wednesday afternoon, when the cadets were introduced to the shotgun. Five stood in front of class. At first, they were awkward. Their faces were tense, and they seemed to be struggling to remember all the steps.

"I have to be honest with you," one of the cadets tells her instruc

tors, "I've never shot one of these, and I'm intimidated by it."

"Well," the instructor said, "so am I."

Harmison describes her experience with shotguns as being limited to hunting squirrels on the dairy farm where she grew up. Ever cautious in self-praise, she qualifies her progress this week with, "So far, so good."

She doesn't hold back in praising the firearms instructors.

"You can definitely tell the instructors know what they're doing and what they're talking about," the cadet said. "If you follow what they tell you, everything just falls into place."

Sgt. Joe Frontz, one of those instructors, said he likens the firearms training to learning how to walk. "By the end of the class," he said, "they are ready to run."

"Running" means the cadet is able to quickly and accurately fire both a handgun and shotgun from distances ranging from 1 to 25 yards.

"This is the least used, but most important tool they have at their disposal," Frontz said. "Most police officers go through (their entire career) without ever firing their weapons. But when you least expect it, boom, something happens."

To back up the importance of the lessons, Frontz provides FBI crime statistics.

"National averages show that a gunfight . . . is usually over in a very short amount of time," Frontz said, explaining why an officer must be fast and accurate.

"Forty-two percent of the time, an officer will encounter more than one person when he enters a threatening situation," he said later. "Bad guys travel in pairs."

The cadets begin shooting on a bull's-eye-style target, then progress to the silhouette of a small person. Lines that resemble beef- carving lines are drawn on the silhouettes. Inside the body, various sections are given "points" to show which parts cadets should be aiming for.

Top points are given for the head and chest area, where a bullet could easily disable someone. Ears get no points at all.

In 58 hours spread over seven days, the cadets must learn everything about guns. The academy gun range was recently renovated, so cadets train with mechanical targets Frontz maneuvers to signify a threat. The range also has barricades for lessons on how to shoot from behind cover.

Frontz said every time a new step is introduced, the cadet's accuracy rate drops. It eventually goes back up, he said. It has to. In order to pass the school, the students must make 38 out of 48 possible hits on the moving targets.

Even after the cadets pass the test, Frontz said he likes to add just one more lesson. He physically stresses out the cadet to a level similar to what it would be if he or she were involved in a chase. Once he has the cadet's adrenaline pumping, he uses the mechanical targets as unexpected "threats" to be reacted upon. All the skills had better work.

"It's another eye-opener," Frontz said. "It's what firearms training is going to come to eventually."