METHUEN - To stay sharp using the department's arsenal of guns, police officers head into the woods in west Methuen.
Here, on a few acres of land surrounded by woods near the New Hampshire border, is the department's shooting range where Lt. Frank Korn leads exercises simulating as real conditions as possible.
"We're training officers so they are more confident on the street," Korn said. "We look for every opportunity not to use deadly force. It's really important, a liability factor, you want your people as highly-trained as possible."
For two weeks in the spring, the city's officers were at the range day, night and in the rain to polish their skills and complete yearly training exercises. Later this summer, they will go through some advanced rifle training at the site.
Police firearms training has evolved from the days of aiming at a stable target at close range, police say.
Today, officers run through drills that include how to deal with a hostage situation and how to react when a gun "jams" and can't be fired.
"When I started 37 years ago, essentially we were shooting at a target," said Lawrence police Chief John Romero. "As the years progressed, training got away from that."
While it's important for officers to hit a target, that type of training doesn't reflect real life situations, police said, like dealing with low light or nighttime conditions, moving targets and victims.
"Now, they're recreating as best they can the actual scenarios using weapons," Romero said. "It's intense and it's good."
Like Methuen, Lawrence uses an outdoor range in Andover for yearly training.
Methuen police have used the west Methuen site for 15 years. The Department of Public Works paved part of the area and installed poles and targets. Other police departments occasionally rent the site, one of a few available outdoor ranges.
"It's nothing fancy," Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon said during a visit to the site with The Eagle-Tribune.
Regular weapons training is necessary for police work, he said.
"It's a tool hopefully you never have to use, but you could lose your life or the life of an innocent person if you don't know how to use your weapon," Solomon said. "You have to be able to shoot and be accurate."
Some police departments shoot at indoor facilities or at private ranges. Solomon said use of a private site, such as a gun club in Pelham, N.H., is too costly for the department.
"We can go there when we need to as opposed to making appointments (at private ranges)," Korn said. "It's the ideal location for the type of training we do."
Korn takes teams of officers to the woods for training.
"We teach them to use the least amount of force possible," Korn said. "We're not trigger-happy people. In the real world, if you shoot someone it's very traumatic."
That means officers reach for pepper spray first in attempt to diffuse a face off with a suspect. For the sake of training, Korn will tell officers that a suspect is "hostile," where officers will draw their guns, take cover and prepare to shoot.
Working together, a group of three or four officers will move in on the "hostile target." They also have to learn to be aware of each officer and cover one another. During all training, the officers are in full uniforms, bullet proof vests and protective glasses.
"They're trained to look around and keep an eye on their partners," Solomon said. "The training is a lot better than what it used to be."
The exercises follow Municipal Police Training Committee standards, a division of the state Executive Office of Public Safety.
Korn, who is trained as a sniper through an FBI program, has lead the firearms program since 1988 and used to shoot competitively at gun clubs.
Eventually, Korn would like to install block buildings on the site so officers can practice moving in and out of buildings or hallways, but for now the department can't afford it.
"We have a phenomenal system," Korn said. "We have really great equipment. Not all other departments have the capabilities we have."