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Dear Matthew Alice:

A friend of mine has pointed out that at the shooting range of the San Diego Police Department all of the silhouettes the police practice shooting at are black. She maintains that there is a racist factor in this; police are quicker to shoot at black suspects at crime scenes than they are to shoot at white suspects. My question is whether at the shooting ranges of other police departments are the silhouettes invariably black or do the colors vary? Are there any white silhouettes?

-- Buck Rogers, Chula Vista

The last time the Alices motored by the pistol range at Home Avenue and Federal Boulevard, I guess the cops were expecting an invasion from Mars. The silhouettes were lime green. In fact, according to Sgt. Reggie Frank, the SDPD's rangemaster, green-on-tan is one of their favorite paper targets exactly because the color is neutral. The point of target practice is to hit the right spot on the target, not to be distracted by whether the silhouette is black or white. So black, white, and green paper targets are swapped around to desensitize officers to color so they can concentrate on accuracy.

The only exception is the preference for black targets to simulate nighttime or low-light conditions. During practice, the lights on the range are turned off, distraction lights (e.g., a cruiser's flashing light bar) are turned on, and officers have to concentrate to pick out the target. A black silhouette creates a more realistic visual situation. Besides, says Sergeant Frank, the preferred ensemble for your average night-roaming perp is a black cap and clothing.

SWAT officers sometimes train with steel targets -- white silhouettes painted on a bare-metal or black background. A red silhouette, designated as a hostage or noncombatant, will be placed in front of the white ones, and the officers will have to hit the white target.

But if your friend doesn't buy any of this, she'll probably be stoked to hear that the newest wrinkle in officer training (in San Diego and nationwide) is to have cops shoot at one another. It's called Simunition training, a variation on paint ball. Service weapons are modified to shoot a dye pellet, kind of like a blob of lipstick. Then trainees are sent through a mock-up of a house and other real-life situations with similarly armed officers in civilian clothes playing the roles of perps and victims. Simunition gives them experience in quick decision-making and accuracy under stress, closer to what they experience on the street. And please tell your friend that statistically, cops are much more likely to be shot at by a white male, arguing for white targets, if color were significant.

Police and military haven't always used human-silhouette targets. That's a post-WWII idea, developed by the military in part to desensitize trainees to the idea of killing another human being. In spite of what you hear on the news every night, that's not an idea that comes naturally to people. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society is a recent study of the phenomenon. He's a retired Army Ranger, ex-paratrooper, professor of military history, and psychologist, so he pretty much covers all the relevant bases.

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