Despite safety questions, Chicago cops to receive combat rifles

When Chicago police officers first encountered Bennie Teague he was armed with a Romanian assault rifle and fleeing the South Side plumbing store where, according to court records, he had just fatally shot an acquaintance.

Gang officers responding to the call spotted Teague's car and attempted to pull him over. Teague tried to speed away, then jumped out of the car and started a running gun battle with cops, court records say.

Though nobody was injured during the shootout with Teague, the following week newly appointed police Superintendent Jody Weis announced his plan to arm Chicago's patrol officers with M4 assault rifles similar to those carried by soldiers in Iraq. Mayor Richard M. Daley said Chicago's cops, outgunned by an increasing number of criminals toting assault weapons, needed more firepower.

But a review of federal firearms statistics suggests the number of assault weapons seized from Illinois criminals is not on the rise. Nor is the number of homicides committed with rifles in the nation. And rifles have been responsible on average for 15 percent of officer deaths each of the last six years.

Meanwhile, firearms experts say bullets from the M4 can travel nearly twice as far as those from a handgun, potentially posing risks for bystanders. And some policing specialists say equipping beat cops with military style weapons sends a message to police and citizens that combat, not cooperation, is the goal.

Chicago police officials declined numerous requests for interviews about the M4 program, and refused to answer written questions on the topic.

Weis, speaking at a recent City Council committee meeting, said the guns could help in situations where officers confront well-armed criminals.

"That responding officer may have one opportunity to shoot a person who has a young child hostage, and I want to make sure that he or she has the tools to do their job," Weis said.

Weis says accuracy is the primary advantage of the M4 carbine.

"The chances of an officer firing and missing ... is far less probable than if they were using their handgun," Weis said.

The department has not specified how many weapons will be ordered, how much they will cost, and what kind of training officers will receive in their use. On Friday, department spokesman Monique Bond said officers are currently training with the weapons, and will begin carrying them on the street within a few months.

Assessing whether more criminals are carrying assault weapons is a difficult task. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tracks the number of rifles traced in connection with criminal investigations. But the bureau but does not keep separate statistics indicating how many of those weapons are semi-automatic assault rifles, which hold a large number of bullets and are designed for infantry use, making them more dangerous to police.

In 2006, 12 percent of the Illinois trace requests received by the ATF involved rifles. Authorities seized 36 fully automatic machine guns.

In 2007, 13 percent of Illinois trace requests involved rifles, and 20 machine guns were found.

The ATF trace data reports do not indicate how many of the rifles were traced to Chicago.

Meanwhile, the FBI's annual crime statistics also show no substantial change in the percentage of people killed with rifles nationwide.

In 2002, 3.4 percent of the nation's homicides involved rifles. In 2006, 2.9 percent involved rifles, according to the statistics.

Similarly, in 2002, 18 percent of the police officers slain on the job were killed by a rifle. In 2006, it was 17 percent.

The FBI does not release separate statistics for assault rifles, and has not yet released its final report for 2007.

Statistics aside, many urban police departments have recently equipped patrol officers with semiautomatic M4's.

"They're doing it out of absolute necessity," says Scott M. Knight, chairman of the Firearms Committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, pointing to numbers published by the Associated Press revealing an increase in AK-47 type weapons.

The Miami Police Department has seen a huge increase in crimes committed with these weapons, which factored in its decision to arm patrol officers with semi-automatic assault weapons.

The number of homicides committed with assault weapons in Miami went from three percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2007, according to a report from the Police Executive Research Forum.

Knight says that officers equipped with common police sidearms, which usually hold 15 bullets per magazine, cannot operate effectively against a criminal firing a weapon that holds 30 bullets.

"The officers cannot protect anyone and they cannot protect themselves," he says.

M4 carbines, which carry 30 rounds per magazine, are also popular because they have a much greater effective range

Patrick Sweeney, a weapons instructor who has already trained Chicago police on M4 maintenance, says that a typical side arm like the 9 mm is only accurate within a 25-yard range, while the M4, if fired properly, has pinpoint accuracy up to 100 yards.

But that increased range can mean greater risk.

Matt Reams, vice president of sales and marketing for Sierra Bullets, says a typical bullet from a 9mm handgun will travel about 1,900 yards, while one from an M4 will travel 3,600 yards. An M4 bullet fired by an officer at the Wilson Red Line stop in Uptown could land six stops away, at the Granville platform in Rogers Park.

In an urban setting, he says, that can cause problems.

"(An officer is) going to have to have a lot of background awareness," Reams says. "(A round is) going to hit something in an urban setting."

But the M4's accuracy will also make it harder to miss the intended target, Reams says.

"Chances are it's going to take more shots with the 9mm to get the job done, which means a greater chance of having it miss and hit something else."

Training becomes key when it comes to using the M4, Reams says.

Some policing experts say the training goes much deeper than just functional and tactical use of the weapon.

David Klinger, associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says police departments need to have specific and publically available instructions on when to use the weapons and training on recognizing those situations.

"With this new tool, it is something that is going to be used against citizens and the citizen has a right to know why it's there and how it's going to be used," Klinger says.

Chicago police have not provided that information to the public.

Sweeney says that some situations are too unpredictable to rely strictly on written protocol and the officers must have some discretion.

"I come from the side that says train (the officers) and depend on their judgment," he says. "You don't know what the situation is until you're in it."

Jerry Galvin, a retired police chief with more than 40 years experience in places like Ohio and California, says the officers should have some discretion on when to use the weapon, but he sees "no need to take them out on a regular basis."

"I wouldn't deploy an assault rifle unless there was some reason to believe that weapon would be the one that you would need," Galvin says.

Some experts argue that, regardless of the M4's benefits, it's the wrong choice for beat cops.

"The modern policing standard has emphasized building trust and confidence (in the community)," says Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "These weapons would reinforce the old image of the police as a military force occupying the community," he said.

He notes that the weapons are valuable in some specific situations, such as hostage rescues. But, he says, SWAT officers are typically involved in those incidents, eliminating the need to equip patrol officers with M4's.

Craig Futterman, a clinical professor of law at The University of Chicago who frequently handles police brutality cases, says ensuring Chicagoans that these guns will have a positive effect will be a difficult task. He says the bigger weapons will not help a police department that has public trust at an all-time low.

"(Having these weapons) will create a deeper chasm between police and public, especially in lower income communities," he said. "Stuff like this will deepen public distrust."


Alderman Isaac Carothers, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, says there are other priorities for improving crime-fighting like the police arriving at crime scenes faster.

"All the crime we've had, the police always ride there after the crime," he says. "I think it's just another opportunity to talk about doing something, but it's not a viable strategy for fighting crime in my opinion," he says.

Discuss

GEOFF DOUGHERTY, 09-02-2008

The Chicago Justice Project posted some interesting info on this topic yesterday -- http://www.chicagojustice.org/blog/?p=84