Cedar Rapids police shooting range attracts state attention

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The Police Department’s regional outdoor shooting range on Old River Road SW can still make a racket that can extend all the way to Des Moines.

The frequent noise of gunfire on the riverfront range once again has attracted the interest of the office of the state’s Citizens’ Aide/Ombudsman, which has informed the city via letter in recent days that the shooting range is within 200 yards of three inhabited buildings and so is in violation of state law.

"In light of the … applicability of the state’s 200-yard law, and the apparently legitimate concerns about noise and safety from the range’s neighbors, we believe the city must act immediately …," Bert Dalmer, assistant citizens’aide/ombudsman, says in a letter to Acting Police Chief Bernie Walther and Mayor Ron Corbett.

The law — Iowa Code Section 481A.123: Prohibited Hunting Near Buildings, Feedlots — does permit shooting within 200 yards of an inhabited building with the permission of affected neighbors, and Dalmer suggests that the Police Department meet with neighbors to see if a compromise can be reached on the use of the range.

Dalmer continues: "We also believe that the city must consider meaningful ways to mitigate the noise at the range and improve the containment of stray bullets and projectiles. Lastly, we believe it would be useful for the city to adopt a policy and procedure for investigating and resolving complaints about the range, preferably to be handled outside of the Police Department."

One next-door neighbor to the shooting range, Pat Freilinger, 2949 Old River Rd. SW, has gone around and around about the range for years, and he noted this week that the Police Department seemed at one point to say they would modify some of the range’s practices, for instance, to limit shooting on weekends and late at night. But the range has "drifted back" to its old habits, he said.

Freilinger said he understands that the Police Department’s officers need to practice and qualify with their handguns. But why, he asked, does the shooting range inside the city limits also cater to agencies outside the city? he asks.

"That’s a free-for-all that’s not fair inside the city limits," he said.

The range’s most vocal opponent, former city firefighter Don Sedrel, has sold his farm land and two houses next to the range to Don Caraway, who rents the houses out and has added the land to other land he owns next to it that he hopes one day to turn into residential property. It won’t happen with the shooting range, he said on Thursday. For now, renting out the two homes is a challenge "with all that banging."

"It’s pretty hard to (find a renter) if they hear the shooting," Caraway said. "It sounds like they’re in a war zone."

Both Caraway and Mike McMurrin, owner of McMurrin Trucking Inc. next to the range, recommended that the city build an indoor shooting range to quiet things down. McMurrin has a hole in the side of his shop from what he suspects is a stray bullet, and he’s picked up bullets in his parking lot, he said.

Acting Chief Walther noted on Thursday that the Police Department and the state’s Citizens’ Aide/Ombudsman had exchanged letters and views about the shooting range in 2009.

"We’ve been down this road before and we’ll certainly work with the state ombudsman’s office to comply with the law," said Walther. "That’s the bottom line. So we’ll address the issues and go from there. I hope they send us something more timely than waiting three years for a response from them."

After investigating complaints about the range from neighbors beginning in 2004 and again in 2007 and 2008, the state office wrote to the Police Department in April 2009 and informed it that the range might violate a state law that prohibits the discharge of a firearm within two hundred yards of a building "inhabited by people."

Then-Police Chief Greg Graham replied via letter in May of 2009, dismissing the state office’s letter by stating that the two homes in question had sustained flood damage in the city’s 2008 flood and weren’t occupied at the time and that McMurrin Trucking Inc. was not a residence and so was not "inhabited by people."

In the new letter to the city, the state’s Dalmer states that he now has been informed that the two homes within 200 yards of the police shooting range once again are inhabited. In addition, he says the opinion of his office and an assistant state prosecutor representing the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is that McMurrin Trucking Inc. meets the definition in state law of an "inhabited" building.

Dalmer states that he visited the shooting range and its neighbors on Saturday, July 28 and found the Police Pistol Combat State Championship under way. Some 20 officers, including ones from law enforcement agencies outside of Cedar Rapids, were participating. All the shooting took place on the west side of the range, outside the 200-yard distance from the two houses, but well within 200 yards of McMurrin Trucking Inc., Dalmer states.

He says the noise heard on the neighboring properties from the gunfire sounded like "firecrackers," adding that the neighbors all said the noise was "less than half as loud" as it sometimes gets. Shooting can run until 10 p.m. on some nights and can extend all day during some weekends, Dalmer says the neighbors reported to him.

Chief Walther on Thursday said the department operates a regional law enforcement training academy and the shooting range functions as a regional one like the academy does.

In response to questions about the range a few years ago, the Linn County Sheriff’s Office built its own outdoor shooting range in northeast Linn County, a range that Marion and Hiawatha officers use, Walter said.

Both the Iowa City Police Department and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office had talked of building their own outdoor range, but Walther said they plan to continue to use Cedar Rapids’ range because of problems finding a spot for one in Johnson County. Federal law enforcement officers, Iowa State Patrol officers, state correctional officers and officers from some smaller departments also use the Cedar Rapids range, he said.

The entities currently are not looking to move the range, but instead are working on a range improvement project. One of the improvements would create shooting lanes, which Walther said would permit officers from several departments to use the range at once, thus cutting down on the number of days that shooting would take place.

Walther said the department has discussed building an indoor shooting range in recent years, but he said indoor ranges are costly. Even with an indoor range, officers still would need to practice in real-life conditions outdoors, which includes shooting after dark, he said.

He said officers practice with handguns and long guns on the range and sometimes shoot in the weekends to fit their schedules.

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