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Straight Shooters : SWAT team rifle experts show off skills in a setting where success <i> doesn’t </i> mean the difference between life and death

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a quarter, Costa Mesa Police Officer Darell Freeman barely covered the cluster of four bullet holes he’d just put into the forehead of his target: a life-size photograph of a kidnaper 100 yards away. He was disappointed.

“Everything’s quarters. No dimes today,” he grumbled. “That’s average. You want to be shooting dimes.”

Call them the gang that could shoot straight: 150 SWAT team sharpshooters from around the state who met Monday for a yearly competition sponsored by the Fullerton Police Department. Dubbed “Group Therapy,” the get-together at an Azusa shooting range is both a friendly contest and serious training for police sharpshooters who might never fire their weapons for real in their careers but nevertheless measure life and death by the width of a nose.

“If you mess up and shoot the wrong person--I can’t think how horrible that would be,” said Officer Eric Bianchi, an Irvine Police Department drug educator who is also one of four sharpshooters on the city’s SWAT team.

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Officer Chuck Wright, a Huntington Beach sharpshooter, wounded a gunman from a rooftop two years ago as the man took aim at Wright’s SWAT partner. Later, Wright and two other SWAT team members shot the man dead after a nightlong siege.

“You have to go through the actual training,” Wright said, gesturing toward paper targets a football field away. “You have to look at what you have now and think about it as an actual situation.”

Neal Baldwin, a Fullerton police sergeant, founded the event 11 years ago, as police departments around Southern California were creating SWAT teams in preparation for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He named it “Group Therapy” as a pun, playing on the target shooter’s goal to “group” shots close together.

“I thought it would be neat to have something like an Olympic event for police shooters,” Baldwin said.

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The event grew from about 10 teams the first year to 40 agencies from around the state in Monday’s competition. A dozen of those were from Orange County, including a Buena Park team that went on to win even though its best shooter was sidelined with a back injury.

Baldwin played referee and teacher, putting the officers through a battery of shooting exercises meant to resemble real life. The “cold-shot” round--a single shot without practice--was a critical test since most sharpshooters will get only one try and no warm-up. Several shooters scored bull’s-eyes and most were within an inch. In another event, contestants ran 100 yards to their rifles, a test of their ability to relax in a hurry.

In “poker,” shooters created their own poker hands by shooting at one-inch squares marked as playing cards, all 100 yards away. With this crew, you can forget about winning with only three of a kind.

“Basically, the worst shooter here is an A-plus shooter,” Baldwin said. “There’s no bad shooters here.”

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Many participants were decked out in black SWAT parachute pants and jackets, while others were outfitted in camouflage fatigues, complete with side arms and combat knives. SWAT team T-shirts were a gallery of gallows humor, such as the one with the skeleton figure and slogan, “We make house calls.”

In fact, though, sharpshooters are rarely deployed and almost never fire their finely tuned rifles, except in practice sessions several times a month. Most SWAT team members have other primary police duties--from motorcycle cop to detective--and are called out mainly when police plan to make a perilous arrest or search a home whose occupants are believed to be armed and dangerous.

There are exceptions. In Huntington Beach two years ago, sharpshooters killed a gunman who had killed an acquaintance and fired more than 150 shots at a police helicopter and officers during an all-night siege.

Wright, who had wounded the gunman early in the confrontation, said he and two other sharpshooters fired simultaneously from nearby rooftops when the man emerged from a fortified camper vehicle and appeared ready to shoot at approaching officers. All three shots hit him in the head.

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“You’re in this job, and you know that eventually you might have to do this,” said Wright, who most days rides on bicycle patrol.

For the most part, the sharpshooters’ minds were on less serious matters during the daylong competition. Between rounds, officers compared notes on their equipment and ribbed one another over missed shots that would be prize-winners elsewhere.

The Buena Park team was trying to make do without its top shooter, who had helped lead the department to victory in 1990 and 1991 and second place in 1992.

Buena Park Officer Jim Banks played down his confidence going into the last event--the poker game.

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“We have a certain amount of pride,” Banks said. “We’d like to (recapture) our title.”

The Buena Park team did. When the gun smoke cleared, Banks and partner Mike Jones had narrowly edged out teams from Riverside and San Diego. Another two-man team from Buena Park came in fifth.

Target Competition

SWAT team sharpshooters from police agencies around the state participated in a competition Monday in Azusa. Each of the two-shooter teams fired about 90 times.

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Program: Seven events, shooting from a variety of positions

Distance: 100 yards

Targets: Bull’s-eye; human silhouette; life-size photo of make-believe kidnaper with hostage

Size: Bull’s-eye on most targets the size of a nickel; shots nearer center score more

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Most important round: Unpracticed “cold shot”

Separate prize: Winning hand of “poker,” in which shooters create poker hands by hitting tiny squares marked as playing cards

Winner: Buena Park Police Department

Source: Fullerton Police Sgt. Neal Baldwin; researched by KEN ELLINGWOOD / Los Angeles Times

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