Two Fresno County sheriff’s deputies faced one another, perhaps 25 feet apart, their gun hands hovering inches above holsters like a scene from 1800s Dodge City or Tombstone. Then they drew 9 mm pistols and began shooting.
After several seconds, a trainer blew a whistle and the gunfire stopped. Both deputies, Sean Quinn and Walden O’Neill, assessed splotches of blue on their pants and torsos.
“Yeah, that tickled,” said Quinn, sarcastically.
Added O’Neill, “Those thigh shots hurt quite a bit.”
While the deputies shared lighthearted banter, the training was deadly serious. Training Sgt. Ryan Gilbert said scenarios that Quinn, O’Neill and other deputies undergo on a regular basis are designed to keep them alive.
“These are perishable skills,” he said of the training, called Simunitions, which he oversees at the sheriff’s training range near Highway 99 and Herndon Avenue. The object is to help deputies survive a confrontation with an armed attacker, something Gilbert noted could happen any time, anywhere.
The training took place against a backdrop about the use of deadly force by police officers following officer-involved shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and other cities. Gilbert noted deputies here are aware of the national discussion. His concern: An officer in a life-or-death situation might hesitate and not survive a deadly confrontation.
“It could make people second-guess themselves, and that’s unfortunate,” he said.
For the training, the deputies use Smith & Wesson pistols modified to fire only a plastic bullet filled with a blue detergent instead of a lead round. For safety, the weapons will not chamber a lethal round. As noted by the deputies, however, the soap slugs still pack a sting.
Wednesday, deputies armed with the modified pistols underwent the mock firefight as well as another scenario in which a “normal” traffic stop goes sideways when a person pulled over suddenly jumps from a van and charges a deputy sitting in his cruiser. In that case, the deputy’s goal is to escape his vulnerable position and return fire from a more defensible position. Fresno deputy Dennis Phelps was killed in such a situation in 2002.
Deputy Brian Schulte said he gets butterflies in his stomach each time he goes through the drill, even though he knows it is just practice.
“The biggest reaction is, ‘wow, that was fast,’ ” he said of the speed with which someone can jump from a car and charge, gun blazing. “How did you get back here so quickly?
“The other thing we’re hammering home is, you may be hit, but you don’t stop fighting.”
While the training is difficult enough for deputies, it proved more challenging for journalists invited to try their hand. One reporter repeatedly struggled to get his gun out of his holster as he was peppered with numerous soap rounds until his shirt was covered in blue polka dots.