Niagara Gazette

March 26, 2007

FALLS POLICE: Taking survival training to the Bank

Falls cops get the chance to train for the day they hope never comes

By Rick Pfeiffer/pfeifferr@gnnewspaper.com

Bank Miller knows a bit about what it takes to survive on the streets.

“I’ve been involved in shootings,” he says as he takes a break on the Niagara Falls Police Department’s firearms range.

More than that, he won’t say. A longtime federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent, and the agency’s former chief firearms instructor, Miller has been in situations he can’t recount to a reporter.

However, retired now from active law enforcement work, Miller’s new mission in life is keeping cops alive on the streets. He does that as the director of training for Action Target, one of the largest weapons training and supply companies in the world.

“We would hope that officers are never involved in shootings,” Miller said, “but if they are, they can be prepared (to survive).”

Miller was in the Falls to attend the retirement party of Falls Range Officer Bobby Gee. They have been friends since they met while Gee was taking one of Miller’s training courses.

As important as being a good shot is to staying alive, Miller begins his training by concentrating on an officer’s mindset. He says even spirituality and religion play a role in being prepared to defend yourself.

“You know we are brought up (religiously) to value every human life,” Miller said. “And now we put you (a police officer) on a job where you may one day have to take a one, that’s not always easy (to reconcile).”

From his days in the DEA, Miller says he began to develop a sense of what it takes to survive a cop’s nightmare.

“We would always debrief agents who were involved in shootings, but it’s hard, if you haven’t been in a shooting, to explain the mindset you need to survive,” Miller said. “None of us know for sure how we’re going to do under the stress of a shooting.”

Experience shows most police involved shootings take place in very close quarters, at short distances and happen very quickly, usually in a matter of seconds.

“From the time you recognize a danger and react to it, is maybe three seconds,” Miller said. “I look at my job, through training and tactics, to reduce that time.”

As Miller works with a small group of Falls police officers he smiles gently and rolls his eyes as they work on some of the basics he believes they need to know to stay safe.

“There’s only one way I can change their habits in one day,” Miller said, “and that’s with a two-by-four, but we can’t do that.”

His drills are rigorous. The approach, deadly serious. Miller also isn’t afraid to “break some of the rules” that officers have learned in their previous firearms training.

“I’m not critical of they way they were trained,” he said. “I’m just saying I know what works (on the streets). (Some firearms instructors) worry about bulls-eyes. I’m worrying about street survival. Targets aren’t shooting back.”

So, when he tells officers that gripping the gun can be as important as trigger movement and you don’t always need to keep “sighting” a target to shoot at it, he raises eyebrows. In his drills with the Falls officers he even has them fire rounds with their eyes closed.

“Marsha, you do better with your eyes closed,” he said teasingly to Officer Marsha Gee. “The closed eye drill teaches them to move with their gun, to use their pistol as a third eye.”

Training like Miller’s isn’t common in most local police agencies. While federal law enforcement invests heavily in firearms training, little more than basic instruction is available to town and city cops.

“With what we face today, I really don’t think (law enforcement agencies) take (the dangers) as seriously they should,” Miller said. “But I understand the (budget and time) constraints some departments face.”

Increasingly, Miller says, he sees the burden on on-going firearms training being placed squarely on the shoulders of individual officers.

“The trouble is, officers don’t want to give up their time, they want to have the department do it,” he said. “I think they need to realize they might have to take some of their own time. It’s up to the individual officer what they’re going to do (to keep themselves safe).”

At least one of his students here believes Miller’s training, if she practices it, will make her safer.

“I think it will definitely help me,” Marsha Gee said. “I think I learned a lot.”

Her father, who survived a shoot-out with street gang members and has taught generations of cops how to shoot, said he feels better now that she has had some exposure to Miller’s teaching.

“I feel confident that she will survive a deadly encounter on the street,” Bobby said. “I teach guys how to hit the bulls-eye, but (Miller) teaches them how to survive.”