Long guns on patrol

May 1, 2008
Officers find it takes more than a handgun, a badge and handcuffs to protect the public and themselves

     Most veteran law enforcement officials recall a time when rookie cops were handed a gun, a badge and a pair of handcuffs then flipped the keys to a patrol car before heading out for their first tour of duty. This equipment served them well, being more than enough to handle the trouble the criminal of the day dished out.

     Today departments arm officers with a whole lot more from less-lethal devices to firepower that ranges from the 9mm duty weapon to the shotgun, and more recently, the automatic rifle — and with good reason.

     "What criminals once settled with a punch to the snout in the back parking lot is now dealt with by using a gun," explains Chief Brian Lindquist of the Farmington (Minnesota) Police Department. "Today's officers cannot bring a 'knife' to a gunfight. They need access to bigger guns."

A rifle in the back

     The case for patrol rifles began after the North Hollywood shootout in 1997 where police were outgunned in a standoff with two heavily armed and armored bank robbers. The perpetrators in this case brandished automatic rifles but U.S. patrol officers at the time — and even in some places today — only carried 9mm or .40-caliber pistols, and only a select few carted a 12-gauge shotgun in their cars. These handgun calibers could not penetrate the suspect's body armor. As a result, patrol officers arriving at the L.A. scene were at a significant disadvantage until the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team turned up with equivalent firepower. Seventeen officers and civilians sustained injuries before these crooks were killed.

     "It was like throwing BBs against a steel wall — there was no impact with the weapons they had," recalls Lindquist. "It is a very significant event in the move to more weaponry for patrol officers."

     Then there was the Columbine High School Massacre — just two years later — which took the lives of 12 students and one teacher, and wounded 24 others. Again, first responding officers secured the perimeter and waited for SWAT officials to arrive with rifles and protective gear before entering the building.

     The Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, where 32 students lost their lives, served as another tragic reminder of the need for patrol officers to have access to weaponry once relegated to SWAT. Though the shooting spree ended just 11 minutes after it began, it further underscored that active shooter scenarios are increasing in number and becoming more violent, and that law enforcement must be prepared.

     In agencies, such as the Mattoon (Illinois) Police Department, these cases have struck closer to home. Approximately one year ago, an officer lost his life in a crime spree that began with a home invasion and murder in Carmago, Illinois, and ended in a bank stand-off in Arcola, Illinois, population 1,500. The Mattoon PD responded to the Arcola confrontation, and Chief David Griffith says he was glad its patrol officers carried rifles to the scene. "The rifles helped us contain the situation until we could get enough backup," he says. "It enabled officers to set up a perimeter and still have a method of protecting themselves and the public."

     These situations, he says, act as a reminder that armed confrontations can happen in a small town like Arcola just as easily as in a large city like Chicago. "Nobody is immune," he stresses. "If we're not as prepared as we can be, we're doing a disservice to the public."

Criminals packing heat

     Cases like these affirm that it takes more than a duty gun, handcuffs and a badge to patrol communities today, and statistics showing increased firearms muscle in criminals' hands drive that message home.

     Earlier this year, an Associated Press article written by Matt Sedensky cited Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) statistics showing a marked increase in the number of AK-type weapons traced and entered into the agency's database because they'd been seized or were connected to a crime. According to the article, ATF data revealed that AK-type guns confiscated from criminals rose from 1,140 in 1993 to 8,547 in 2007.

     "Criminals are picking up more powerful weapons," Lindquist concurs. "What used to be a .22-caliber has moved to .357 Magnums, 40 calibers, 45s, and rifles. You see people using AK-47s, which are fairly easy to get and extremely cheap."

     This trend is sweeping across the country, agrees Chief Deputy Sheriff Dave Bellows of the Dakota County Sheriff's Office in Hastings, Minnesota. Dakota County, the third largest county in Minnesota, butts up to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. The agency's 85 officers have carried rifles since 2000 to match increased firepower confiscated from criminals.

     The fact that these weapons are increasingly being turned on officers is also cause for concern, Bellows adds. A look at National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund statistics for 2007 confirms this. In 2007, 68 officers were shot and killed by suspects, compared to 54 in 2006. Forty-seven were killed with a handgun, 11 with a rifle, eight with a shotgun and two with unknown firearm types.

     "There is no way we can adequately defend society if we can't defend ourselves," Bellows warns.

Another tool in the toolbox

     The Farmington PD counts itself among the early pioneers of the journey to patrol rifles. This Minneapolis, Minnesota, suburb — population 22,000 — armed patrol officers with AR-15s about eight years ago. Besides a 9mm duty weapon, this agency also equips officers with 12-gauge shotguns, less-lethal shotguns, and TASERs.

     Lindquist refers to the agency's long guns as "another tool in the toolbox." He explains that handguns "don't suit every purpose" because they offer a restricted protective distance and shoot a limited number of rounds. The shotgun, he adds, covers greater distances and provides enhanced firepower, but it too has its limitations. If shooting a slug, the shotgun doesn't supply much more distance than a handgun, and shotgun pellets fan out a certain rate for every foot they travel. Beyond 20 yards, the pattern spreads to where it's uncontrollable but still lethal, and the pellets that are not on target could kill someone. "If you are trying to engage a specific target and don't have room for collateral damage you can't deploy the 12-gauge with buckshot," he states.

     On the other hand, he says a rifle fires a precisely aimed single projectile, limiting the liability created by shooting buckshot at longer ranges. In addition, officers can carry greater amounts of ammo than with a shotgun or a handgun.

     Another veteran in the patrol rifle movement is the San Luis Obispo County (California) Sheriff's Department, which equipped its officers with patrol rifles following the North Hollywood shootout. In the beginning, only supervisors in this 150-officer-strong department carried rifles, then field training officers received them, and finally, the department added enough to put one rifle in every squad car.

     San Luis Obispo's firearms instructor, John Marrs, agrees that the rifle fills a gap left by the other weapons officers carry. That being said, he warns agencies not to trade in their shotguns just yet, stating all of these weapons have a place in law enforcement. For instance, if it's necessary to shoot through automobile glass, the lightweight .223-caliber rifle bullet can't get the job done. When it strikes glass, the bullet will break apart and keep very little mass. In contrast, buckshot easily defeats window glass. A shotgun in close quarters produces a much greater wound and stops the fight immediately, and because it fires a pattern, the officer's aim doesn't have to be quite as precise to strike the intended target. But at distances greater than 20 yards, in a barricade situation, such as the one in Arcola, or when perpetrators don body armor, Marrs says a rifle fits the bill.

Paying the price

     With such a strong case for rifles, it would seem obvious that patrol officers would already have them. Not so. Many agencies received a wake-up call after Seung-Hui Cho's rampage at Virginia Tech and are now scrambling to add these weapons to their arsenal.

     "After Virginia Tech, I started getting inquiries from other agencies seeking help with training programs and policies," says Marrs, who was one of the founders of his agency's patrol rifle program and is listed on California's P.O.S.T. Web site as a subject matter expert on firearms for his role as a master instructor.

     The hold up seems to be funding. The ammunition expenses, training costs and higher purchase price for the weapons themselves quickly add up. The weapons run $800 to $900 per unit, and the ammunition is expensive as are the racks, slings, sights and other accessories that may be needed. Not only that, but Lindquist says the ammunition can be difficult to obtain as agencies compete with the military for these rounds. In fact, departments report there can be up to an 8-month lead time to receive this ammo.

     But as Bellows points out adding rifles is now part of the cost of doing business. "We try to be prudent stewards of the money," he says. "But the bottom line is we have to provide public safety and in order to do that, we have to be able to protect ourselves."

     Some agencies have swept through budget barriers by successfully navigating the sea of available grants set aside for rifle purchases. Marrs says San Luis Obispo received its first batch on loan from the government and purchased the remainder through homeland security funding. The Mattoon PD purchased its weapons through Omega funds and a law enforcement weapons acquisition program associated with the U.S. Department of Defense.

     According to Marrs, some agencies allow officers to purchase their own patrol rifles. He says San Luis Obispo does a little of both. It offers a pool of rifles for officers to draw from but also allows them to procure their own long guns. Officers who pay for their own weapons, he says, are more likely to practice with them. Accuracy further improves because the weapon is sighted to an individual not generically zeroed in for many people to use. "These weapons should be zeroed to the person who is going to shoot them," he explains. "The point of aim will be slightly different for each individual, based on how they look through the sights, their cheek-weld, and things like that."

Train, train, train

     Marrs refers to the rifle as "a specialized weapon for a specialized purpose," and emphasizes that successful employment of this sophisticated tool requires comprehensive and ongoing training. Unfortunately, he says he's encountered agencies that have put this training on the backburner. "I've seen agencies issue a rifle to officers with very little training. I've seen officers who didn't know how to operate the selector level to put it on fire or how to change magazines or properly load the gun," he says. "These are key issues and, just like their handgun, officers need to be intimately familiar with the operation of this weapon."

     Adding rifles impacts the amount of training officers must complete, admits Lindquist, who states his agency conducts more use-of-force training than it did five years ago. The rifle training this Midwestern department offers includes nomenclature instruction, live-fire and simunitions events (6+ times per year), and annual refresher courses.

     This retired military officer suggests agencies look to the military's example when developing rifle training. He says the military spends an extreme amount of time on weapons knowledge and adds it was the one thing he insisted upon when his department added rifles. "Officers need to know the nomenclature of the gun," he stresses. "It's not going to help them be a better shot, but they need to know how the weapon works. If they have a jam, they should be able to fix it with their eyes closed. Once you know all these things you can focus on being proficient with the weapon."

     Marrs recommends basic rifle training cover nomenclature, disassembly and assembly, maintenance, the nuances behind the ballistic performance of the .223-caliber round, weapon operation, loading and unloading, correcting malfunctions, the sighting system and tactics. His department requires deputies to qualify with rifles once a year and receive update training at least every other year.

     Training is the single most important thing to consider when setting policy for rifles, Marrs emphasizes. Department policy may place the rifles on the use-of-force continuum but policy does not — nor should it — dictate specific instances in which the rifle may be used. That, he says, is a training issue.

     "A policy that is too restrictive, even when its intent is to protect the department from liability, could actually hinder officers because they might not be able to deploy the correct weapon for the situation," he says. "There is no way to foresee every situation an officer is going to be in so you need to keep the policy loose and allow officers to rely on their training."

     As the criminal climate evolves, it is critical that officers stay a step ahead of the bad guy. Besides matching wits and wills, officers also must match firepower to compete; a rifle puts them on equal footing with today's gun-wielding criminals.

     "You always want to be able to present the amount of force necessary to seize hold of a situation," Bellows says. "But you can't do that if your firepower is inadequate when compared to what you're being challenged with."

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