There are now eight schools dedicated to training police snipers in America, with two more soon to follow and every class we checked was packed. If the 1980s saw an explosion in the number of police SWAT teams, the 1990s have witnessed similar rapid growth in the number of an even deadlier specialist, the police sniper.
Derrick Bartlett, a Ft. Lauderdale policeman who runs this school outside Sebring, Fla., believes that although crime and deadly shootings by police officers is down, more and more police departments are going to the trouble and expense of finding a professional sniper simply because they can afford it. Better financed police departments, he says, want to be better prepared for every eventuality.
"A man who snaps out some evening and takes his wife and kids hostage is not the normal run-of-the-mill police call. So you need people who are trained and equipped to handle that out of the ordinary call," Bartlett said.
And once you have such people, Bartlett believes many police chiefs simply can't resist the impulse to use them, even when it may not be necessary.
"They do seem to be being used more. It's a tool. The police agencies are using them more and more, almost to the point of abusing them," Bartlett said.
No one keeps track of how often police snipers take a deadly shot, but inevitably when they do, it seems to make the news. And while most such situations end as they should, when they don't and the wrong person is shot or sometimes even a fellow cop, the whole world seems to be watching.
So at week-long sniper schools, the training is physical. Emphasis is put on stalking as much as shooting and the lessons quite explicit.
"Do not make the mistake that some shooters do and go through here like we saw on the video yesterday. The guy who put the gun to his head and shot himself and went through both eye sockets and out the other side - but the guy's still alive. You are shooting at basically a four-inch circle, which is the cranial vault itself," Bartlett said.
Snipers call that circle the "apricot," so named for the size of the nerve bundle they're aiming at and the rule for when an officer can take such a shot is simple.
In essence, if the sniper, their colleague, or a hostage is in danger, they have the option to pull the trigger. Several of the students have not yet had to shoot anybody. And chances are they never will. Most will deploy dozens of times in their careers, but only a handful will face the ultimate decision and later have to deal with it.
"It sound's impersonal, but it could be a neighbor or it could be the number one man on the Ten Most anted List, he's just a target," Bartlett said.