As night falls, 16 deputies and I walk in a military-style formation for almost a mile, the only sound our boots on the wet ground and crickets. Suddenly, the silence is split by the sound of .223 caliber rifles and handguns.
The gunfire is the beginning of a woodland operations training with the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, held at New Riverside Ochre in Emerson.
Setting up a mock scenario involving escaped inmates, BCSO Capt. Mike Shinall explains to participants the goals of the training, which required deputies and investigators to operate in darkness.
Shinall said low-light situations are an area where the department has not trained as extensively, and the lack of instruction had been evident in previous sessions.
Our four-hour course was no different.
In the first routine, one team establishes two snipers and a perimeter above a mine pit while another team approaches numerous targets lit only by small glow sticks.
There are varying reports of the number of times each target is struck, and the difficulty of the exercise is evident when my team member fires on two targets, striking one several times but missing the other entirely.
Although Shinall assures me the snipers are “shooting out ahead of you,” being surrounded by live fire at night raises questions about the level of trust officers have for each other.
As my team member, patrol deputy Brent Watkins, explained, “Out there on the streets, all we have is each other.”
I became even more uneasy when the three teams — contact, rescue and evacuation — entered the pit at once, with all 16 officers firing simultaneously. The idea behind the move is to push the initial team farther toward the threat, with each team addressing targets at certain points inside the hole.
The final team exercise had the officers again in the staggered column formation inside the pit, which Shinall used to allow for 360-degree shooting. The men file in and advance on targets based on their position in the formation.
Finally, the instructors establish an individual test to allow the officer to fire at five targets positioned in a circle around the person. Investigator Jonathan White and Sgt. Richey Harrell then quickly call out target numbers where the officer is to fire.
Standing in the darkness and looking at five targets barely visible in the night, I see just how difficult it would be to determine the level of threat a suspect poses in the dark. I plant my feet and begin firing as Harrell shouts numbers, becoming confused once, and hoping that in the blackness I am actually hitting the targets — the muzzle flash doesn’t provide enough light to tell.
The exercise, part of a series on woodland operations, is essential for a department that operates 24 hours a day, Shinall said.
“When do half of deputies work? At night.”