(Photo by Scott Welton, Staff)
SIKESTON -- High training standards for firearms ensure Sikeston police -- and residents -- are as safe as they can be.
Firearms training and qualification tests are required for "everybody that is a certified police officer that has arrest power and carries a firearm in the performance of their duty," said Lt. Rick Rapert of the Sikeston Department of Public Safety.
As DPS's firearms instructors, Rapert and Sgt. Keith Brown are responsible for training and conducting qualification tests for all regular DPS officers.
Initial training is 24 hours which covers laws governing the use of force and basic fundamentals of markmanship for handguns and shotguns. The state then requires four hours in a three-year period and yearly qualifications, according to Rapert.
DPS Director Drew Juden, however, holds his officers to a higher standard.
Rapert said DPS officers are required to qualify four times per year during which time they also get two hours of firearm training for a total of eight hours per year, or 24 hours of training in a three-year period.
"He wants us to be one of the best and most professional law enforcement organizations in the state," Rapert said.
"It's a real good thing," Brown said. "It's not only an accuracy thing but its also a safety thing for officers."
Brown explained Juden wants officers to "come home to their families," but added that the better qualified and trained they are, "the better it is for the public."
Criminals that use guns "don't care about the innocent bystanders, but we do," Rapert said. "We want to make sure safety is the No. 1 priority with everything we do."
Training with firearms is critical so officers are completely comfortable firing their weapon and no longer have the "startle response" to the noise and feel of a firearm discharge, according to Rapert.
"Your reaction time is critical," Brown said. "It hones your motor skills to where they are just about second nature."
Rapert said when he and Brown went through their five-day firearms instructor courses to become accredited, they learned just how important stance and grip are in marksmanship.
DPS officers are also taught how to properly draw their firearm and bring it up to target and about the appropriate use of force.
"They are taught not only how to shoot, but when to shoot," Rapert said. "Just because an officer pulls his weapon in the line of duty doesn't mean he's going to fire his gun."
An officer first makes a split second decision on whether lethal force is justified but they must also evaluate the environment they are in to make sure no innocent bystanders are in the line of fire.
Brown said the officer may be justified in returning fire but common sense may tell him not to do so.
"The officer is responsible and accountable for each round that comes out of his weapon," Rapert said.
Officers are trained to keep a safe distance when making contact with people and to use "the interview stance," to keep their holstered weapon out of reach of others.
Scenarios practiced also include a "push off drill" to ensure officers are able to draw their weapon without interference.
Brown said statistics show that incidents in which officers must use their firearm usually occur within 12 feet. "That's the reason for the close-quarter drills," he said.
He added that they are constantly looking at ways they can improve training.
The first thing that occurs upon arriving at the firing range for DPS officers is a weapon inspection.
During the briefing prior to training and qualification sessions, magazines are removed and firearms are unloaded to make sure all weapons in the area are safe.
Rapert explained this is to ensure there are no accidental discharges.
"Our main concern is safety," Brown said.
Firearm qualification involves going through an approved course of firing for marksmanship with a certified instructor, according to Rapert.
Brown said DPS has several pre-approved courses in their manual to choose from. Officers fire 50 shots during a qualification course.
Courses have a variety of elements that may be included such as having officers fire from the open or from behind a simulated barrier, from the prone position and even on the move.
Sometimes officers qualify in a course that has them working as part of a two-man team.
Most courses include a variety of ranges from as far as 25 yards "all the way in to a point-blank encounter," Rapert said.
"In our training, we try to incorporate every possible aspect of real life scenarios the officer may encounter," Brown said.
Scores are not kept. Officers are simply given a pass or fail.
The state requires 70 percent of the rounds fired to be within a specific target area. Juden requires his DPS officers to get 80 percent or better.
An officer who fails to shoot 80 percent gets a second try. If they are still not able to pass, a report is filed with Juden who decides what action to take such as retraining, reassignment or even termination.
Training and qualification sessions are conducted in all kinds of weather so in the event an officer does have to use their firearm, it won't be the first time they've fired it under those conditions.
"We train if it is zero degrees, 100 degrees and everything in between," Rapert said. "It may be raining, snowing, freezing."
The only weather condition they do not train and qualify in is when there is lightning, as safety is always the primary concern.
Sessions are conducted in daylight, low light and in the dark -- even summer evening sessions when mosquitoes are out and biting. "We want to make the training as realistic as possible," Rapert said.
Officers may not like being out in the summer heat or winter chill but instructors go through everything they require the other officers to do and more. While everybody else must endure the weather just long enough to qualify, the instructors are out there all day while the entire department qualifies.
As Sikeston DPS has not had its own firing range for over 20 years, qualification and training for DPS takes place at the Southeast Correctional Center's firing range in Charleston.
While they must schedule sessions around SECC personnel's use of the range and appointments by other departments in the area, "it's an excellent range," Brown said. "They work very well with us."
"They are very accommodating to us," Rapert agreed.