By Jessica Gresko
The Associated Press
MIAMI, Fla. — Patrol officers will have the option of carrying assault rifles as police try to combat the rise in the use of similar weapons by criminals, Miami's police chief said Sunday.
Police Chief John Timoney approved the new policy last week, before a Miami-Dade police officer was killed in a shootout with an assault rifle-wielding suspect on Thursday.
"This is something we do not do with any relish. We do this reluctantly," Timoney said.
The policy had been under review for about a year due to officers seeing an increase in the weapons, Timoney said.
Officers interested in the guns will have to undergo two days of training and be certified to use the weapons. The police department doesn't yet have money to purchase the guns, and if officers want to use them now, they will have to pay for them, Timoney said.
Years ago, law enforcement specialists like SWAT teams were the only officers to carry assault weapons, but now even small town police agencies are expanding access to the AR-15, a civilian version of the military M-16 rifle.
Patrol officers in Danbury, Conn., have been allowed to carry the weapons since 2003. Police departments in Merced, Calif., and Waterloo, Iowa, have deployed them in all patrol vehicles for several years. In Stillwater, Okla., about 70 miles west of Tulsa, every police patrol officer is issued an AR-15.
Officers in Los Angeles have been equipped with the weapons even longer, soon after a 1997 gunfight outside a bank where police faced a man armed with an AK-47. Officers in that situation had to go to a nearby gun store to get high-velocity weapons.
Timoney said it has become apparent over the last year that Miami officers need the option of more powerful weapons.
The Miami Police Department said 15 of its 79 homicides last year involved assault weapons. This year, 12 of the 60 homicides have involved the high-power guns.
On Thursday, a gunman opened fire on four Miami-Dade County police officers with an assault rifle during a traffic stop, killing one and injuring the other three. Police killed the suspect hours later.
Officers using the weapons in Miami will shoot "frangible" bullets, which shatter after they've hit something to avoid striking bystanders or other unintended targets.
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Not all officers may choose to carry the new weapon. But, said Timoney: "If I was a police officer out there in a tough neighborhood, I would want to have that in the car."