Top cops

by Yolanda Corduff

All police officers have to qualify in the use of firearms but few go on to specialise in this area. Those that do may be the finest shots in the country and generally work in the field of special tactics and operations, arguably one of the most dangerous yet exciting areas of policing. Their work necessitates not only the ability to shoot exceedingly well but also to do so in a range of weather conditions, locations, at short notice and from a cold rifle barrel. Australian Shooter explores the world of police marksmen.

Friday July 3, 2004 was another beautiful sunny day in Sydney - unusually warm for a midwinter day, with little wind and a seemingly perfect weekend ahead.

It was the kind of day you’d think there wasn’t a care in the world, and for most people, that was true. But for NSW Police Tactical Operations Unit, also known as the TOU - part of the State Protection Group - it was to be the beginning of a long day indeed. They would be called in to help end a siege in Banksia, a southern suburb in Australia’s biggest metropolis.

The police arrived at the house about 10am, to execute a search warrant and make inquiries regarding the suspicious death the day before of the occupant’s girlfriend. However, 23-year-old Nathan Mazurani, who neighbours described as ‘quiet’ and ‘amicable’, greeted police with a hail of bullets, letting off about 12 random shots from his illegal handgun.

Police retreated to a safe distance and called for support from the State Protection Group, who are properly trained to contain situations where an armed offender poses a threat.

This siege would last 34 hours, during which the TOU stood ready to act while negotiators spent two days trying to diffuse the situation. However, Mazurani would not give himself up and broke off all contact with police negotiators on the Saturday afternoon, taking his own life later that day.

While sieges, such as this are relatively rare occurrences in Australia, each state and territory has their own police units specifically trained in this area, including the kind of extensive firearms training that can turn a reasonably good shot into a police marksman.

“In NSW, we have the Tactical Operations Unit and each state has a similar unit in operation, all with varying names,” explains Inspector Stephen McGilchrist of the NSW Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal Unit - a man with more than 15 years’ experience in the police service. “Our TOU’s charter is to resolve high-risk situations. It’s a specialist unit of about 60 people and identical to what most people would perceive as a SWAT team. In Victoria they’re called the Special Operations Group (SOG), in South Australia it’s the STAR Group, Special Tactics and Rescue, and in WA and NT they’re known as the Tactical Response Group (TRG).”

Whatever name they go by, these teams are basically tactical operations police officers that resolve counter-terrorist and other high-risk situations, such as sieges where the offenders are armed with knives or rifles. When a situation is deemed a higher risk than uniformed police are equipped to deal with, in NSW, it’s the Tactical Operations Unit that’s called in.

TOU personnel undertake a number of activities, including uniformed patrols in high crime locations. However, it is in the area of armed offender ‘containment’ that their skills in firearms may be called on. Though the term ‘police sniper’ implies strong similarities with military snipers, their agenda is very different, as McGilchrist explains.

“A military sniper is there to kill or perform ‘anti-material’ shooting,” he says, adding that military snipers can often do more damage on a radar system with one bullet than can be done with indiscriminate aerial bombing. “So army snipers are there to do what they have to do, whether that’s kill people or anti-material shooting. A police marksman, on the other hand, has to resolve a situation.”

However, the only way a police marksman can shoot someone in an attempt to resolve the situation is if there’s an immediate threat to the lives of others, be they hostages, police officers, innocent bystanders or even the suspect himself.

“But there are other differences too, in terms of how police and military snipers operate,” says McGilchrist, noting a military sniper has all day to set himself up, to think about what he has to achieve and to know basically what direction his target is going to come from. “A police marksman, on the other hand, has to make an almost instant call based on how a situation can develop. It’s not like shooting people through windows when their head appears, as is so often portrayed on television and in the movies. If people start shooting or people are being killed inside, the marksman has to make a decision to terminate the situation as quickly as he can.”

Clearly, for the police marksman, his main priority is to diffuse the situation, not to gain a good head count. It’s all about containing the problem.

The use of a police marksman, particularly in the role of sniper, is always necessary when lives are at immediate risk. Very few people however, have ever been shot by police marksmen, even though these marksmen clearly have the skills and training to do just that, when there are absolutely no other options available.

However, the work of the elite police marksman is seemingly shrouded in mystery, often to protect the individuals involved but also because it’s a difficult area of policing to discuss openly.

“I think very little is known about police marksmen, even in general policing,” admits McGilchrist. “There are misconceptions out there, mostly based on what people have seen on TV and at the movies. People expect police marksmen to be able to shoot at anything, any time, like you see in Lethal Weapon, which no-one can actually do, not even national-grade shooters.

“The reality of their job is very different. For the police marksmen, they experience very little action interspaced with long periods of training and boredom. There’s paperwork no matter where you go in the police service. Even with the ammunition they use, it has to be recorded. Every cartridge must be accounted for - it goes towards monitoring the barrel life of their firearms as well as determining maintenance schedules, like when to clean their firearms.

“So it’s not just a matter of going to the range and shooting all day. There are a lot of parameters they have to reach and they all put each other under a lot of pressure. There’s certainly a higher level of camaraderie in the TOU but also a lot of the documentation you associate with other policing roles.”

Documenting the training is even more important, should a police marksman be involved in a fatal shooting. All the evidence of their training is then likely to be brought before the coroner, to ensure that the man involved had received the appropriate training, that he was proficient in the use of his firearm and that his performance was monitored appropriately.

“Everything that police marksmen do is open to scrutiny that becomes even more intense whenever there’s a fatality,” says McGilchrist, admitting that while fatal shootings are exceedingly rare, the need to have all necessary documentation in order is of utmost importance at all times.

In NSW, the police marksmen are required to train on at least a monthly basis, often more regularly than that, as well as travelling to New Zealand and Western Australia to train with other tactical police teams and to receive tuition from specialist military units.

While training is the backbone of the TOU, it also helps to select personnel who have certain characteristics, which will serve them well in this line of work.

“A steady nature in general is the main trait required,” says McGilchrist, adding, “You’ve got to be patient, fairly precise and have a certain level of calmness. To be good at shooting, a lot of it is about being able to control your breathing and just being relaxed when you do it.

“But, it’s also about staying calm when things around you are getting very hectic. Under stressful situations, like those facing police marksmen, you have to be able to calm yourself down and concentrate on what you need to do with your shooting - to make sure your shot is well-placed. It’s almost like having the ability to meditate without meditating but still staying alert.

“That’s the main characteristic we look for in good marksmen because you can train anyone to shoot well. We need people who can shoot well in the situations they’re likely to be placed in, who can keep a calm head and be consistent in their shooting.

Good eyesight is also important, obviously, and being prepared to undertake the level of training that will ensure they can shoot well. But, they have to be interested in the line of work to begin with, because all police marksmen are volunteers, no one gets seconded into that section of the police service.

“They have to volunteer as this ensures the people we get have a certain level of interest and enthusiasm for that particular role and will take pride in their firearms,” explains McGilchrist, noting the lack of police markswomen is due to the fact that none have volunteered to work in this area. “Police marksmen don’t look at their firearms merely as tools; they tend to take a great deal of interest in the performance and in understanding their firearms.”

In NSW, police marksmen use a Remington 700 platform in 7.62 calibre (.308 Winchester) with actions that are between 20 and 30 years old - but have recently undergone a rebuild. Every three-to-five years barrels are examined using specific gauging and instruments, and the actions are rebuilt.

“This is the third major rebuild since I was in the unit,” says McGilchrist. “We use the same action but we re-barrel on a regular basis. We’ve also restocked them and re-scoped them so the Remington 700s are in a very different configuration than they were 15 years ago.”

While the equipment always has to be up to scratch, the human factor cannot be underestimated. For example, it’s only when you compare the shooting accuracy of police marksmen to other police and even to Olympic rifle shooters that you get a real feel for what a specialist field it is.

The average police officer has a level of marksmanship based purely on defensive shooting, which is also why they carry handguns rather than rifles, as handguns are considered a defensive weapon.

An Olympic rifle shooter is trying to get the tightest group of shots together on his target and he’s in a very different operating scenario. All the stress Olympic shooters are under is self-induced because they’re competing.

It is very different shooting in an operational environment.

“Our guys have set criteria to meet in relation to their marksmanship,” says McGilchrist. “To become a police marksman and stay qualified in that field you must be able to consistently hit a target at 100 metres within a specified diameter - with your first cold shot. When they go to the range, there is a specific target that’s put out and the first shot from their rifle must fall within that criteria.

“One other thing about marksmanship, everyone tends to think about the need to shoot accurately over long distances, however, that’s not how it works in real life. In America during the past 20 years, the longest police marksman shot taken against an offender was 72 yards, which is not that far. Most police situations are resolved within 200 metres. It’s very rare that a perimeter would be more than 200 metres away, except perhaps in a country location. With police marksmanship, we’re not training people to shoot apples at 1000 metres, we’re training them to shoot realistically up to about 300 metres.”

Sadly, police marksmen have little opportunity to compare their level of skill with others. They tend not to enter shooting competitions or even discuss their shooting with outsiders. Some participate in sport shooting activities, like the competition shooting events held at the Australian and New Zealand Police and Emergency Services Games (see information box right) but not in an official capacity and not as part of their normal police training.

There are few times in life when it’s enough to just know you’re the best, without public accolades or the opportunity to rank yourself against others of similar skill. But perhaps one of those times is at the end of a 34-hour siege when, as one of the police marksman on duty, you can walk away knowing you’ve saved lives - at least for that day.