By Kenneth C. Crowe II
TROY, N.Y. — All the police knew was that one of the men riding in either the silver van or gold sedan was armed with a black handgun, which had been reported as they entered the vehicles in the darkness.
When the vehicles were spotted traveling together, officers halted them in a "high-risk traffic stop" around 11 p.m. Aug. 20 at the intersection of Jacobs Street and Sixth Avenue. Twelve officers armed with a shotgun, a rifle and 10 pistols fanned out around the van and sedan that Tuesday night.
"The adrenalin rushes when you get there. You have to stay focused," Officer Brian Rasmussen said.
Weapons drawn, the officers got seven men out of the two vehicles without incident. They found four pistols, two in each car.
But these were pellet guns, not the actual firearms they resemble.
"There was the possibility of four guns," Sgt. Sam Carello, who was in command at the scene, said of the uncertainty faced by the officers.
This was the third incident in 24 hours that Troy officers encountered groups of young men who were reported to be armed. Officers recovered a total of 11 pellet guns, all of which at a glance could easily be mistaken for a handgun.
Increasingly, Troy police are encountering pellet guns. Combined with the growing number of real guns, officers don't know what to expect. And the pellet guns can look remarkably similar to the real thing, making it difficult for police to seize up the weapon in a suspects hand.
Carello said officers must be prepared for the worst.
"We have the possibility of there being real guns," the sergeant said. "Officers could think that it's another BB gun, and it could cost them their life."
Officers say those brandishing the look-alike firearms use them to buy credibility and to threaten others.
Last year, Albany police dealt with a situation that Troy police have avoided. On Feb. 10, 2012, Albany police shot and wounded Richard Carter, 22, after he allegedly pointed a black pellet gun resembling a semiautomatic pistol at officers behind a Brevator Street apartment building. Officers didn't know it wasn't a real pistol until after they examined it.
Often it's residents reporting that they spotted an armed person, and it's not usual for a pellet gun to be stuffed inside the waistband with only the handle showing.
Pellet guns are easy to get. There is no federal regulation of pellet and BB guns, which are propelled by compressed air. Each state takes a different approach. They're advertised as looking realistic and being effective for target shooting and hunting small game.
An estimated 3.2 million are sold every year across the country, according to the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which cites federal statistics that between 2001 and 2011, non-powder guns wounded 209,981 people nationwide. In 2011, there were 16,451 injuries, including 10,288 to children under age 20. There are an average of four deaths annually.
Troy police, like many departments, charge those with pellet guns with other violations of the law such as drug possession or curfew violation. In other areas, laws have been passed to regulate pellet guns.
In Bloomington, Minn., a city of 84,000, there is a local law that classifies a pellet gun as a dangerous weapon.
"This is really working well," Deputy Police Chief Vic Poyer said.
The ordinance allows officers to seize the pellet guns and charge those in possession of them with a misdemeanor. Poyer said it has helped make it safer for officers and has been an aid in getting the pellet guns off the streets.
New York City prohibits the sale or possession of pellet guns.
Troy officers don't have the cushion of a legal ban to protect them.
"You get to a gun call you're making split-second decisions," said Detective Sgt. Sean Kittle, who oversees firearms training for the police department.
"Rule number one," Kittle said: "Make it home at the end of the day."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 the Times Union