published Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Chattanooga, Hamilton County consider sites for shared shooting range

SWAT team members shoot at targets during firing practice at the police firing range off Moccasin Bend Road.
SWAT team members shoot at targets during firing practice at the police firing range off Moccasin Bend Road.
Photo by Associated Press.

After decades of shooting into an earthen bank on a 12-acre piece of land next to the Tennessee River, local law enforcement officers are forced to find a new place for target practice.

The Moccasin Bend National Park site will revert to the park by the end of the year, according to an agreement signed about 30 years ago. The site is used as a training ground for law enforcement shooting, tactical maneuvers and disposal of explosive materials.

Chattanooga and Hamilton County officials soon must begin the process of selecting a new location and allocating funds for a new gun range. Officials hope to construct a facility that would cost between $3 million to $4 million and include 25 stalls for officers to qualify in firearms. The structure may include office space, classroom space and a gun vault.

Two locations are under consideration -- the old farmer's market building on East 12th Street just behind the police precinct now under construction and the Army Reserve site on East 23rd Street.

The city and county already have acquired a federal grant for a little more than $1 million to pay for a bullet trap that would collect lead and brass from the bullets, allowing the metal to be sold.

The remainder of the funds will have to come from local taxpayer dollars, officials said. The funds still must be approved by the county commission and city council.

City funds have already been set aside in the proposed capital budget, said Richard Beeland, spokesman for the mayor. He said there was still discussion with county officials about how much would be paid from both sides.

"If there came an opportunity, certainly I would go to the commission and ask for that. This is something hopefully we can do as a joint effort," said Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who noted that funding for the facility is not allocated in the budget proposal he will submit to county commissioners today for their approval.

There are 485 officers at Chattanooga Police Department who are required to qualify in weapons use twice a year. Officers who are members of tactical units must qualify three times.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office also uses the range. Sheriff Jim Hammond "has also been involved in the meetings held concerning developing ideas for a new range, logistics and funding," said Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Janice Atkinson.

Any new range will be a joint venture between Chattanooga police and the sheriff's office, she said.

An indoor facility has several advantages over the current outdoor site, said Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd.

"Obviously climate control. ... You can control the lighting conditions," he said. "When we send officers out there now, we have to pull 40 to 50 officers out of their regular work schedule. They do daylight qualifications and then we have to send them home and have them come back just before dark ... and shoot at night. With an indoor range you can train 24/7."

Both Dodd and Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield recently toured Sharp Shooter's Tactical Range in Roswell, Ga., which is used by several metro Atlanta police departments. They plan to visit several other ranges before deciding what type of design will work best.

The range would also be used by surrounding departments.

"I think you have to have a balance for both types of ranges. There's a lot of things you can do in the outdoor ranges that you can't do in the indoor ranges," said Red Bank Police Chief Tim Christol, who previously worked in the Knoxville area, which has a partially covered range. "You can pretty much set up any environment you want."

One of the limitations he said is when officers go through a combat course in which they must run and work through scenarios with guns drawn.

"In the indoor range it's more difficult because you're typically dealing with a slick concrete floor. There's also limitations on distance and height," he said.

A new indoor range will also allow for target practice as well as feature scenarios in what is known in law enforcement circles as a Hogan's Alley -- a training exercise in which officers must identify suspects or civilians before shooting. Blue-light strobes can also be turned on at the range mimicking blue lights on a patrol car, allowing officers to practice shooting as if they had to respond during a call.

"It would be the best way to go. It would be an ideal situation for firearms training," Dodd said. "If you fail to properly qualify or meet your certification standards and you have a bad shooting or a shooting that's questionable, it could cost you 10 times that in a jury verdict than if you had properly trained and qualified your officers."

But an indoor facility wouldn't work for the Chattanooga police bomb squad, which also uses the outdoor range for practice. Once the Moccasin Bend site reverts to the National Park Service, the squad must travel to another location, such as the practice grounds in Catoosa County, for disposals and training.

"We'll still have to have a place to detonate those things," said Dodd, noting that the specialty unit disposes of about 2,000 pounds of explosives ranging from crystallized dynamite to war relics each year.

It's also possible the bomb unit can use city property on Amnicola Highway, Littlefield said.

"We can do things out there. The problem is the noise factor. We have residents downtown now," he said, recalling when visitors from China watched a police bomb-disposal demonstration at the Moccasin Bend range. The explosions' booms echoed downtown.

"They were impressing the Chinese and they impressed us all," Littlefield said.

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