Rifles at ready boost police firepower in N.C. city

"The problem is not with the police being militarized. It's that we allowed society to become militarized."

By Stanley B. Chambers Jr.
The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — Garner's reputation is that of a friendly small town, but its police officers are arming themselves for extreme situations.

By November, the 61 patrol officers in the southern Wake town will have high-powered military-style rifles.

More police departments across the country are instituting or expanding what they call "patrol rifle" programs, in which officers have rifles within quick reach, usually in the trunks of their patrol cars. It allows them to respond quickly to a major threat, for which seconds count, without waiting for a SWAT team.

Cary, Chapel Hill and Durham already have patrol rifle programs. Raleigh is considering one.

Officers say the rifles are sometimes needed to match firepower on the streets. The rifles, they stress, are intended for use in rare circumstances.

"Even in a small town such as Garner, we do have quite a few violent people we come across," said Garner Police Sgt. Joe Binns. "No place in the country is safe from those kind of people."

Rifles are lighter than shotguns and are more accurate at a greater distance than other weapons most officers use, advocates say. The rifles also hold more ammunition than shotguns and handguns. But the increased firepower means that bullets travel farther, which can be dangerous in an urban environment, so proper training is essential.

Police cite several high-profile incidents to explain why they think patrol rifles are needed -- the Virginia Tech shootings in April, the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School and a 1997 Los Angeles bank robbery that had police borrowing weapons from a nearby gun store to keep pace with two men firing automatic weapons.

Well-armed criminals

The expiration of the federal assault weapons ban in 2004, combined with the ability for anyone "with a grudge and a credit card" to legally buy weapons such as sniper rifles, has pushed more high-powered firearms into criminals' hands, said Paul Helmke, president of the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

"The problem is not with the police being militarized," he said. "It's that we allowed society to become militarized."

Durham started its patrol rifle program in 2002; Cary in 2004, and Chapel Hill in 2005. Garner is converting the department's shotguns to fire "bean bags," or lead rounds covered in fabric, and wanted a weapon that could handle a shooter beyond 21 feet.

A few critics have expressed concern that patrol cars with rifles inside could become targets for black-market thieves. But Helmke said most people figure breaking into a police car isn't a good move.

"Anytime you've got weapons, it becomes a possible target," he said. "Generally if the police are doing it right, they're keeping them secure."

Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, a nonprofit organization supporting legal gun usage, cited the 1997 Los Angeles bank robbery as a reason why patrol rifles are needed.

"It served as a lesson to police that the firearms they were carrying at that point were inadequate," he said.

In Durham, police use a version of the M-16, the rifle that was standard in the military during the Vietnam War. The original M-16 is an automatic weapon, designed to fire multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger. Durham police convert the guns to semiautomatic, so only one round is fired per trigger pull.

Three Durham officers began carrying the higher-powered rifles in February, then eight more in July, said Lt. Kevin Cates, who oversees Durham police's patrol rifle training.

Durham officers must work at least three years on the street and pass a handgun proficiency test to get into the rifle program. They also must go through strict evaluations.

Once selected, they train eight hours a day for three days. Most of that time is spent at the department's shooting range firing the rifles.

No shots fired

Durham officers have not yet fired the weapons but have taken them out for felony vehicle stops. One officer had a rifle in hand in July as police closed in on murder suspect Jasmond Jevon "Catfish" Rogers, who was charged with firing at police when they arrested him in the shooting death of a Chapel Hill teenager.

Cates plans to arm 36 officers with rifles within the next year, he said, with an eventual goal of equipping all patrol officers.

"People think a rifle is so much deadlier than a handgun, but a rifle is more accurate, much easier to shoot and much easier to teach and become proficient with," he said. 
Lt. Kevin Cates of the Durham Police Department says 11 officers have semiautomatic versions of the M-16 rifle. Photo by Stanley B. Chambers Jr. 
Copyright 2007 The News and Observer

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