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Preventing Training Tragedies: Friendly Fire

In force-on-force training with real weapons, one mistake can lead to disaster.

January 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

An officer dressed for a marking round exercise.

On a cold day in January 2002, more than 2,500 police officers from throughout the Northeast United States gathered in Rhode Island to pay their final respects to Capt. Alister C. McGregor of the East Providence Police Department. McGregor had been killed two days after Christmas 2001 when live ammunition was accidentally introduced in a training exercise.

As commander of the East Providence special response team, McGregor was playing a gunman on a school bus in a hostage rescue scenario. Some 70 yards away, according to an investigation by the Rhode Island State Police, SRT sniper Patrolman Joseph Warzycha III lined up McGregor in his crosshairs and squeezed the trigger. The firing pin on his rifle was supposed to have stitched air, but instead it sent a .308 round screaming across the bus parking lot and into McGregor's skull. The captain died instantly.

Two months later, a statewide grand jury handed down a manslaughter indictment for Warzycha after the state police investigation concluded the accident was caused by his failure to clear his weapon before "dry firing" it at McGregor. At presstime, the case had not come to trial.

According to officers in the East Providence PD who declined to go on the record for this story, the department's morale is still drained by that shot fired more than a year ago in the school bus parking lot. It killed a respected and beloved leader, destroyed the career of a young and ambitious officer, left McGregor's five children without a father, and devastated the men and women of the department, including McGregor's wife, who is a detective corporal on the force.

Sadly, East Providence PD is not alone in its grief. Accidents during simulation training exercises have claimed the lives of officers in communities as diverse as Clackamas County, Ore.; Arlington, Texas; and Calgary, Alberta, just to name a few.

Rule Violations

Plastic guns offer the safest force-on-force firearms simulations.

Of all training accidents, police officers shooting each other in simulation drills are the most tragic. They are also the most difficult for some officers and civilians to comprehend.

The very concept of having officers point real guns at each other in training scenarios violates several of the most revered rules of safe gun handling. Rule 1 of the gun safety catechism says a shooter should treat all guns as if they are loaded, and rule 2 forbids pointing the muzzle of the weapon at anything or anyone you don't want to destroy. So why then do highly professional cops insist on not only pointing "unloaded" guns at each other in training exercises but pulling the triggers? The answer gets to the very heart of why officers go to such great lengths to develop realistic training exercises.

Dropping the Hammer

Veteran police trainer Gary T. Klugiewicz says using real guns in scenarios is a necessary evil because shooting a gun in a real incident involves discipline of both mind and body. "People say we should just use Red Guns (plastic models) and say 'bang, bang' like kids. But here's the problem with that. Saying 'bang, bang' never shot anybody. What shoots people is a trigger pull. If you don't practice pulling the trigger at people, you won't be able to do it if it becomes necessary on the street."

Another reason officers prefer real guns over Red Guns in some training exercises is that they give the instructor a better idea of how the officer will perform in a real incident. "When you use a Red Gun, you can't manipulate the safeties or decockers," explains John Meyer, vice president of law enforcement and international training for Heckler & Koch. He adds that it's very important for officers to have experience pulling the trigger in stressful situations.

Meyer's concern about stress and its effects on an officer's performance in a deadly force incident echoes the words of Lt. Col. David Grossman's landmark treatise on how soldiers react in combat, "On Killing." Grossman argues that combat training for soldiers must include "stress inoculation" so that they will be prepared for the intensely emotional experience of having to kill or be killed by the enemy.

Marking Rounds

One way to add stress to a training scenario is to let the participants shoot each other. With marking rounds.

Sold under the brand names Simunition FX and Air Munition, marking rounds are reduced power cartridges tipped with soft, colored plastic projectiles that splat against the target and leave a bright mark.

When used properly and with the right protective gear, marking rounds are by all accounts very safe. However, at least one death has been attributed to the mistaken use of a live round in a marking round simulation.

Theoretically, it should be extremely difficult to bring a live round into a marking round simulation. Guns used with marking rounds must be modified with special barrels that will not accommodate live ammunition, but mistakes happen when officers leave the training area for court or lunch and return to the training with a live unchecked weapon. Later in the day they think that they are firing marking rounds at their buddies and instead unleash a hollow point.

There are two ways to prevent such accidents: officers must take more care in inspecting their weapons before entering or re-entering the training area or they need to use clearly marked sim guns that are specially made only to accommodate marking rounds. An example of a popular sim gun is the Glock 17T training model or so-called "Blue Glock."

Bob Bragg, director of instructor training at the Washington State Criminal Justice Academy, is a big advocate of Blue Glocks for simulation training. "It makes it a lot harder to make a mistake," he says. "If a student doesn't have a blue gun in his or her hand, then we know something is wrong."

Unfortunately, one major drawback to the Blue Glock is cost. The trainer sells for almost as much as a fully operational pistol.

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