tampabay.com

Training ground

Guns blaze as paper-target bad guys pop out of nowhere. That helps those who train at the Walter J. Heinrich Practical Training Site prepare for all threat levels.

By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published April 28, 2006


Down County Road 39, past sleepy Florida farmland and an out-of-business feed store, stands a sign that says DO NOT CROSS BERM.

Behind that sign are lots of men and women firing lots of guns.

"It gets pretty loud," said Roland Corrales, a sheriff's deputy who works here, as he passed out ear protectors.

Officially called the Walter J. Heinrich Practical Training Site, this is police playland.

From 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, up to 400 law enforcement officers from as many as 85 agencies show up here to shoot targets, detonate bombs and raid a Boeing 727 parked on a strip of concrete in the corner of the complex in Lithia.

There is an obstacle course, a 6-acre driving pad, eight gun ranges, a "shoot-house" and something called Pete's Dragon on the 200-acre property. An alligator named Big Boy - legend has him at 16 feet - patrols the nearby pond.

And despite the noise from the midday detonations, which have been known to rattle items from the walls of neighboring homes, this place in the woods of eastern Hillsborough County is something of a secret.

"Nobody knows this is out here," said Sgt. Bobby King during a tour.

The first range - a fraction of what exists today - opened in 1984 and was used by Hillsborough deputies. As it expanded, other agencies paid to use it. Now it's not unusual to find agents from the Coast Guard to the FBI to the Largo Police Department here for training.

"This facility is really the crown jewel of our training program," Maj. Jim Previtera said recently in his Falkenberg Road office. "There are a lot of people who would love to have what we have down there."

Hang out for a few hours, and it's easy to get the sense that the men and women here really like shooting things.

Officers raid the mazelike rooms of the "shoot house," weapons drawn, checking for paper targets depicting bad guys.

They line up inside a dark, Port-A-Cooled building and fire until their magazines are empty.

They move through a course - think jumping chain-link fences and ducking behind mailboxes - where an instructor triggers targets to turn.

Sometimes, the targets are holding pictures of cameras or soda bottles rather than guns. "They give us as close to a live experience as possible," said Brian Davis, a deputy with the canine unit who was training a few weeks ago. "I've been doing this for 20 years, and they make it more realistic every time."

Acts of civil disobedience during the 1960s and 1970s forced law enforcement organizations to learn to handle large crowds.

As crack emerged in the 1980s, officers learned to deal with volatile people who could exude great strength. The school shootings of the 1990s sent police into schools for training.

Now?

Inside the Boeing 727, every day is Sept. 11.

The effect of the training is measured not in the number of criminals shot in the streets, but the number of times a shooting is avoided.

In 2004, Hillsborough deputies fired their weapons in the line of duty 19 times, which includes accidental discharges and shots toward animals, according to spokeswoman Debbie Carter. In 2005, they fired 12 times.

That's in an increasingly crowded county that more than a million people call home.

"Every time a deputy unholsters his or her weapon and no shots are fired, we consider that success," Previtera said.

Even the FBI's highly regarded Hostage Rescue Team, which handles terrorist incidents in the United States, is talking to the Sheriff's Office about using the complex, Previtera said.

They're particularly interested in the airplane. It's one of two police tactical training planes in the United States.

The Sheriff's Office has leased an adjacent plot and is talking about building a faux city to use for tactical training: Terror Town, USA.

It's years away, but Previtera's eyes get big when he talks about it.

It would feature a bank, perhaps, and a gas station.

Maybe a structure that could be fully engulfed in flames.

And lot of targets.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 813 661-2443.