But some wonder whether simply having a sniper on the force makes a department more likely to use one. Who are these people? What sets them apart? 60 Minutes II Correspondent Jim Stewart reports.
At Thunder Ranch in Mountain Home, Texas, a multi-purpose gun school, veteran police officers learn in an intense five-day course the deadly specialty of being a sniper.
They learn how and when to fire a weapon with great precision from a great distance to take another life.
"The snipers are kind of like the Air Force," says Clint Smith, the course director. "They stand off a little bit. They get to hit stuff. They don't really kind of have to get dirty, and I don't mean that ugly. But there's a detachment from it a little bit."
You could call the snipers the cruise missile of police forces. But as Smith explains, "The problem with the cruise missile is it has no conscience. And what we need is someone who either has one or will assume the role of having one after they press the trigger."
The core of what Smith teaches his sniper is how to deal with a hostage situation. The central focus: how to take down the hostage taker.
Many police departments beefed up their SWAT teams in the 1980s and added more snipers for such difficult moments.
Thirteen-year veteran Steve Rodriguez was in place in Albuquerque, N.M., as police responded to an armed bank robbery in progress. Looking through the scope, Rodriguez could see someone with dark hair, sunglasses, in a suit, and holding a woman by the arm, he recalls.
Rodriguez's target was smaller than a softball. But Rodriguez managed to center the man in his sights and squeeze the rifle trigger.
He fired two times and missed. Rodriguez had failed to adjust his rifle scope, sending his bullets slamming into a concrete wall.
Rodriguez says he fired the third shot and hit the target at the top of his head, exactly where he had been aiming.
Was this a close call?
Rodriguez says that based on his training, skills and abilities, he could pull it off, but maybe not everyone could.
But should one person be in a position to make such a judgment?
One of Smith's first instructions to students is that there are shots that can't be made. He has a drill to illustrate how shooting at a moving gunman could mean death for a hostage.
In one Alabama incident, a hostage took a fatal sniper's bullet meant for her captor. Because of this and other mistakes, a police sniper is taught first to trust the negotiators to do their jobs. But sometimes there is no time.
"There's a famous phrase that you pray for peace and prepare for war," says Brett. "And I don't thnk that it's something that you're looking forward to. But you have to be prepared to, if you have to take a life."
The notion of preparing for war, however, bothers Gerald Galvin, chief of the Albuquerque Police Department. Recently SWAT teams and snipers have become increasingly popular even among small police departments.
"You get to carry an automatic weapon," Galvin says. "You get to put camouflage on. And it's some in some departments."
Indeed the snipers can look like a little army, dressed in black with Kevlar helmets and boots.
"That's really contradictory to what the mission of the police departments in this country are all about. We're policing our own people. We're not at war with our people," Galvin says.
Before Galvin took over, Albuquerque had been criticized for an unusally high number of police-involved shootings. Steve Rodriguez's career alone included five instances of shooting his weapon, involving the killing of four people. On one cold December night, he was told a baby's life was in danger; her father was threatening to toss her over the side of a bridge spanning the Rio Grand.
"And so we busted two roadblocks, diversions, to get people off the freeway," Rodriguez says. "I started running."
"I had about 65 pounds of personal gear on my body, with body armor, ammunition, things like that," he recalls. "Then I had about another 20, 25 pounds of rifle and bag."
Rodriguez ran half a mile through stalled traffic and took up position behind a parked police cruiser. He had no way to communicate with other officers. He just went on instinct.
By the time he arrived on the bridge, he thought things were falling apart. egotiations appeared to have failed. One officer was walking away. He pulled out his sniper rifle and looked through the scope and thought, "It's up to me; it's now or never."
"While the man was holding the baby over the edge of the precipice, there's nothing we can do," he explains. "Once he brings it back to our side of the bridge, if I can get a central nervous system hit, and he falls straight down,...then the baby will not fall over the edge."
He didn't see the man holding a weapon - just the baby over the edge, he says. Nor had anyone told him that the man had a weapon.
"It was about 90 seconds from the time I saw him till the time I fired the shot," Rodriguez says.
It was a direct hit. The man died instantly. The baby survived.
No one had told him it was not possible to talk this man off the bridge, according to Rodriguez. Nor was he told: We give up. You take the shot.
"The time was compressed far too much for that," he says.
The victim's family didn't think so and sued. But a jury eventually decided in Rodriguez's favor, concluding the shooting was justified.
Rodriguez never had a doubt that he did the right thing, he says.
At the time of that incident, the Albuquerque SWAT team had been averaging more than one death a year - far more than the rate in cities of a comparable size. When Galvin became the Albuquerque police chief, he was under pressure to change things. He sharply minimized the SWAT team's role, making use of a different team.
Galvin explains that the crisis intervention team does that the SWAT team cannot do: "talk and talk and delay the application of force."
|At sniper school.|
Some within the sniper world tolerate talk only to a point. Rodriguez, who recently left the Albuquerque Police Department, is one of its prime disciples. He's now teaching that approach as a part-time instructor at Thunder Ranch.
"The goal is always to talk them out," he says. "The goal is always to not have anyone injured or killed. I think what you start to reach in that gray area is how much risk are you going to allow the hostages to remain in on the hopes of you will have a negotiated settlement."
No one knows how many have died at the hands of police snipers. But when it comes to learning the trade, there is a well-known rule: Be prepared to take a life to save a life.
"Everybody says, 'When you fire your weapon, somebody's going to die,'" Rodriguez says. "That's not correct. When I fire a weapon, somebody's going to live. That may be through the death of somebody else, but that's a far removed change from Lord High Executioner."
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