SCITUATE, R.I. (WPRI) – Firearms instructor James Cryan paces behind the line of police officers standing 50 yards from a series of targets, barking instructions and sternly offering sage advice.
“Make the shots count,” he yells.
It’s bitterly cold, and the ground is slick with ice and a thin layer of snow. But training happens in all conditions, because so does a crisis.
“Threat!” Cryan yells and the line of officers – most dressed in an evergreen suit with the words “Special Response Unit” sewn across their backs – snap their handguns out of the holsters and fire several rounds down range. Holes quickly pockmark the paper targets. Each one inside the outline of a human torso.
As the crack of the rounds fades away, Cryan offers a “nice job” to one of the team members.
The next drill calls for the officers to use their left hand, in case their right arm is injured.
This training of the Special Response Unit (SRU) happens deep in the woods of Scituate at the shooting range for the Providence Police Department. Target 12 was given inside access to the SRU as they were trained by Col. Hugh Clements, who said the team is a source of pride for the department.
“The members of this team, they drop everything; they drop what’s going on in their family lives and their personal lives and they’re here for the city of Providence,” Clements said in an interview at the range. “I really respect what they do.”
The 30-member team – an elite group of Providence Police officers – is training for intense situations, including raids on suspected drug houses where weapons are commonplace, a barricaded subject or a hostage situation.
But the absolute worst-case scenario for which they drill: an active shooter situation.
“No one ever wants that call,” said Sgt. Robert Boehm, who runs the SRU. “We’re hoping it never comes, but we have to train for it.”
Boehm has been on the unit since 1990 and at that time, the phrase “active shooter” didn’t exist.
“Going back, everybody trained as a team because it was a team that was going into a situation,” Boehm said. “Now there is no teaming up outside, there is no waiting. The officers go in and go toward the threat.”
That’s why it’s not just SRU members that are taught how to deal with active shooters,
“Our department is trained with active shooters right down to the newest patrol people,” Boehm said.
“Your active shooters now, the percentage is high that they do the shooting, get what they want, and then commit suicide when they are getting low on ammo or the police show up,” Boehm said. “So it’s important the police make their presence known immediately.”
But police brass also adjusted schedules to try and ensure a handful of SRU members are on the clock at any given time. Members of the SRU run the gamut from patrol officers to detectives. Clements said they keep their gear on them when driving the city in their cruisers, and immediately respond to a threat when one happens.
“Many are from patrol, some are from detectives, some are from narcotics, some are in the motorcycle unit,” Clements said. “If there is call on the streets that requires a response from the SRU team, there may be three or four people out of the 20 people on call at that moment on the department who are SRU trained.”
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‘You took an oath’
It looks like a nearly impossible shot.
Patrolman Sean Comella, a member of the SRU and a shooting instructor, is standing a football field away from a target the size of a speed limit sign. He’s not holding a rifle with a scope, but rather his handgun.
“There’s no way,” the reporter says to him.
A gust of wind blasts the group as he fires a round. It misses.
“High, right,” patrolman Frank Moody tells him looking down range.
Another miss, then on the third shot, a “tink” can be heard as the bullet pierces the metal. The target is so far away it’s the only way to know if the shot was made.
Comella isn’t happy.
“It’s embarrassing it took more than one shot,” he said.
That kind of shooting is above and beyond what is required for any police officer, but to get on the SRU, officers must qualify as expert shooters.
If a spot opens up, an officer must go through an application process, then a physical fitness test – which includes an obstacle course – and then they have to qualify as an expert shooter at the range. The prospect gets only one chance to meet their strict shooting requirements.
If they pass that, they are interviewed by the heads of the SRU. By then, the herd is thinned, and the hardest part comes next. It has to be a unanimous vote by active members if a candidate should be brought on.
“Every team member sits down and voices their opinion,” Boehm said. “If someone is blackballed for any reason – they show up late for work, they’re not professional in their appearance, there is a whole list of criteria that we look at – they’re not welcome to the team.”
Has that happened? “Yes,” Boehm said.
“You have to have each other’s back, you have to be able to have faith in the person that is working next to you,” Boehm said. “You have to know the person next you is trying just as hard as you are.”
As an all-volunteer unit, SRU members aren’t paid extra. Some will even spend their own money on specialized equipment.
“They’re here because they want to be here,” Boehm said.
They also know they must act a magnet to the bad guy if they charge into an active shooter situation, training to draw their fire.
“You took an oath and that oath is to protect the public,” Boehm said. “If you have to get into the line of fire to protect the public then that is what you will do.”