10/30/2007

Brazen Fla. criminals targeting police for their weapons

By Leon Fooksman
The Sun-Sentinel

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. Criminals are going after cops for their guns.

In the past year, gang members, thieves and drug dealers in Palm Beach County have broken into at least six police cars and stolen handguns and shotguns, officials say.

"This shows how brazen they are," Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said.

Realizing they, too, can be victims, the Sheriff's Office and other agencies are fighting back by adding burglar alarms to marked and unmarked cruisers, installing extra gun locks in cars and enforcing rules that bar off-duty storage of handguns, shotguns and assault rifles in cars.

The Sheriff's Office plans to spend about $200,000 for the alarms and about $80,000 for locks in more than 2,000 cruisers assigned to deputies and commanders.

Despite the risk, criminals are hitting police cruisers in South Florida and across the country for a reason: Most police cars are mini-armories on wheels. Cars store not only high-powered guns but also bullet-resistant jackets, "stop sticks" to pierce tires of fleeing cars and other devices to combat the firepower of dangerous career criminals.

Driving with so much equipment allows officers to respond quickly from home to emergency calls and to defend themselves in a firefight.

"All the criminals want guns these days to protect themselves and retaliate against others," Bradshaw said.

There have been six to eight incidents in the past year of thieves breaking into deputies' cruisers and stealing their guns in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Office, Bradshaw said. Police have no knowledge if the stolen police guns were used in recent crimes.

Sheriff's officials could not immediately provide those reports on Monday because they were mixed in with hundreds of other car break-in reports. Bradshaw said crooks in these cases hit cruisers parked at strip malls, homes of investigators and other places.

The thieves were even more daring on at least one other occasion: They staked out detectives doing surveillance work, drove behind them until they left the car, then broke in and took the guns, police said.

"They figure there's guns in the cars and they're usually right," West Palm Beach Assistant Chief Dennis Crispo said.

The Sheriff's Office requires on-duty deputies to lock their guns in the trunk when they leave their cruisers. After work, they must take their guns into their homes and lock them. But many deputies don't follow the procedure, Bradshaw said. Other police agencies have similar guidelines.

Storing guns at home at the end of work shifts can backfire, said Greg Block, a law enforcement training instructor with Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Self Defense Firearms Training.

Criminals can attack officers known to carry guns back and forth between their cars and homes, he said. The best place to store the guns is in police cars, as long as they are properly locked in the truck or glove box, he said. Once officers go back to work, they should bring most of the weapons inside the car and keep them within reach.

"If you have it secured like Fort Knox, how will you get to it in a firefight?" Block asked.

Stealing guns, especially assault rifles, from police cars is a growing national problem, experts say.

In May, a .223-caliber automatic assault rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun were stolen from the trunk of an unmarked police car in Frederick, Md. Two rifles were also stolen from the patrol cars of Orlando officers in January. A gun stolen from a car belonging to a Martin County Sheriff's Office deputy in 2006 was used by a 17-year-old, who accidentally shot a 16-year-old in Port St. Lucie.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office began installing car alarms and additional locks in its cruisers earlier this year in response to the rash of break-ins and to make the cars more secure in preparation for deputies getting equipped with AR-15 assault rifles.

"One or two incidents were enough for us to start looking at this," Maj. James Stormes said. "We had to be proactive."

The Palm Beach Gardens Police Department also has purchased extra locks, at about $150 apiece, for its marked cruisers to safeguard similar rifles, Chief Stephen Stepp said.

"If you have a locked mechanism, someone will not want to spend 10 to 15 minutes trying to break in," Stepp said.

Staff Writer Jerome Burdi and Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

Copyright 2007 Sun-Sentinel

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