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December 15, 2004
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Weapons At Risk in Squad Cars; Machine Gun Stolen From Dallas Officer's Vehicle

The theft of a machine gun from a Dallas police squad car is raising questions about how vulnerable weapons are when left in vehicles, especially at a time when the department is set to begin letting patrol officers carry assault weapons.

A car burglar who smashed through a Dallas police patrol vehicle''s back window on Monday hit the jackpot. The marked car was a tactical officer''s take-home vehicle, parked in his northwest Dallas driveway, and inside the trunk was about $6,000 worth of equipment, including a machine gun, ammunition, a heavy-duty ballistic vest and a SWAT uniform.

"We were very concerned," said Lt. Edwin Ruiz-Diaz, a tactical supervisor.

The thief got into the trunk by prying back the car''s rear seat.

Dallas County sheriff''s deputies serving a warrant on a 20-year-old for a probation violation on Tuesday morning uncovered the lost cache about three miles from the officer''s home.

Currently, the city''s approximately 50 tactical offices have take-home vehicles in which they store their weapons and equipment. Department policy dictates they do not park their marked car – which is indistinguishable from a regular patrol car – on the street or leave belongings or weapons in plain sight.

Police Chief David Kunkle and Assistant Chief Danny Garcia, who is over the tactical and other divisions, did not return calls.

Police say SWAT officers frequently have to balance preparedness and caution.

"You have to decide between taking your equipment out of the car and making absolutely sure it doesn''t get stolen, or not forgetting something when you''re called out to a scene in the middle of the night," said Lt. Jeff Cotner, a tactical supervisor.

Patrol car break-ins and thefts in Dallas are rare. There have only been two break-ins including Monday''s with one earlier this year foiled after an officer interrupted the thief and chased him off, police said. Twice this year, police cars have been stolen, both times by suspects who managed to commandeer the vehicles for a few blocks until officers regained control.

Earlier this year, a Garland tactical officer''s personal car was broken into. The thief took no weapons, but did get a police vest and other SWAT gear. "We take it for granted that our cars won''t be broken into, but we''re vulnerable just like anyone else," said Officer Joe Harn, a Garland police spokesman.

Dallas police officials are looking at better ways to secure squad cars, particularly because regular patrol officers will soon be hitting the streets with heavier firepower. The department has bought 67 AR-15 rifles and plans to assign them to officers by April, and Chief Kunkle is allowing officers to buy their own guns so they can have added protection as soon as possible.

Unlike cars used by tactical officers, patrol officers check out different cars on a daily basis and do not take their vehicles homes. Their semi-automatic assault weapons would only be vulnerable to theft if an officer was away from his patrol car while on duty.

"We''re looking at adding alarms to our vehicles," said Lt. Ruiz-Diaz of the tactical unit. "But what you have to remember is that a patrol officer on a call, they''ll be away from their cars a lot less. And they won''t be taking them home with them. Hopefully, they won''t be bigger targets for thieves."

Dallas County sheriff''s deputies only recovered the stolen machine gun and other gear taken Monday when they tried to serve an unrelated arrest warrant Tuesday on Christopher Castillo on High Bluff Drive. Friends allowed deputies into the home to search for Mr. Castillo, and they found him after noticing a piece of his clothing sticking out of an overhead attic door.

Mr. Castillo came out of the attic when deputies demanded he do so, and they then found the stolen machine gun and ammunition in the attic. They notified Dallas police immediately. Mr. Castillo is being held on felony theft charges at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center.

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