In the hills of south San Jose, Sunnyvale SWAT sniper Ralph Chavez peered through the scope of his rifle while trying to steady his aim.
Chavez squeezed the trigger and, after a slight delay, an audible 'ping' rang out from the metal target 300 yards away, triggering cheers from his fellow officers.
"That a-boy Ralphie!"
Chavez was participating in the 19th annual Best in the West Invitational SWAT Competition hosted by the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office. Twenty-nine SWAT teams from took part in the two-day competition held on Sept. 20 and 21. The Mountain View Police Department did not participate this year.
Las Vegas Metro Police Department, the only team from outside California, finished first in the final team standings ahead of San Ramon and Pasadena. Sunnyvale Police Department took first place in the Vehicle Assault competition and Campbell police officer Dan Livingston came in first in the overall Top Gun individual standings.
"It's touted as a competition, but the real purpose is training," said Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith.
The competition included an obstacle course and individual and team shooting events that tested officers' physical conditioning, marksmanship and decision making.
Chavez, a 17-year veteran of Sunnyvale's police force, said shooting a target 300 yards away from a standing position was particularly challenging. Chavez finished in 72nd place in the individual Top Gun standings out of 172 competitors.
"When you're looking through your scope and the target is bouncing, you essentially have to time it," he said.
The sniper event featured a scenario called "Fallujah Sniper's Den"—which is based on an actual 2006 event—and was designed by Sgt. John Spagnola, sniper team leader on SERT, the Santa Clara County Sheriff's equivalent of SWAT.
Targets included balloons, human silhouettes and posters of armed men dressed in keffiyehs, a type of Arabic scarf. Suspect images come in a variety of depictions, from someone dressed in gang attire, or a woman carrying a knife, to a man holding a baby, said Santa Clara County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Jose Cardoza. One target depicted a suicide bomber and was rigged with an explosive that blew up when the target was hit.
"The whole concept of snipers came from the military," said Spagnola, when asked about the military theme of the scenario. "The first snipers were in the American Revolution ... A lot of our guys that are on SWAT were in the military."
Over at the Top Gun event, Geoff Guerin of the Gilroy-Morgan Hill SWAT Team shot at targets, including moving "spinners," from a variety of distances and awkward positions.
"(It was) hard to get a good sight angle," said Guerin, commenting on one station where he had to lay prone behind a wood board and aim through a small triangular cut out.
The event was timed and started with a 30-yard run.
"This kind of recreates that elevated stress, gets your blood pumping ..." Guerin said. "Short of a real life event, it tests how you perform under pressure."
Other events also combined physical exertion and marksmanship. The Jungle Trail was particularly demanding, with officers having to run to multiple shooting stations after carrying a teammate up a steep hill.
"When your heart rate elevates, your body loses its fine motor skills," said Sgt. Simonson, a 12-year SERT veteran.
Simonson said since he joined SERT, advances in camera and robotic technology have improved officer safety.
"We can send in a robot to see if a suspect is barricaded," he said. "If he shoots it up, you're out $10,000."
One of these surveillance robots was on display nearby.
Vendors of firearms, vests, and other police equipment had set up to take advantage of the gathering of potential customers.
Firearms dealer Ryan Lokey stood behind a table with a Barrett Model 82A1 rifle on display. When people stopped by, he gave them his best sales pitch.
"You pull the trigger and you hit your target, first shot," said Lokey, touting the rifle's advanced sighting system. "It's cheating, (but) cheating is good for you guys."
Lokey said it took him over two years to get the necessary permits from the ATF, Morgan Hill Police Department and Department of Justice before he could open his store.
But he said a lifelong love of shooting motivated him to go through the process.
"My grandpa said if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life," said Lokey, who said he grew up shooting competitively and took 1st place in a marksmanship event at the 1996 Junior Olympics.
The shortest event of the competition was also one of the more dramatic.
The Vehicle Assault scenario simulated a motorcade that had come under attack. Following a fiery explosion, teams dismounted from a Suburban to confront armed men in keffiyehs arrayed behind several cars, many of them turned upside down or on their side.
Lt. Don Morrissey of the sheriff's office said the specific targets were chosen because they provided a smaller zone for targeting.
"The more difficult the shot, the more these guys have to be on their 'A' game," he said.
The full results of the competition can be found on the Sheriff’s website under the tab Best of the West. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s department does not participate in this privately funded event because it is the host department.
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