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Remodeled firing range offers state-of-the-art training

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The paper targets turned, pivoting into view. The line of guns, firing "pop-pop," put .40-caliber holes in the paper, and then the silhouette-shaped targets pulled back, ducking down behind the railroad-tie wall.

As the SWAT team stood at the newly renovated firing range, legs spread and guns up, three lines of training targets moved, mechanized and orchestrated. The targets moved together and separately, confusingly and unexpectedly, but the SWAT officers kept their feet firmly planted, their guns going off in bursts.

Explaining the demonstration of the new, state-of-the-art training targets, Lt. Leo Hathaway said, "It's complicated and kind of confusing, which is kind of what we want."

Hathaway, the commander of the Clayton County Police Department's training unit, said the target system simulates shooting scenarios, instead of training officers to fire at something that's standing still. "So by the time they get into a real situation," the lieutenant said, "they'll have the T-shirt, 'Been there -- done that.'"

Demonstrating the system from the 10-yard line at the firing range on Friday morning, Hathaway had a cordless phone in his hand. The new system -- with all its tracking, turning, running and pop-up targets -- is operated on speed dial. With the press of a number, the phone feeds a pre-arranged sequence of moves into the target machine, while the SWAT team waits to fire.

Officer Michael Ward, who's with the training unit, was standing on the observation tower, watching the line of shooters below. "All that," he said, "was just pressing number one."

The Clayton County Police Department unveiled its newly renovated firing range on Friday, showing off the new system and about $500,000 worth of improvements to the Lovejoy facilities. The range was put under the auspices of the county police around the beginning of the year, and the department has been working on the upgrades since February. Open and available to all of the law enforcement agencies in the Southern Crescent, the range now offers top-of-the-line training and practices, according to the department.

Besides the moving targets, there's a bomb-practice pit, sniper simulations, and a six-room, "live-fire shoot-house," nicknamed "The Thunderdome," where police can practice hostage and home-invasion scenarios.

Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner said the renovations were paid for with drug forefeiture funds. "From money we seized from drug dealers," he said. "I would like to thank them for their help in providing this for the community."

Clayton County Commissioner Michael Edmonson said the range, providing better law enforcement training, makes the county safer. "The people who win," he said, "are the residents and the businesses in the community."

Turner said he hopes the range will provide plenty of top-quality training for everyone. He spoke at the open house on Friday, as police chiefs from McDonough to Riverdale and law enforcement officers from around the area took a tour of the facilities.

"Any type of scenario you can come up with, we have at this range," Turner told them.

On the catwalk above the hallway in the "live-fire shoot-house," the guests saw how a SWAT team can get a 360-degree training exercise, at the renovated range.

"We're trying to train the officers, so that when we have a home invasion at my grandparents' house, whatever agency -- for my grandparents, it'd be Henry County -- but whatever law enforcement, is prepared," said Ward.

The dome is built out of steel, with walls that are bullet traps.

Dressed in green and wielding training guns loaded with lipstick-bullets, the officers rush into the rooms, yelling and looking for the moving targets. The pistol shots make smacking sounds as the officers swarm the place, entering with a shout of "Clayton County Police" and ending, after a few moments, with shouts of "clear," "clear," and "all clear."