Police Snipers Get Only One Chance to Be on the Mark

Associated Press

Chuck Foster is part of an elite group, prepared to kill with surgical precision to save lives.

In police forces around the nation, marksmen like him are called snipers, sharpshooters or long riflemen. They are trained to "neutralize" a suspect with a single shot when negotiations fail and civilians or fellow officers are in imminent danger of being killed.

"You don't use deadly force unless it's in defense of yours or another's life," said Foster, who fired the shot that ended the San Ysidro McDonald's massacre--the worst single-day shooting by one man in the nation's history.

He remembers waiting that July afternoon in 1984, poised on a rooftop, peering at the gunman through the scope of his high-powered rifle.

Get a 'Good Bead'

"He was the only person moving. He had his Uzi with him," Foster said in a recent interview. "I was trying to get a good bead on him. I waited until he paused next to one of the bodies on the floor."

Foster's single shot smashed into the chest of James Oliver Huberty, ending a 77-minute blood bath that left 21 people dead and 20 others injured.

It was after earlier blood baths that police special weapons and tactics teams were first formed.

There were no SWAT teams or police snipers in 1965, when rooftop gunmen shot at civilians and authorities during the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

The next year, Charles Joseph Whitman, 25, horrified the nation when he picked off pedestrians from a tower at the University of Texas in Austin. By day's end, there were 16 dead and 31 wounded.

Rifles Not Effective

Austin police were equipped with outmoded hunting rifles that were not effective against Whitman, perched 231 feet above the campus. Officers finally stormed the tower and killed the gunman.

Later that year, the Los Angeles Police Department organized its SWAT team, one of the first in the nation.

"About all it was was a counter-sniper team," said Jeff Rogers, a Los Angeles SWAT platoon leader. "Most of the people selected for it were selected because they had their own high-power hunting rifles."

Twenty years later, the sniper is an integral part of special weapons teams around the nation, from the FBI's to the Austin Police Department's 12-man unit.

Snipers are typically competitive, high-achieving officers in their late 20s to early 40s. It's a young officer's game because agility is a requirement. But a sniper also must have about five years' experience before being considered for selection.

'Ultimate in Excitement'

"It's a good career move for some," said Michael R. Mantell, the San Diego Police Department's chief psychologist. "Some see it as a chance to engage in the ultimate in excitement in the police department."

With short, reddish-brown hair and freckles, Foster looks younger than his 29 years. A Green Beret who never saw combat, Foster is second in command of San Diego's 10-man rifle team. He's been a sniper for four years.

"It fell in line with my military skills, which I enjoy, and it offers a little more excitement," said Foster, who lives with his wife in the San Diego area. "I enjoyed rifle shooting ever since high school, so it seemed a logical progression."

Other snipers had little experience with weapons before joining their departments and still don't consider themselves gun enthusiasts.

"I work very hard on that while I'm on duty, but I don't consider that a sport for my own time," said Randy Fredrickson, 33, who has been a Los Angeles police sniper for three years.

Some Overly Aggressive

Some departments, including Los Angeles, would rather train their snipers from the beginning, and shy away from overly aggressive gun enthusiasts.

"The No. 1 qualities are maturity, good judgment and good physical condition," Rogers said. "We don't consider anyone who's been involved in an out-of-policy shooting. We don't consider anyone with a discipline problem."

While the nation's police snipers train regularly with sophisticated weapons, they seldom use their skill.

Collectively, however, police snipers make headlines across the nation.

In December, 1985, a police sniper in Cincinnati fired a single bullet that killed a 20-year-old heroin addict who held two teen-age brothers hostage during a 30-hour siege.

Took Woman Hostage

Last July in Carthage, Tex., a marksman ended an hourlong ordeal when he shot and killed a 19-year-old man who commandeered a bus and took a woman hostage.

A sniper's nightmare hit the front page in June: A Los Angeles County sheriff's sharpshooter accidentally shot and killed the manager of an exclusive jewelry store in Beverly Hills when a gunman tried to escape.

It was a tragic ending to a foiled bank robbery and standoff that began on June 23 and ended 13 1/2 hours later with three people dead. Requests to interview the marksman were denied, and the sheriff's office declined to comment on the incident at Van Cleef & Arpels store in Beverly Hills.

Experts sympathize with the marksman and a spotter who thought they were targeting Steven Livaditis, 22, but apparently acted on erroneous information.

'Hard to Live With'

"If the cop has to take a life to protect other lives, that's OK, although it's hard to live with," said criminologist James Fyfe, a nationally recognized expert in the use of deadly force. "If he takes the wrong life, probably out of circumstances out of his control, that's terrible."

Police snipers see themselves as a last-resort solution in deadly situations where a suspect might have to be killed in order to save innocent people.

"I try to disregard that I'm going to have to take a life," said Ken Kessner, 34, a Los Angeles police sniper for more than three years. "I have to react to save a life. What I try to keep in mind are the mechanics of the shooting. I try to act as coldly and calmly as you do on the range and let instincts take over."

Like Kessner, Los Angeles police sharpshooter Doug Reid, 31, said he is happy that he hasn't been required to take that deadly shot, but he's ready if the moment arises.

'Big Happy Ending'

"We all have family," said Reid, a sniper for three years. "What you're aiming for is that big happy ending."

After a fatal shooting, snipers, like other officers, have two basic reactions, said Mantell, the police psychologist. They may feel guilt and have flashbacks, difficulty sleeping and fear of retribution. Or they may live fairly comfortably with the idea that they have performed as trained.

Foster underwent debriefing and counseling before returning to work five days after he fatally shot Huberty.

"I didn't end up giving him much thought," Foster said. "He started the whole situation and that was the way to finish it. I thought about the 21 who died. It's a little hard to find pity for someone who'd done what Huberty did."

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