By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008
The D.C. police department's decision to arm patrol officers with semiautomatic rifles is promoted by commanders as a way to stay ahead of criminals. But it is raising concerns among civil rights groups and others, who question whether the weapons are necessary.
Hundreds of officers will be issued AR-15 rifles starting this summer, and police say the guns will be a better match for criminals. Although Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier was unable to provide an example of when such firepower would have been needed in the recent past, she said police should not be caught off guard.
Police have about 500 of the weapons, and 352 officers have been trained to use them. Special units have used high-power guns for years, but officials said they wanted more officers to have access to the weapons. This is the first time AR-15s will be available for routine street patrols.
"We want to be prepared," Lanier said. "I want officers to have what they need to be safe."
Police officials said the rifles offer greater speed and accuracy, firing about 3,000 feet per second -- almost three times as fast as the average police pistol. Officers who get the lightweight rifles will carry them in addition to their 9mm Glock handguns, Lanier said.
The Washington leader of the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the move, and a D.C. Council member is calling for a more measured approach.
"Against a backdrop of danger and harm that could result from high-powered weaponry, it doesn't seem to make sense," said Johnny Barnes, executive director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area. "I wonder why at a time when we're trying to get guns off the street, we're putting more guns on the street."
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said he is concerned that residents will get the wrong message when they see officers carrying the weapons on the streets.
"It's more intimidating to have an officer on the corner with a long arm," said Mendelson, head of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. "That may be appropriate in certain circumstances, but we're not in a police state. We don't want police officers walking the street with long arms."
The debate has parallels to the one in the late 1980s, when police officials were warning that officers could be outgunned. At that time, the department switched from six-shot, .38-caliber revolvers to the semiautomatic Glocks, which fire more rapidly and hold more ammunition. The change came as the city was dealing with a surge in violence brought on by the crack cocaine epidemic and drug dealers were carrying semiautomatic weapons. Maurice T. Turner Jr., chief at the time, said of the Glocks: "This gives us more parity with all the drug dealers."
D.C. police created a gun recovery unit in November, and its officers have since gotten 255 guns off the streets, including 13 assault weapons.
The city got the AR-15 rifles from the Department of Defense for free as military surplus items. Police are waiting for mounts so the weapons can be securely locked in police cruisers and slings for officers to carry them over the shoulders.
Lanier said it is not unusual for criminals to have body armor and higher-powered guns in street robberies, bank heists and drive-by shootings. Police said the rifles would be useful when officers respond to bank robberies or hostage situations, as well as worst-case scenarios such as the massacre last year at Virginia Tech, when a gunman killed 32 people before killing himself. Seung Hui Cho carried out those crimes with two handguns.
Other police departments nationwide equip officers with semiautomatic rifles, including in Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami. In some of the District's neighboring counties, such as Montgomery and Prince George's, some patrol officers carry the weapons.
Assistant Police Chief Patrick Burke, who is in charge of special operations and homeland security, said protocols are being put in place to cover the use of the rifles and promised that officers will be "accountable for every shot."
"I wouldn't expect to see foot beat officers with them unless there's a specific need, like a barricade situation or a bank robbery," Burke said. "Officers will have to use discretion as to what is appropriate use of force."
The guns were ordered two years ago by then-Chief Charles H. Ramsey at the request of Lanier, who at the time was head of homeland security. The shipment came in a year ago, but D.C. police have been working to convert the weapons from automatic to semiautomatic use. An automatic gun fires multiple rounds when the trigger is pressed; a semiautomatic rifle fires one round for each trigger pull.
"People have the impression of police with machine guns and all sorts of crazy things," Burke said. "That's just not true."
Although the overwhelming majority of D.C. homicides are committed with handguns, criminals have used powerful guns in recent years in some high-profile cases in the Washington area. A team of commando-style robbers carried out a string of bank heists in the District and Maryland in 2004, armed with assault rifles and handguns. At the time, police feared the crimes could be fatal, but the robbers were caught before anyone was seriously hurt.
Lanier referenced a 1997 bank robbery in Los Angeles, in which two men armed with AK-47 assault rifles engaged in a shootout with police. Seventeen officers and civilians were injured in the incident, which was captured on videotape. The case set off a debate about the need to better arm police.
"They crushed the police," Burke said. "If you were to look at one incident in America that got every single police department to look at their weapons, that's it."
Assistant Chief Joshua Ederheimer, who is in charge of the police academy, said officers have been "very well trained."
"We want to be prepared to respond to a threat," Ederheimer said. "Hopefully, we'll never have to use them."