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.