Shooting Range Backfires on Capitol Police

Posted September 4, 2007 at 6:44pm

Capitol Police firing range instructors have temporarily suspended activities at one of the department’s primary training facilities after several people were hit by bullet fragments during training exercises.

Instructors are now working out of the department’s range in the Rayburn House Office Building while a review and necessary repairs are made to target frames at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Cheltenham, Md., officials confirmed Tuesday.

The instructors’ relocation is expected to be temporary, but it is only the latest safety concern to arise at the Cheltenham facility. Instructors previously have raised concerns that noise levels may exceed Occupational Safety and Health Act limits.

“Ever since day one that we’ve been using the Cheltenham facility, we’ve had nothing but issues,” said firing range instructor Mike Riley, who also sits on the executive board of the Capitol Police Labor Committee.

Instructors and trainees at the Cheltenham site have been hit by “splashback,” which occurs when a bullet is shot into a steel trap and fragments break off, Riley said.

But things came to a head just a few weeks ago, when an instructor and a student both got hit by bullet fragments, Riley said. Following those incidents, officials representing the manufacturer of the bullet trap came out to investigate and found the target carriers were sitting too low, Riley said.

Splashback isn’t as likely to occur “if you simply raise the targets up a little bit,” Riley added.

A spokeswoman for FLETC, which serves as an interagency training organization for more than 80 federal agencies, confirmed the Capitol Police have temporarily suspended training. The facility has asked the contractor in charge of the targets to “review the issue and make any recommendations for any modifications they believe are necessary,” the spokeswoman added.

While issues have been raised at Cheltenham indoor firing range No. 5 (where the Capitol Police train), all other ranges at the site are operational, said FLETC spokeswoman Peggy Dixon.

The Capitol Police relocation should be temporary, she noted, adding that ideally, all splashback issues should be resolved by Oct. 1.

“Make no mistake, once they fix this problem, we’ll be back there,” Riley said.

But some worries will remain, most notably the noise issue, Riley said, explaining that ranges at the facility are so loud, instructors are unable to properly communicate with students operating weapons on the firing line.

Instructors themselves have been affected by the noise levels, Riley said. “Guys on my staff now are wearing hearing aides.”

In March 2006, Riley filed a request for an Office of Compliance investigation into the noise issue. That probe is ongoing and results have not yet been released publicly, an OOC spokeswoman confirmed.

Dixon pointed out that “FLETC meets and exceeds the national environmental and safety standards.”

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said earlier this year that an Environmental Protection Agency report commissioned by the department conflicts with findings that the noise levels are too high.

But Gainer, a former Capitol Police chief, also maintained the primary concern is the health of the instructors. He pointed out that the department has taken steps to protect instructors, including training at the 50-yard ranges at Cheltenham rather than 25-yard ranges, which are the loudest at the facility.

Riley noted that the department has taken steps to make things better at Cheltenham.

A doctor recently visited instructors to teach them how to understand hearing tests, so instructors can see if hearing damage has begun, Riley said.

The department also has been rotating staff more, limiting the amount of time instructors actually spend on the range.

“I know personally for me, that’s made a big difference,” Riley said.

Located about 15 miles from D.C., the Cheltenham facility provides training to 24,500 law enforcement officers in the metropolitan area.

Aside from its range in the Rayburn Building, the department also trains at ranges in Quantico, Va., and has used other facilities in the past, Riley said.

“I would love to see the Capitol Police either a) build their own facility or b) just use the other facilities we have,” Riley said.