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Behind the scenes of LAPD SWAT sniper training

May 6, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
We have learned a lot over the past few days about the elite Navy SEALs who stormed Osama bin Laden's compound. But few people know about another elite unit of snipers in the Los Angeles Police Department. Eyewitness News takes a rare and exclusive look at the highly trained force.

They shoot targets from concealed positions, or distances that exceed the capabilities of regular law enforcement. They have specialized training with distinctive high-powered weapons and make difficult shots under pressure. Often one shot is one kill. They are L.A.'s own "special ops," the police department's SWAT snipers. Eyewitness News spent a day with them as they trained.

They are the elite precision shooting team within LAPD SWAT: the snipers, a team of 24 of the most proficient marksmen in the department. The police sharpshooter has a well-known rule: "Be prepared to take a life to save a life."

"I am trained to shoot to stop hostile, deadly behavior," said LAPD SWAT Assistant Sniper Squad Leader Ken Pickart.

Officer Pickart has been a SWAT sniper for 20 years. Today he is shooting with eight of the team's newest members at a range near Lake View Terrace. With the department's current weapons system, these snipers are able to take out a target at a thousand yards.

"If you train to the extreme, a thousand-yard shot suddenly makes a hundred-yard shot feel like you could do that almost blindfolded because it seems so simple," said Pickart.

The training is anything but simple. After years under their belt as a SWAT officer, a sniper undergoes 40 rigorous hours just to certify.

Officer John Ray officially became a sniper last month.

"There's a lot of information that you have to know that has absolutely nothing to do with shooting," said Ray. Such as ballistics, judging distance and wind patterns.

"Not only do you have to read the weather where you're at, but also where your intended target is. So if you're shooting a target that's 200 yards away, the wind down there can be completely different than what you're being affected at," said Ray.

That's why the snipers continually practice shooting in different light situations and weather conditions, and test the ever-evolving night optic equipment, like one device that allows for facial recognition up to a hundred yards in total darkness.

For first-timers like me, there is an adrenaline rush that goes with firing such a high-powered rifle. With a lot of instruction from Officer Pickart, my goal was to hit the target from only 25 yards.

"One right below the ear, one in the mouth and one in the cheek area out of the three rounds you fired," said Pickart. He's dead.

In real-life SWAT situations, a sniper will shoot as a last resort. Their primary goal is to assist in resolving conflict peacefully with the use of specially trained negotiators. Most of the sniper's job in the field involves intelligence-gathering and observation.

"Our primary responsibilities are to report to the officers who are handling tactics things that are going on downrange. We have the ability to see things that they can't. We're usually in a position of elevated advantage so that we can see the target better than they can from ground level," said Ray.

It requires extreme focus and a mental toughness that is developed over time.

"It's more mental. We don't call it a thinking man's game for nothing," said Ray.

Their level of marksmanship is second to none. Not even the elite Navy SEAL Team Six, who took out Osama bin Laden, could boast of better shooting skills.

"A lot of the things that we do are similar to that operation, but we do the same thing as far as close-quarter battle," said Pickart.

Bin Laden's killing has resonated with the SWAT team. It's evoked a sense of jubilation, while at the same time, made them think about one of their own: LAPD SWAT sniper Officer R.J. Cottle, who was killed last year in Afghanistan while fighting the war on terror.

The allure of a sniper has been depicted in Hollywood's image of the sharpshooter hiding on rooftops waiting to knock off the bad guy. But for L.A.'s elite team of 24, the job is anything but glamorous.

"You're cold when it's cold. You're wet when it's wet. You're hot when it's hot. And you're always hungry," said Ray. "God forbid you have to take that shot. You'll do it, but it's not glamorous at all."

Since 9/11, the role of the LAPD SWAT sniper has taken on even greater importance with the increasing threat level on major U.S. cities like Los Angeles. Much of the sniper's role now involves counterterrorism -- protecting dignitaries who are visiting our city, like President Obama.