The death of Jorge Arias seemed like a freak accident — the veteran U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer was shot to death by a colleague during a training session at a popular outdoor gun range off Tamiami Trail in West Miami-Dade.
But so-called “unintended discharge” shootings involving law enforcement officers happen more often than the public may realize, experts say.
A Doral officer, hit just inches from his heart, survived one three years ago. And in the last four months alone, there have been at least three training shootings nationally.
In August, a Washington, D.C., officer lost her life when shot by a trainer at a public library. Arias died in October when shot to death by a fellow trainer who wasn’t supposed to be armed with a live gun. Last month in North Texas, a police officer was critically injured, shot in the face at an elementary school during an “active shooter” training.
The accidents come as many law enforcement agencies step up “reality based” training in response to an increase in school and mass shootings and other threats. While intended to help save the lives of the public and officers themselves, experts say sloppy safety practices can make the training dangerous or even deadly.
“The vast majority of these deaths occur with the trainers, the ones who — through best practices — should be trained to know and act better,” said Ken Murray, an Orlando-area police trainer who has created widely used safety guidelines for reality-based training.
But gauging how many police-training shootings happen every year is challenging. Nationally, there is no agency that tracks “unintended discharge” police shootings, let alone ones that happen during training exercises. There’s also no requirement such shootings be reported to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which credentials state police departments and staffs a commission that recommends standards and training.
Murray, the founder of the Reality Based Training Association, says he’s counted at least four such shooting incidents this year, and he estimates there are generally two deaths a year nationally. Criminal charges are rare but officers who mistakenly wound or kill colleagues face suspensions of other punishment.
For police departments across the country, experts say, the rise in mass shootings has led to an urgency to move beyond just practicing marksmanship at ranges.
Training sessions are often held in specifically designed police “shoot houses” — indoor facilities used to simulate the adrenaline-inducing, dangerous situations that might one day confront officers, such as a shooter rampaging inside a business. Nowadays, it’s also common for officers to run scenarios in real-life public spaces, such as schools, churches, malls, even abandoned buildings.
Lina Mino, an officer with the Sansom Park, Texas, police, survived a gunshot to the face last month while in an active shooter training at an elementary school in a suburb outside Fort Worth. The trainer who led the session, which was hosted by a private firm, has been suspended from his police position in a nearby county.
“It was an active school shooter training,” Sansom Park Police Chief James Burchfield told WFAA-ABC8. “Ever since the Uvalde [school massacre] happened, every department in the state has been trying to get this training.”
In today’s role-playing drills, officers wearing protective gear sometimes use guns equipped with various “marking cartridge”-type rounds, which leave colorful splotches similar to paint balls. They may use brightly colored “inert” replica guns that discharge nothing, or ones that emit only harmless lasers.
“Four decades ago, when I started in this profession, we didn’t point a gun at anybody in training,” said Bill Lewinski, an Illinois-based behavioral scientist and the executive director of Force Science Institute, which trains officers. “Even if you pointed a plastic gun at someone in the classroom, they got upset with you.”
He said with the availability of simulation-type rounds, officers training in real-life scenarios is “an important skill.”
Trouble typically comes when officers bring their own guns, with live rounds, into training sessions.
Pete Blair, who runs Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) at Texas State University, said his group’s training sessions around the country screen everyone for live weapons, including instructors, coming into the venue — and when they return from breaks. “And that includes a wand metal detector and a pat down,” Blair said.
Since participants are without their live duty guns, additional personnel may remain armed but can’t participate in any training. “Basically, they are there as security officers,” Blair said.
Three months later, CBP is still not offering an explanation of exactly what happened or why safety protocols failed when Arias, 40, a veteran CBP firearms instructor assigned to Miami International Airport, was shot by a fellow trainer on Oct. 19.
They were training at Trail Glades Range, a county-run facility, on Tamiami Trail near the Everglades. It’s one of the few outdoor ranges in Miami-Dade, and is popular with gun owners and skeet shooters. The facility is open to the public, but there is a separate “tactical” range down a gravel road, reserved for law enforcement and firearms instructors. CBP trained there regularly.
The tactical range is similar to the public section — shooters position themselves at podiums and fire at targets backdropped by a berm, a giant earthen mound 100 yards away.
The Trail Glades range isn’t generally used for role-playing-type scenarios. But that’s what happened when Arias was killed. Multiple law enforcement sources gave this account of what the investigation revealed:
Multiple sources identified the CBP officer who shot Arias as Daniel Chavez, though he has not been publicly named by the federal agency or Miami-Dade police, which is investigating the shooting. He and Arias were the instructors that day at the range, where officers were being trained on “concealed carry” and “close-quarter combat.” After an early-morning lecture, officers handed over their loaded service weapons, which were locked in a large gun case.
They got red training weapons and ran through several drills, sources said. Later that morning, trainees were given a break.
Sources said Chavez apparently rearmed himself with his duty gun before he walked to the bathroom located in the main facility. That’s also not unusual. Officers will often rearm themselves if, during a break, they venture into what is considered a potential “dangerous space” — in this case, where members of the public are shooting live rounds. But Chavez, the sources said, did not swap out his Glock pistol for the training gun before rejoining the group.
The training resumed — but what exactly happened next remains murky. The exact details of that final training demonstration remain unknown, but Arias was shot in the chest. And according to sources, other CBP officers claimed to investigators they were walking away and didn’t see when the shot happened.
Chavez and other officers desperately tried to save Arias, who was airlifted to Ryder Trauma Center. Doctors later pronounced him dead.
Miami-Dade homicide detectives couldn’t see for themselves what happened. The tactical portion of the range is not equipped with a video surveillance system.
Chavez’s attorney, Jeffrey Weiner, declined to comment.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, as is routine, will review Arias’ death to determine if Chavez broke any criminal laws such as manslaughter. Legal experts predict Chavez won’t because what he did likely doesn’t rise to the level of culpable negligence, displaying a “reckless disregard of human life.”
Murray, the police trainer, said that training sessions need clearly defined “controlled spaces” — safety personnel give participants a wrist band to enter, and take it away when they leave. While he did not know exactly what happened in the Arias case, the error of forgetting to secure a live weapon is a common mistake.
“Ignoring best practice safety protocols is a very, very common phenom. It’s hubris,” Murray said. “Trainers are the worst offenders. They think they can get away it.”
When shootings are egregious enough, officers occasionally are charged.
In Southwest Florida in 2016, a 73-year-old retired librarian was shot to death by then-Punta Gorda Officer Lee Coel during a citizens academy session. Coel, pretending to be a car burglar, fired his duty weapon with what he believed were blanks — a method frowned upon by experts in simulation training. Coel’s gun was actually loaded with “wadcutters,” flat-fronted rounds that resemble blanks but can be deadly
Coel was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years of probation.
Last month, a retired Washington, D.C., police lieutenant named Jesse Porter was charged with involuntary manslaughter after he fatally shot library officer Maurica Manyan, 25, following the conclusion of a baton training at a library. Porter, who had been leading the training, had been earlier playing around with an orange training gun, witnesses told investigators, and appeared to be playing around again when he mistakenly fired his live gun, according to lawyers for the slain officer’s family.
Attorney Chelsea Lewis, of Plantation, blames D.C. government — including an active police sergeant at the training — for allowing Porter to be armed against protocols.
“All across the country, there seems to be great support for law enforcement. I don’t know why there isn’t more of a focus on making sure trainings are safe,” said Lewis, who along with attorney Chris Kleppin is planning to file a wrongful death suit.
While Chavez may not ultimately face criminal charges, he could likely face internal discipline by CBP. An agency spokesman, Zach Mann, declined to discuss discipline or whether there would be changes to firearms safety protocols. “All aspects of this incident are still under investigation,” he said.
The case mirrors another recent South Florida police training shooting — one that led to the suspension of two Doral police officers. The scene: the Miami-Dade Public Safety Training Institute’s “shoot house,” run by county police and often used by other law enforcement departments.
On July 26, 2019, Doral Sgt. Eric Fernandez — a certified instructor — scheduled a last-minute training on “entry tactics and room search training,” according to a prosecutors’ report. Fernandez asked Officer Edward Portal, who is not a trainer, to assist him teaching two separate squads of officers.
Trainees later told investigators that they were instructed to secure their firearms in their cars, and they were given red training guns that emit only lasers. But Fernandez and Portal remained armed with their duty guns, even though the shoot house is located on a secure campus run by county police.
“One trainee recalled Fernandez saying Portal would be the only person to remain armed ‘in the event a situation was to present itself where police action became imminent,” the State Attorney’s memo said. Trainees told investigators Fernandez and Portal, during the role-playing scenarios, often took the red training guns from them to act out proper techniques.
During one scenario, a shot fired by Portal rang out. “F—, you shot me,” Fernandez was heard yelling. He was rushed to the hospital, and survived. ”He’s fortunate he didn’t die. It hit him two inches above the heart,” a Doral police spokesman, Rey Valdes, said earlier this month.
Prosecutors cleared Portal, saying he believed he had a training gun and fired “without any conscious intention to harm.” Still, the two did not escape punishment. Fernandez, the organizer, was suspended 30 days and put on probation for 18 months. Portal got a 20-day suspension.
“The protocols work if you follow them,” Valdes said.
Before the shooting, Miami-Dade police range personnel wearing red shirts already double checked for live weapons when county police officers use the facility. After the Doral shooting, those same county range officers must now monitor any other agencies that use the shoot house, the department said.
Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez said even he has to lock up his weapon, get checked and be given a wristband when attending role-playing trainings, even if he’s not participating directly.
“We have to police each other,” Ramirez said. “We could have all these rules in place but at the end of the day, the threat of human error is always there.”
Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.