TAMPA The Tampa Police Department has used shooting ranges in Lithia and MacDill Air Force Base since its old range in northwest Hillsborough County was shut down about 20 years ago.
Plans are under way, though, for officers to once again hone their marksmanship skills closer to home.
Police will break ground this fall on a $3.5 million firing range; the project should take about 18 months to be completed.
State and federal grants will pay for the range, Assistant Police Chief John Newman said. The money comes from seizures in drug and other criminal cases.
“This is funded by the bad guys and their illegal activities,” Newman said. “Their cases are closed and now we can do something good with it.”
The project will be put out to bid to prospective design and construction companies in coming weeks, he said.
The range will be an extension of the training facility at the southern end of 34th Street, just east of DeSoto Park, that police share with Tampa Fire Rescue.
Having a shooting range within city limits is not only convenient, it’s cost-effective, police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.
The department now sends officers 30 miles away to the Walter C. Heinrich Training Center in Lithia, which is operated by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Because of the distance, police don’t train as frequently as they would like, McElroy said. The drive to south Hillsborough County — and back — also takes a lot of time and gasoline, Newman said.
“We can take folks off the street for a couple of hours for training, then get them right back to work,” Newman said. “The best feature? The convenience of being right here in the city.”
Police sometimes train at MacDill, but the ranges there are busy, priority is given to the military and Tampa officers training or taking tests “require a lot of shoot times,” Newman said.
Sheriff’s Maj. Alan Hill said he understands why Tampa police would want a gun range in Tampa. He acknowledged that Tampa officers have a long drive to Lithia that takes time away from their shifts and patrols.
Hill, who oversees the training center in Lithia, said the firing ranges there are heavily booked because local, state and federal agencies also use them.
“We wish them well,” Hill said. “I hope their facility is up and running soon, but they’re welcome here any time.”
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Tampa Police Department had its own firing range. Called the Tampa Police Pistol & Rifle Club, the range was in Town ‘N’ Country, where Alonso High School is now, Newman said.
“It was right where the football field is,” he said.
But new subdivisions sprung up quickly and the encroaching development meant the area was no longer suitable for a gun range, Newman said.
The shooting range was shut down in 1995 after a stray bullet struck a house in a neighboring subdivision and grazed a woman’s leg. The club was there for 30 years before closing.
The origin of that bullet and about 20 others plucked from homes in the subdivision was the subject of much debate, with range officials blaming random shooting in the woods behind the club.
The police department’s new shooting range is not near any subdivision. Noise studies have already been conducted, Newman said, and the traffic half a mile away was louder than the guns that were fired in the area where the range will be built.
“We’re good neighbors,” Newman said. “Noise won’t be an issue.”
The land for the range, and the training center for police and firefighters, is on a small peninsula that juts into McKay Bay.
The training center currently has a driving pad, classrooms and a burn house, a structure that can be set ablaze so prospective firefighters can experience real-world situations.
Newman said baffles will be built to contain bullets and muffle sound. The range will test officers at distances of 25, 50 and 75 yards. A portion of the range will be set aside for distances of 100 yards or more.
An indoor “shoot house” is also in the works, Newman said, a structure with no roof where instructors can look down on trainees and rate their performance.