When officers focus on getting off dozens of rounds in a matter of seconds at the shooting range used by law enforcement, it's easy to forget that just a few hundred yards away, Pikes Peak Community College students are attending classes.
Nearly constant gunfire, which can retraumatize veterans and make it hard for school officials to know whether an active shooter is on the loose, has led the college to welcome plans to relocate the range 10 miles south to the Pikes Peak International Raceway later this year.
But PPCC's concern isn't the only reason the El Paso County Sheriff's Office went looking for a new site. The range grounds are literally crumbling after heavy rains last year eroded the hill upon which the range building stands, and caused other damage that officials say could top $1 million.
Through a patchwork of grants and budgets — and the generosity of a corporation — the Sheriff's Office will establish a new training facility at the raceway. The cost could exceed $1 million or more as other types of training there are added in years to come.
"It's going to take some time to pull the program together," Sheriff Bill Elder says. "But this is an absolute necessity."
Since 1996, the PPCC range southeast of the South Academy Boulevard campus has provided a place for training and qualifying officers from Colorado Springs, the county, the city of Fountain and other agencies.
When the hillside crumbled last year, officials wondered whether it was worth fixing — especially in light of concerns from the college and Fort Carson's motor pool, which sits just south of the range where an occasional errant shell casing can be found.
"It is the sound of gunfire on most days that is troubling and disturbing to our students, especially those who may have experienced military combat, or are suffering from post traumatic stress," PPCC President Lance Bolton says in an email. "When the sounds and smells of gunfire become a normal part of a student's daily college experience, they may not immediately discern the difference if there were a real act of violence on our campus."
That gunfire, as might be expected, isn't an occasional thing. The range is a busy place, hosting more than 1,400 officers' training and qualification. Sheriff's deputies, for example, must qualify with handguns (21 rounds), rifles (30 rounds) and shotguns (10 rounds) twice a year and train twice a year. Also, those officers have to squeeze off those shots within a specified time limit and with 100 percent accuracy to remain qualified.
"If they throw one shot off, they're disqualified," says range master Randy Bowen, meaning they have to spend time in remedial training and then re-qualify.
SWAT teams qualify monthly, Todd Evans, the sheriff's chief deputy of support, notes, saying, "It's a perishable skill."
When the range was damaged last year, electrical lines were impacted, preventing its use for about three months, during which officers trained and qualified at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex several miles south near Fort Carson. But that isn't ideal, because the complex is heavily used by the public. County spokesman Dave Rose says 30,000 people used it last year.
Moreover, the PPCC shooting range is showing signs of age, such as the sagging overhead concrete baffles, and a design that makes remediation of lead difficult and expensive.
So sheriff's personnel began the hunt for another location. Evans says sites in Teller County and elsewhere either were too small, too far away or too expensive.
"We went out and looked at a number of sites, and it's really tough," Elder says.
"We got together with people who own PPIR, and they're willing to work on a 168-acre parcel and create a public-private partnership to build a training center down there by blending a lot of agencies in southern Colorado and build a replacement range."
Bob Boileau, president of PPIR, jumped into Evans' sheriff's vehicle one recent day to narrate a tour of the land where the new gun range will be built.
Just northwest of the entrance to the grounds off Interstate 25 lie 12 acres of asphalt uninterrupted by curbs or light poles, Boileau points out. It's perfect for an officer driving course, as evidenced by a series of black skid marks.
Driving north, he points out a firing range with 20-foot or taller dirt berms on three sides. It's where a military contractor trains special forces from across the country, he explains.
A good stretch north of there lies the land that will become the law enforcement training facility, which will be owned by the Colorado Training Institute for Public Safety and leased to the county for minimal cost for what's called "the triad" — Sheriff's Office, Springs police and PPCC, which offers criminal justice degrees.
The new facility is to be partially funded with a $50-per-officer annual charge each agency pays for the shooting range now, Evans says. That charge will continue.
Other agencies needing to conduct academies also would chip in, county officials hope.
"It doesn't make sense for every agency to build the same exact facilities," says Evans, noting the PPIR complex is envisioned as a multi-purpose law enforcement training ground for southern Colorado. Even the 23 fire districts that operate in the region could use the complex for driver training; none has that type of training facility now, he says.
The Sheriff's Office is working on snaring a $225,000 grant from the Colorado Peace Officer Standards Training group, which would be used to fund a targeting system, Elder says. While the grant was nearly in hand this year, it was discovered the money must be spent in the fiscal year ending June 30 in which it's awarded, and Elder doesn't think the project will move fast enough to spend it in time.
"The downside is we have to secure the land, develop the ranges and get the ranges in place so we can install the targeting systems," Elder says. "We can't use the money for anything but the targeting systems." He plans to renew the application next year.
Meantime, Evans says, sheriff's deputies are training at the Cheyenne complex, while Springs officers are still using the PPCC range. The CSPD declined to comment, referring questions to the Sheriff's Office.