Gun range

Newark Police officers train at the firing range near New Castle. The department wants to build its own range because of overcrowding there.

The Newark Police Department and the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office are in talks to partner to build a $4.7 million indoor firearms training range.

Under the proposed deal, first made public last week, CCSO would acquire a property in Cecil County, Md., and lease it to NPD for a nominal fee. The two agencies would share the cost of construction and be full partners in operating the 13,000-square-foot facility, which would have 10 firing lanes as well as classroom space.

Coming on the heels of Newark’s failed proposal to build a firing range near Delaware City, the plan is intended to address what both agencies describe as a critical shortage of range availability that affects the quality of training for officers.

Officials did not disclose where the range will be built, though an NPD representative said it will be “very, very close to the city of Newark.”

CCSO Maj. George Stanko said there are a couple possible locations under consideration, but, because the proposed shooting range is still in the “discussion phase,” he declined to specify those spots.

“It would have to be on land that the county already owns to make it possible. We’re looking at county properties. We’re not looking at private properties,” Stanko said, explaining that it would be too costly to purchase property as part of the proposed shooting range project. “Right now, we’re like children in the woods, looking for a place to go.”

Newark Mayor Jerry Clifton said that while there are still a number of issues to be worked out – not the least of which is how the agencies will pay for the project –moving forward needs to be a priority.

“Both sides know this is a critical issue, but we’re looking at creative ways of financing it,” Clifton said. “We can’t say that substandard training is OK. We just can’t say that.”

Lack of range time creates liability concern

Sgt. Chris Jones, a Newark Police firearms instructor, said the range would solve a problem NPD has struggled with for years: a lack of range time.

NPD needs approximately 55 days at the gun range each year to meet the minimum standard for firearms-related training, including ongoing training for each officer, twice-monthly SWAT team training, monthly sniper/observer training and other functions like citizens police academy demonstrations and open-range days for off-duty officers.

Currently, NPD shares a gun range on National Guard property near New Castle with nearly 2,500 officers from 17 other police agencies, making it difficult to schedule enough time there as larger police agencies take precedence. Complicating the issue is the fact that the range is located along the Delaware River and, as a precaution, shooting has to be stopped every time a boat passes by.

When the National Guard range is unavailable, NPD has to pay to rent time at ranges in Pennsylvania, some of which add more than two hours of travel time to a training day.

The lack of range time means NPD is giving its officers the minimum required firearms training but is not able to go above and beyond that or offer personalized training catered to an officer’s strengths and weaknesses. He referred to it as “training to the lowest common denominator.”

“Having a facility of our own where we can totally change that dynamic would give us the ability to take one or two people at a time, train them to their strengths, push them in those areas and if there’s weaknesses, focus on those weaknesses and get rid of those because you’ve addressed what the weakness is and you’ve offered them drills and exercises to correct those weaknesses,” Jones said. “Now they have strengths and you can start bringing everybody up.”

Jones framed the issue as one of liability, noting that if there is a police-involved shooting, NPD’s lack of additional training could be used against the department in a civil lawsuit.

“If you look across the country in the last three years at firearms-related lawsuits with police departments, some of the highest numbers come from the fact of failing to train,” he said.

He noted that other police departments have been sued for not training their officers with moving targets, something that NPD does not do either.

“Officers are always going to be under the binoculars of everybody, certainly the attorneys who are going to Monday morning quarterback what they do. Are we providing them the training that they can protect themselves and we can protect ourselves as an organization, should, God forbid, something happen?” Jones said. “These low-frequency, high-liability incidents are the ones that can really wreak havoc and create huge issues, liability and financially, for you.”

CCSO faces similar challenges

Stanko is quite familiar with the shooting range problems that Newark faces because he served with NPD from 1987 to 2015, when he left at the rank of lieutenant to join CCSO.

With approximately 200 deputies who must qualify annually at the shooting range, CCSO has the same issue scheduling range time, according to Stanko, who emphasized that the proposed shooting range partnership with NPD would fix it.

For several years, CCSO had been sending its deputies to an outdoor shooting range operated by the Aberdeen Police Department in neighboring Harford County. However, that range closed recently, and the officers now use a range at Elk Neck State Park.

If CCSO and NPD partnered on the proposed around-the-clock indoor shooting range, those agencies could schedule their deputies and officers whenever deemed necessary. More time on the shooting range would increase proficiency, according to Stanko.

“Two days a year is the minimum requirement, but we want to exceed that minimum requirement. The biggest problem I see is we do the bare minimum now because training days are limited, so that’s all we are able to do,” Stanko said.

He continued, “Does an NBA basketball player practice shooting baskets twice a year? No, he practices shooting baskets every day. It’s all muscle memory, so the more you train, the more proficient you become. It increases proficiency and safety.”

The proposed shooting range also would make scheduling easier regarding the required “night firing” session, according to Stanko, who explained that lights at that facility simply would be turned off during that segment of the required training, regardless of whether it is day or night.

Proposal is NPD’s second attempt

Jones’ proposal is NPD’s second firing range proposal in as many years.

Last fall, the department pitched a plan to partner with the Delaware City Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration to build an outdoor range north of Delaware City. The facility would have cost $1.2 million, with Newark paying $700,000 of that.

However, the proposal began to unravel – “in dramatic fashion,” as Jones described it last week – after NPD went public with the plan.

NPD had been discussing the idea with Delaware City Police Chief David Baylor and Delaware City Manager Carol Houck, who previously served as Newark’s city manager. However, the proposal apparently surprised local state legislators and the Delaware City mayor, who later said he first learned of the plan via a newspaper article. The officials expressed concern about the effect noise from the range would have on nearby homes, and Newark agreed not to move forward.

This time, NPD decided to pursue an indoor range, which is significantly more expensive but doesn’t create the same noise concerns.

“We’re not in Montana; were not in Utah and Wyoming,” Jones said. “Really, the only feasible option for us locally would be an indoor range. The problem is that costs a whole lot more money than an outdoor range.”

Cost an issue for both agencies

Speaking during the police department’s annual budget presentation to city council, Jones acknowledged that a firing range won’t come cheap.

Still, he argued that the benefits justify the price tag and pointed out that the cost would be partially offset by not having to rent range time from other agencies.

The yearly costs of operating the range would be covered by renting the facility to other police agencies during times at which NPD and CCSO are not using it.

NPD Chief Paul Tiernan said the department has $500,000 in drug seizure money that could be put toward the project. Beyond that, though, city officials are still trying to figure out how to come up with the rest of the money.

“The big takeaway is to try to figure out some funding options and bring them to council,” City Manager Tom Coleman said.

Clifton said one option under discussion is using money from the city’s reserve fund.

CCSO Chief Deputy Gerald Widdoes said the proposed shooting range “will last 30 or 40 years,” ample time to “spread out the costs” and possibly even generate revenue through rental fees if such an option is considered.

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