Gun range shootings accounted for 3 police shootings in past year

Irving Police Officer Graham Smith
Irving Police Officer Graham Smith

 


Irving police officer Graham Smith, a 25-year veteran, was helping lead a training session at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport’s shooting range when he got shot — by a fellow officer.

That day — Sept. 8, 2015 — Smith, then 44, was injured after a piece of a bullet ricocheted off a target and struck him in the arm. The Irving Police Department quickly released Smith’s name.

Irving police were also compelled to report the shooting to the Texas attorney general under a 2015 state law pertaining to all officer-involved shootings. But most of the details of the case — including the name of the officer who fired that shot — remain hidden, revealing the tight hold officials retain over such incidents.

Since Sept. 1, 2015, when the state required the new reports, Texas law enforcement shot at least 169 people, 20 percent of whom were unarmed.  Smith was one of the unarmed described in the reports.

The Irving shooting was one of three accidental shootings involving police officers that occurred at shooting ranges over the past year, the reports show.

An officer in Flower Mound, just outside of Dallas, was suspended for a day after that agency determined she violated policies May 25 by failing to discharge her firearm before entering the cleaning area, where she accidentally discharged her weapon and sent fragments of a bullet into another officer’s leg and foot. A Plano police officer received a three-day suspension after he also failed to properly clear his pistol in September 2015 and accidentally shot into the ground, injuring another officer with shrapnel.

In a different case of accidental injuries not involving a gun range, a police officer in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs missed while firing a shotgun at an aggressive pit bull in September 2015. The buckshot struck a tile floor, sending shrapnel flying into one animal control officer’s leg and another animal control officer’s chin. No disciplinary action was taken.

Texas’ new law requires law enforcement to file only rudimentary details on officer-involved shootings, such as date, location and basic circumstances of the case, whether the incident ended in death or injury, and demographic facts about the officer and the person who was shot — but no names.

The Irving incident took place during a training session for the Special Weapons and Tactics – or SWAT. Smith, a senior operator on entry, has been on the SWAT team since 2001 and serves as vice president of the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association board declined comment. The association’s president, Robert Flores, described Smith as “great officer” who is “respected by officers throughout the state.”

“We try to minimize and make sure accidents like that don’t happen,” said Flores,  a commander with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. “We have an excellent track record. But No matter what you put in place, sometimes there are still accidents.”

Shielded from the public by “No Trespassing” signs and thick foliage, the range lies 10 miles from Irving police headquarters, near the middle of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport’s sprawling 17,207-acre property.

Smith was standing next to a fellow Irving officer, who was aiming a handgun at a steel target about 15-yards away when something went wrong. A small dimple in the metal plate caused a ricochet-effect and Smith was shot in the arm. Or as the department news releases said: “Fragments from a discharged round ricocheted and struck the officer in the hand, then traveled up his arm.”

His SWAT team peers gave Smith first aid and he was taken to a nearby hospital. A department spokesman said his injuries were superficial wounds from shrapnel and “weren’t serious.”

Lt. Michael Coleman, who retired in September, filed the one-page report with the Texas Attorney General’s office 37 days later. State law requires reports to be filed within 30 days of a shooting, though the requirement is unenforced. Only minimal information on the officer who shot Smith was included: A 38-year-old Hispanic male who was on-duty at the time.

Irving Police Department’s use of force policy states officers should note significant events and be aware that “subsequent reports are subject to the Texas Open Records Act. Reports relating to the criminal investigation are normally considered ‘open records’ upon presentation to the Grand Jury.”But, Moore said, Smith’s case was unique and was never presented to a grand jury.

“It didn’t fit any traditional notion of an ‘officer-involved shooting’ – it was just a freak training accident,” Moore wrote in an email. “However, we are required to report to the Attorney General’s office any time any person is injured by an officer’s gunfire.”

Les Moore, the Irving Police Department’s legal adviser, said an internal affairs investigation was conducted, but no violations were found.

“It didn’t fit any traditional notion of an ‘officer-involved shooting’ — it was just a freak training accident,” Moore wrote in an email.

Many SWAT teams follow recommendations set by the National Tactical Officers Association, which suggest 16 to 40 hours of training monthly and an additional 40 hours annually. Comparatively, all Texas peace officers must complete at least 40 hours of continuing education every two years.

Flores said with that much time on the range, there is more potential for something to go wrong.

Experts prefer the metal targets to paper ones in assessing a shooter’s accuracy, even though they are more expensive. After sustaining multiple shots, the metal targets can get dimpled and then must be replaced or repainted. While a working target deflects a projectile, a dimpled target like the one Irving’s officers were using can cause pieces of the bullet to ricochet.

It’s up to rangemasters and firearms instructors to inspect the steel targets.

Rangemaster Richard Barreda, who oversees the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport facility, declined to comment and referred questions to spokesman David Magana. Magana refused to comment on the incident or say whether any changes in procedure on the range or within the department came as a result of the shooting.
“We would prefer not to publicly discuss the range,” he said via email.

It’s unknown how common injuries like Smith’s are at gun ranges. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 16,000 people were injured by unintentional firearm gunshots anywhere in the country in 2014, and less than 200,000 people sustained injuries from unintentional firearm gunshots between 2004 and 2014.

Smith’s shooting did not have to be reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration because is not a federal or private employee. Nor will a lawsuit be pending, as Texas law shields sport-shooting ranges from lawsuit so long as the range operates in line with industry standards.

“Millions of people go to ranges across the country,” said National Shooting Sports Foundation Spokesman Mike Bazinet, “and accidents are very rare.”

This project is sponsored by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. A version of this story ran in the Austin American-Statesman Oct. 3, 2016.  Another version of this story ran in the Houston Chronicle Oct. 10, 2016



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