By Todd Bensman
The Dallas Morning News
Amid the loft apartments and condominiums driving the revival of downtown Dallas is a place that served for years as a dusty, forgotten graveyard for old government office furniture.
A new kind of apartment unit now occupies the top two floors of the 19-story government-owned Santa Fe Building. High above the 1100 block of Commerce Street, the walls echo on a daily basis with the sounds of gunfire, pounding combat boots and battle cries of urban storm troopers.
Like a Hollywood movie set, these "apartments" form a 12,000-square-foot training facility where police SWAT teams practice the art of staying alive while hunting bad guys in residential or business settings.
Word spread fast after the U.S. Marshals Service, desperate for durable facilities where deputies could practice forced entries and close-quarters combat, got government permission to renovate the 18th and 19th floors of the Santa Fe. The facility - not to be confused with the residential loft apartments of that name next door - has proved so attractive that police teams from 64 agencies in six states have used it in the one year it has been open.
"There were more rats up here than people," said Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Trent Touchstone, who had the idea. He helped build the facility with donations of material and labor from area police departments.
"The advantage is that it's out of public eyesight," he said. "It's easier to train when no one's breathing down your neck."
Deputy Touchstone was referring to the days before the center opened, when police teams had to scrounge condemned buildings or abandoned HUD houses in populated neighborhoods. Sometimes neighbors would call 911, and the curious risked wandering into harm's way when they heard simulated ammunition being fired.
Another problem with the condemned properties, Deputy Touchstone said, was that practicing SWAT team members learned the interior terrain after one or two practices, reducing the effectiveness of further training.
"Every department we ever talked to was having the same problem," he said.
Government workers have occupied the first 11 floors of the Santa Fe Building since about 1980; all other floors have gone vacant because of the expense of meeting modern city and federal codes, said Lane Huneycutt, general manager of the General Services Administration. The Marshals Service pays the government about $ 12 a square foot to lease the top two floors; outside law enforcement agencies get free access.
"It didn't take a lot to get it going," Mr. Huneycutt said. "They're chasing the bad guys up there now."
The rats and trash are long gone. In their place stands a labyrinth of mobile plywood walls that can quickly be fashioned into bedrooms, kitchens or hallways.
Movable lighting can cast dark shadows in the different kinds of corners where an armed bad guy can wait for the unwary officer trying to serve an arrest warrant. Twenty-four cameras record the action for review.
Facades of attics and closets, which are considered particularly dangerous places to search, offer officers a chance to commit mistakes and live to learn about them. Old couches, tables, desks, beds - even family portraits and kitchen utensils - are among an array of props, adding a dash of reality.
With its fake bank lobby, jail cell, full-scale courtroom and other lifelike models such as a "school cafeteria," the facility is a big attraction for law enforcement personnel.
Sgt. Charles Bailey of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department lectured his panting fugitive arrest team after one rigorous exercise recently in which everyone survived during a forced entry into a multibedroom apartment.
This was the first time the team had trained at the facility after typically using the same county training building everyone knew too well. Such familiarity breeds complacency, Sgt. Bailey said.
In a previous exercise, two members of the team probably would have been killed while moving too quickly past hidden places typical of a bedroom. The sergeant had played the part of a bad guy, jumping out behind the officers with his index finger pointed like a gun at their backs.
"This time you slowed it down," Sgt. Bailey told his troops. "That's what we want to do is slow it down because we all know what happened last time."