City SWAT team takes first in one sniper contest event


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They don't teach this at the Pittsburgh Police Training Academy.

Detective William Friburger, a SWAT sharpshooter and a member of the city's narcotics squad, lay on his stomach in a fast-moving U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter, pointing his SR-25 semiautomatic sniper rifle through the side door.

The aircraft turned sharply as it sliced through the sky over Fort Benning, Ga. Detective Friburger steadied his rifle on his left hand.

Then the target appeared: a man-sized silhouette, about 200 meters away. Detective Friburger peered through his scope and fired. The shot missed. He adjusted and fired again. A hit.

The detective unloaded, firing 20 rounds in four seconds. At least two more struck the target.

Thanks to Detective Friburger's marksmanship skills, the Pittsburgh SWAT team won the "aerial shoot" of last year's International Sniper Competition at Fort Benning, beating out more than 30 teams from across the world, including U.S. Special Forces, Marines and Army snipers.

The 2008 event will be broadcast at 9 tomorrow night on the Military Channel in the first episode of "Top Sniper 2."

Only one other team even hit the target during the aerial shoot. Yet Detective Friburger, who joined the Pittsburgh Police Bureau in 2000 and became a SWAT sniper two years ago, insists he didn't do anything special, even though city police officers never practice firing from helicopters.

"I think I got lucky," he said. "As long as you can get the gun stable, anybody can shoot."

He and three other SWAT members -- officers Teddy Anderson, Robert Krebs and Donald Savko -- represented Pittsburgh in the sniper competition, which started eight years ago. It was the first time a law enforcement group participated.

"It's groundbreaking, humbling," said Officer Krebs, who served as the team's assistant manager.

Detective Friburger, 37, was the primary shooter. Officer Savko, 40, a former Marine who also works at the South Side station, was the observer, helping the detective locate targets with a high-powered scope.

Officer Anderson, 48, an Army veteran and head marksman for Pittsburgh SWAT, helped the team gain entry to the competition. In the 1980s, he was one of the first instructors at Fort Benning's sniper school.

The school was eager to allow a police unit to compete with military snipers, who routinely operate in combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. By contrast, SWAT marksmen avoid using deadly force whenever possible, turning first to negotiation and nonlethal tactics. They also focus on observation and gathering intelligence in dense urban environments.

Sgt. Robert Roof, the school's noncommissioned officer in charge, said the competition's primary goal is to bring together snipers from a range of backgrounds and enable them to share information.

"They have a really interesting perspective," Peter Rees, executive producer for the Military Channel, said of Pittsburgh SWAT. "They very rarely take a shot. Most of it is stakeout situations."

The first "Top Sniper" program, which chronicled the 2007 Fort Benning competition, achieved the highest ratings in the channel's history. This year, the program includes four hour-long episodes on the science of sniper marksmanship, urban combat, long-range shooting and stealth movement.

The 2008 competition took place over seven days in October, with teams from Canada, Denmark, France and Ireland and more than a dozen events.

The Military Channel film crew couldn't reveal sniper tactics or identify many participants, who are active military personnel likely to deploy to combat zones. Insurgents in Iraq have offered bounties for foreign snipers because of their effectiveness on the battlefield, Mr. Rees said.

"You try to construct a competition show where you can't actually follow the competition," Mr. Rees said.

The show's producers concentrated on the history of snipers and the technical side of their work, creating more of a documentary. Those circumstances guaranteed plenty of attention for the Pittsburgh team, which didn't face any on-camera restrictions.

Officer Anderson had considered taking a group to his former school for several years.

"We could learn from them, and they could learn from us," he said.

The police bureau supported the officers' participation, as did the Fraternal Order of Police, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and the Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, helping the team raise $5,000 to cover costs.

All four team members purchased new uniforms with a "multicam" pattern, which adapts to different environments and deflects night vision equipment.

Sgt. Roof said the four Pittsburgh officers were the talk of the competition when they arrived.

"This big, old police van showed up," he said. "We all thought we were in trouble."

Yet the officers quickly blended with their military counterparts. Other sniper teams constantly peppered them with questions about their work on the streets of Pittsburgh.

While the Blackhawk event was one of the most dramatic parts of the competition, Detective Friburger and Officer Savko also excelled in "counter sniper," a 10-minute urban warfare simulation. Amid machine gun bursts, smoke and explosions, the pair scaled a building and then its second-floor windows to search for designated targets in a fake town.

Officer Savko used binoculars instead of his sniper scope to broaden his field of vision, and Detective Friburger jumped all over the room to find targets, using a desk, a brick and Officer Savko's shoulder as a rifle support.

"I was half deaf," Officer Savko said.

Most of the 10 minutes was spent scanning for targets, sometimes just a face through a window and then a doorway inside a building 200 meters away.

Detective Friburger hit three targets, and the team finished sixth.

"They did well," said Sgt. Roof, who observed Officer Savko and Detective Friburger. "It's a very difficult event."

Another tough event was the "stalk," or three hours of crawling through woods and fields while wearing ghillie suits, which make snipers look like mounds of overgrown grass. An observer caught them in the final 30 seconds.

Overall, Pittsburgh SWAT finished 19th among 21 teams in their section of the sniper competition, scoring a total of 491 points. The winning team, a Special Forces group, scored 885 points.

The hardest challenge, Pittsburgh's officers said, was hitting targets as far as 1,000 meters away -- something they rarely do. The city's firing range covers much shorter distances.

Also, some military teams had spent years training together, while most SWAT members also hold other positions in the police bureau.

Last year's competition was primarily a learning experience. If they go back, the officers will likely bring new equipment, including a bolt rifle, better night vision gear and a steady tripod. The marksman and observer also need to improve communications skills.

"Without a doubt, I think we can be a top 10 team," Officer Savko said.

"Top Sniper 2" is scheduled to air tomorrow at 9 p.m. and Tuesday at midnight, 6 a.m. and noon on the Military Channel.


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183. First Published March 22, 2009 4:00 AM


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