The echoes of gunshots can be faintly heard emanating from the basement of village hall on any given day and sometimes, depending on where you stand, not so faintly. The noise is from a decades-old police shooting range that has fallen into such disrepair that the mechanical systems that move the targets no long work.
Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley says the shooting range — which police use a combined 66 hours a year for firearms certification — is broken, outdated and underutilized. He has pushed for paying a neighboring police department to use its gun range and pursuing grants to open a virtual reality-style, scenario-based training facility that would take the existing shooting range's place.
"That space for the majority of the year is empty, so how can we use it in ongoing weekly training in which we can invite others to participate?" Tanksley said during a recent tour of the gun range.
The firearms-training computer system Tanksley favors places police in virtual scenarios by projecting video images onto large, white moveable screens.
"It's a computerized, scenario-training system in which an officer would enter onto a platform with five screens, and it's almost like virtual reality," he said. "People would appear and a scenario would unfold involving a shoot/don't shoot situation."
Tanksley said the system not only trains police in shooting accuracy, but also when not to shoot. He stressed that the idea for such a project is preliminary and no costs have been determined. Such a system, however, could cost up to $260,000. If the department does pursue the virtual training facility, he said, it would try to pay for the project primarily through grant funding.
The village included $350,000 in its budget the last several years to replace the outdated shooting range, but Tanksley said the department delayed using the money because it had not developed a plan for the renovations. In November, Tanksley gave trustees a tour of the shooting range and later testified at a village board meeting that such training should be outsourced to the Berwyn Police Department. He said the Berwyn station would charge $150 an hour for use of the facility, at a total cost of about $10,000 annually.
Village President Anan Abu-Taleb, at a board meeting in November, said he had also spoken to the president and mayor of River Forest and Forest Park, respectively, and both expressed interest in the concept of building a joint facility to be shared by the three departments.
Tanksley said the existing shooting range is adequate for the biannual firearms certification most officers must achieve, but since the mechanical structures that move the targets are no longer operational, officers must walk out onto the shooting range to practice shooting from different distances. He said the motors for the target machines are so old, they no longer make parts to fix them.
Tanksley said the blasts from guns firing can be heard in certain parts of village hall. "If you're in the parking department or at room 101, you hear this booming sound; that's distracting," he said.
Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said gunfire can't be heard in the meeting rooms, but the sound sometime travels through air vents and is audible in the employee break room. "Nobody's ducking under the table," she said, but noted that the shooting range was built with village hall in 1975 and with 116 sworn officers on the force, "That's a lot of use," she said, noting that if the village did invest in upgrading its shooting range, it also could charge officers from other departments to train there.
Tanksley said he plans to return to the village board in January with an update on the proposal.