Police getting more firepower,200 to be armed with assault rifles

(Boston) – The Boston Police Department is preparing a plan to arm as many as 200 patrol officers with semiautomatic assault rifles, a significant boost in firepower that department leaders believe is necessary to counter terrorist threats, according to law enforcement officials briefed on the plan.

Globe Staff / May 29, 2009

The Boston Police Department is preparing a plan to arm as many as 200 patrol officers with semiautomatic assault rifles, a significant boost in firepower that department leaders believe is necessary to counter terrorist threats, according to law enforcement officials briefed on the plan.

The initiative calls for equipping specialized units, such as the bomb squad and harbor patrol, with the high-powered long-range M16 rifles first, the officials said. The department would then distribute the weapons to patrol officers in neighborhood precincts over the next several months, according to the two law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to speak publicly.

The officials did not know exactly when the department planned to start handing out the rifles but said police officials already have acquired the guns.

Police department spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll declined to discuss any details of the plan yesterday. She said the plan was still in an “inquiry stage.”

“Commissioner [Edward] Davis has not decided if he would like to move forward with this initiative,” she said. “At this time, absolutely no determination has been made.”

The M16 rifle is a standard, military-issue weapon distributed to US armed forces. It can be used in the field by soldiers with a fully automatic function, operating as a machine-gun, but the Boston proposal is to arm them the weapons for semiautomatic operation.

The law enforcement officials who discussed the proposal said department leaders have described the need for more potent weaponry to confront terrorists like the ones who attacked hotels and other sites in Mumbai, India, last November, killing 166 people and wounding 234 others.

But the plan has sparked a debate within the Police Department about the safety of routinely deploying military-grade weapons on Boston’s streets. Currently, the department keeps its stock of high-powered rifles locked in special gun cars that can be driven to crime scenes when they are needed by SWAT teams.

Some police union officials, who are scheduled to discuss the firepower upgrade with department management today, are concerned that the weapons are too powerful for city streets and that they could fall into the wrong hands and be used against police officers and citizens, the officials said.

But other union leaders are not as concerned.

Detective Miller Thomas, president of the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, said he felt comfortable with the safety guidelines department officials have pledged to put in place. Thomas said that in meetings held a few months ago and during the past two weeks, police officials explained to him and other union leaders that the guns would be assigned to specific officers and deposited in special lockers when they went home. When the officers are patrolling, the guns would be secured in cruisers with special lock mechanisms, Thomas said.

“It’s not like it’s going to be like anyone can go in and take the gun out,” he said.

Thomas said department officials told him they plan to provide officers assigned to carry the rifles with up to 40 hours of training and have them shoot some 2,000 practice rounds to become comfortable firing the weapons.

Other officers who are not selected to carry the guns, or choose not to, will be given a less-intensive course so that they will know how to handle one of the guns in an emergency, Thomas said.

He said the plan is to equip patrol officers, detectives, and supervisors with the rifles.

Boston would not be the first city to arm patrol officers with assault rifles. Many other large police departments – including those in Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas, Cincinnati, and Phoenix – are using such rifles already or are planning to.

In Denver, patrol officers have been armed with assault rifles for at least a decade, Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson said. The rifles are widely distributed, Jackson said, but he declined to say how widely distributed, citing safety reasons. Officers keep them inside hard cases secured in the trunks of police cruisers, in accordance with department policy, which also dictates that the chamber be empty and no magazine loaded in the weapon, he said.

Jackson said the department began using the rifles when Denver police officials saw that officers in other cities were being outgunned by suspects packing high-powered weapons.

“What we were seeing is that the suspects, they’re using heavy artillery, they’re using assault rifles,” Jackson said. “And the officers were only using handguns, and they were at a deficit.”

In Boston, the law enforcement officials said the idea of arming patrol officers with assault rifles was first floated about a year ago by Deputy Superintendent Darrin Greeley. But the plan did not gain support from his superiors until after the Mumbai attacks, when Superintendent Daniel Linskey, who is in charge of the Bureau of Field Services and oversees all patrol officers, signed on.

Linskey has since chaired the meetings with union and department officials and outlined plans for the rifles, the law enforcement officials said. Driscoll, the police spokeswoman, characterized the meetings as internal conversations and routine procedure when the department is considering the use of new equipment.

But the department already has received 200 fully automatic rifles from the federal government and plans to modify them to perform like semiautomatic weapons, shooting only one bullet at a time instead of rapidly spraying bullets at targets, the law enforcement officials said.

Thomas said the need for such weapons is clear. He pointed to recent fatal attacks on officers, including the April 4 fatal shooting of three Pittsburgh police officers who were killed by a man lying in wait and armed with an assault rifle.

“If you look around, policemen get pinned down by someone who is firing on them, by virtue that they are being fired at from a greater distance,” Thomas said.

Right now, he said, most Boston officers are equipped only with 40-caliber pistols that shoot targets at a maximum of 25 yards away.

“Certainly having our guys with the proper equipment on the street is a benefit to everybody,” Thomas said.

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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