The Faulkner County Metro S.W.A.T. team held its weekly practice on Wednesday at an unoccupied commercial structure downtown, and shot a local journalist several times with paint bullets.
In fairness, the journalist was shooting back.
The exercise on Wednesday presented S.W.A.T. with a worst-case scenario: an active shooter somewhere inside an office or school. The team uses volunteers to play the role of the shooter, and it’s best if the volunteer is not a law enforcement officer. Preferably, it would be someone who isn’t familiar with tactical procedure — someone who will be realistically stressed out, unpredictable and with no idea what’s going on through the exercise. That would be me.
The paint marking rounds, made by General Dynamics and marketed as Simunition, are a training tool Metro S.W.A.T. has used for years. The weapons that fire this ammunition are modified versions of the firearms used by local police — AR-15 carbines and Glock handguns. Unlike a paintball marker or an Airsoft toy gun, the Simunition projectile is propelled by a small gunpowder charge which also cycles the weapon’s action just as a “real” round would.
I was given a Glock handgun loaded with nine Simunition rounds Wednesday, and I was told to try and use them. This is not a toy gun. It feels to the hand just like a police-issue Glock model 17, because it is. Same heft, same trigger, same everything save for the barrel and the blue color of the polymer frame. Pointing this thing at a human being and pulling the trigger is acting against a number of this maniac shooter’s internal safeguards, but not everyone has these and for the purposes of the exercise it’s important that I don’t either. I thumb the rounds out of the magazine to assure myself that they’re all bright orange plastic on the end and load them back. Deep breath, go out into the array of hallways and rooms, and S.W.A.T. will be along to collect me in a few minutes.
Holed up in a room and confronted with near-total silence and a brooding sense of impending doom, I imagined the S.W.A.T. team creeping silently through the half-lit building’s many rooms toward me. This was freaking me out miserably. A peek out the door and down the hall, and there they are. The silence is over. I’m being yelled at to drop the gun and get on the ground.
I yelled at them to stay back, to go away. Does this doorframe count as cover or merely concealment? Where are the rest of the team members?
“I’ve gone crazy. I’ll shoot everybody.”
“Drop the weapon and get on the ground!”
“I’m telling you, I’m totally crazy.”
I’m not sure what to do. A reasonable person surrenders at this point. I have instructions to the contrary. I’m sweating — a lot.
“I have demands. I want a helicopter on the roof and a million in cash. And A.J. Gary’s car.”
I was about to yell that there would be no surrendering until somebody builds a patio in my backyard with one of those bricked-in barbecues — a nice one, but not too expensive — but there was movement to my left. There’s a man in the dark little room adjoining my Alamo; there’s a door that I never noticed was there. This would be the shooting part of the exercise.
I start to turn to face the threat and place my finger on the trigger, at which point it’s all boom and ouch. It’s a good shot, leaving a splash of greasy orange paint on my side just below the shoulder — right in the kill zone. That’s me neutralized, then.
I insist to approaching team members that I am dead, but my carcass was rudely “handcuffed” anyway. For the next several minutes S.W.A.T. cleared the rest of the building.
The team met and was briefed on the things that went well in my room and every other one and the things that could have been done better. Their positions relative to doors or hallways as they made their way could have been improved at some points, they are told, and other small points are addressed. They train like this to stay sharp and up-to-date on tactical procedure, and from my end of things they seem to be doing pretty well with it.
For the second go-round I figure I’ll be a more active maniac. I hole up in a different room at the intersection of two hallways and wait. When I hear the faint rustle of nylon coming down the hall I count to 20 and decide it’s time to skin the smoke wagon. There’s a brief exchange of gunfire as I cross the hallway and trot down the other. I had fired two half-aimed shots that I’m sure didn’t hit anything but might have come close, but I’d covered the gap quickly enough that the paint bullets headed my way decorated the wall behind me.
I half-expected the guys I’d just shot at to chase after me — and if we were all just playing around they might have — but they’re not in the business of running around like lunatics and taking pot shots. That’s my department.
Terrified, I ducked into another room. I heard team members yell out which direction they’d seen me run, and then more eerie silence. I move across another hallway, taking a couple more wild shots at crouched team members about 20 yards away. Long story short, my tactical know-how quickly gets me painted into a corner with no option but to make what I hope will be a convincing Tony Montanna-styled last stand. During another lengthy period of stress and silence, the presence of a couple empty soda cans on a table a few yards away proves irresistible. Against cans, I am battle-proven. This leaves me with two rounds, which I have to say I did all right with, but when it was all said and done it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d had 50. I’m told that the paint washes right out. I hope so, because I’m left with an awful lot if it to deal with.
The response to the chaos of the “worst-case” scenario on Wednesday was methodical and coordinated, measured and calculated. There is a system to it, and this kind of training is meant to continually improve it. What answer could a deranged gunman have for this approach to the problem they created if he or she would not be taken alive? In my experience, a very brief one.