There is a brisk business in the Cop Shop store in Arlington these days as customers come in to do some comparison shopping for the best pre-Christmas buys in handcuffs, tear gas and "stun guns."
Hidden in a corner of a Columbia Pike shopping center, the Cop Shop offers a choice of handcuff models ranging from $22.95 to $41 for the deluxe set. Tear gas, the most popular item, runs $11.95, and the stun guns, which temporarily paralyze their victims, are $79.95.
Not all the customers at the Cop Shop are police officers, however. Some may be in law enforcement fields, but others walk in off the street to buy handcuffs or other police paraphernalia.
One day last week, a Fairfax County retiree who said he used to work overseas as a criminal investigator for the federal government explained that he was comparison shopping for a stun gun for some friends who still work overseas.
"Unfortunately, we live in a society which doesn't make it difficult for a criminal or unauthorized person to get what he wants," he said, adding that he has been shot twice and would oppose restricting sales of Cop Shop goods to the public.
Cop Shop owner Larry C. Denny said he would oppose any restrictions on sale of the police-type items to the public. "It would be a terrible restriction," said Denny, sitting behind a glass case filled with metal badges and arm patches. "A lot of people buy for self-protection."
"Abuses with things like handcuffs, tear gas and electric stun guns are microscopic . . . negligible. They're just not used often," added Denny, who also does a booming business selling Indian crafts and military and law enforcement uniforms and insignias.
He compares the availability of his police goods with guns: "What's the answer? Get the crooks off the street."
Arlington County Police Chief William K. Stover, however, questions whether some of the items in Denny's shop and others in similar stores in the metropolitan area should be sold to the general public.
"You have to ask, 'What legitimate purpose would the average citizen have to purchase handcuffs?' and I couldn't think of any," Stover said. "I don't think these kinds of places contribute one scintilla to the efforts of protecting public safety."
"If sales were restricted to law enforcement personnel and agencies, I wouldn't have a problem with it," he added. "It's the type of business I would prefer not be permitted to sell this kind of equipment to people other than bona fide law enforcement agencies and personnel. It's equipment used by the criminal element which endangers public safety."
The Arlington police department, he said, buys and supplies its officers with all uniforms and equipment at no charge. The same holds true for Virginia state troopers, police officers in Alexandria, and deputy sheriffs in Fairfax County, according to spokesmen for those departments.
"All sheriff's departments issue badges, but there's no prohibition in law for anyone to sell them," Fairfax County Sheriff M. Wayne Huggins said. "That's what causes people to get in trouble for impersonating an officer. Anybody can buy a badge anywhere -- out of catalogues or in these types of places. There's nothing to stop it . . . . If someone goes down there to buy a badge, in 99 percent of the time the persons buying them aren't sheriff's deputies."
A major problem with such sales, Stover said, is that, unlike gun sales, merchants do not have to request identification from the buyer or keep records. Consequently, he said, the merchandise sometimes ends up in the hands of criminals.
On Nov. 22, for example, two men who killed a customer during a robbery at the First Virginia Bank in Shirlington handcuffed the manager and another customer to a filing cabinet while they made their getaway. The cuffs could have been bought at any number of stores, or ordered through a catalogue. Commonwealth's Attorney Henry E. Hudson said that some police-type goods sold in such stores "have a legitimate use." But he added, "Certain things should be restricted to law enforcement purposes."
Denny, who says he spent 19 years in private security work before opening his shop seven years ago, remarked, "Occasionally, I'll avoid a sale. You just get a bad feeling on somebody.
"There aren't that many criminals. I couldn't make a living selling just to criminals," added Denny, a wiry man given to cowboy shirts and hats who says that half his customers go to the store to buy his Indian craftwork or to get uniform alterations. The others, he said, make purchases for their jobs with embassies, private security firms, military police, the Secret Service and the State Department. Some, he said, are bounty hunters.
He says he asks persons wanting to buy police or sheriff badges and identifying patches for proof of their jobs. "I also live in the community," he said. He says he puts serial numbers and asks buyers to fill out a form because it "puts people a little bit on notice."
Gary Chelec of the National Pawnbrokers Shop in Arlington, which sells stun guns and handcuffs, bristled when told of Stover's comments.
"The chief of police would also like to have a speed limit of 25 mph," Chelec said, his voice rising in anger. " . . . The chief of police thinks he's J. Edgar Hoover . . . . [He'd] like to make marbles and slingshots illegal, too."
Denny said he opposes any restriction on the sale of his goods. "If it's got a $20 bill on it and no jail term," he said, "I'll [sell] it." The Washington Post