Summit SWAT Team hosts annual Top Gun competition

The smell of fire filled the air at the Summit County Shooting Range on Wednesday, along with the discernible pops of rifles discharging and pings of lead connecting with static steel. The range, typically equipped for simple target practice, took on an entirely new look and feel. Vehicles were arranged in the middle of the field, enclosed in a virtual sea of clay, steel and paper targets of all shapes and sizes. In the middle of it all, officers darted back and forth between cars, doors and obstacles to finish the course.

Welcome to Top Gun.

No, it’s not a collection of the top 1 percent of Naval aviators, but it is a hard-fought competition bringing together Summit County’s law enforcement agencies to see who’s the top shot in an intense tactical course meant to test officers in a number of disciplines. For the winner, it means an apt trophy constructed from an artillery shell, as well as a full year of bragging rights. But for everyone else it’s an opportunity to participate in drills they’ve never experienced before, fire different weapons systems and push themselves in a highly stressful environment.

“We started this about five years ago,” said SJ Hamit, the county’s SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) commander, and founder of the Top Gun competition. “I thought it would be a good recruiting tool for the SWAT Team, and a good chance for all the members of law enforcement in the community to get together and have a fun day.”

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Each year members of the Summit County SWAT Team plan a different course at the law enforcement branch of the shooting range, throwing unique challenges and training opportunities into the exercise to give officers a diversity of new experiences. This year, the training wrapped vehicles into the mix. A crashed Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle was the starting point for participants, forcing them to shoot at targets through the windshield and windows (the glass was removed) while inside the car. Later in the course, they were asked to shoot from the top of an ARV (armored recovery vehicle).

“When we plan the course out, we try to come up with a few cool quirks,” said Sgt. Daric Gutzwiller, who helped design the course this year. “This year we’re getting to shoot out of the ARV and the crashed vehicle. That’s something officers don’t get a lot of experience with. But it’s a very plausible scenario that someone could get into — an officer involved in a shooting while in their vehicle.”

The course puts officers through a number of different challenges, including switching weapons and shooting from unfamiliar firing positions. Officers must shoot from the standing, kneeling and prone positions while switching between a rifle and handgun to fire at both short- and long-range targets, sometimes on the move.

Officers around the county appreciate the opportunity to try new things.

“It’s really fun to do, and it’s not something we get to do often,” said Logan Van Duzer of the Dillon Police Department. “It’s just cool to get to do something different, and to use different skills and gun platforms.”

While the timed and competitive elements of the event are meant to add to the fun, they also provide a more stressful training environment to get officers prepared in the event of the real thing.

“It’s absolutely training,” said Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, who considers the competition a natural extension of their reality-based training initiatives. “This exposes deputies to situations they’re not normally exposed to, and the competition factor adds to the stress level. Although we dress it up as a friendly competition, the stress is a vital component of the realism in this training. So when you’re faced with the circumstances in real life like shooting through a car or running through a door, it’s not a new experience mentally for you.”

But fun is still in the mix. Officers are timed as they run through the course, and five seconds are added for each target they miss. In addition, there are multiple categories for competitors from the SWAT group (who can’t be awarded the overall title because they designed the course), military, rookies, administrators and groups for officers with different service times in law enforcement.

The overall winner in this year’s competition was Sgt. Tim Robinson of the Frisco PD, who only missed one target and finished in 263 seconds. In all, almost 30 officers competed from all of Summit County’s law enforcement agencies.

“It’s competitive, but it’s kind of a fun competitiveness,” said Hamit. “We as a SWAT Team don’t consider ourselves eligible for the Top Gun because we developed the course, and compete with each other more than anything. But this is for the other officers in Summit County. A lot of them show up and it’s a great time to just get away, and shoot on a course they don’t have to set up. They get to run through it, have some burgers and hot dogs, hang out and shoot a little bit.”

Watch SWAT  commander SJ Hamit run through the full course.

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