Police Opting for More Firepower to Battle Better-Armed Criminals

The 30-year-old mother of three jumped from her disabled SUV following a chase, holding a gun to her head to keep police back. Officers fired a stun gun but the nonlethal weapon was foiled by her heavy coat.

When she pointed her handgun at the two nearest deputies, officers switched to assault rifles, hitting Sarah Marie Stanfield of Boise eight times with bullets designed to break apart on impact to increase internal damage. She died last fall of multiple gunshot wounds.

Some jurisdictions across the U.S. have been arming rank-and-file officers with high-powered assault rifles for a decade or more. But law enforcement officials say that trend has accelerated in the last year because of greater numbers of shootouts, standoffs in which police were outgunned, rising officer deaths and mass shootings of civilians by heavily armed gunmen.

"If you get into a fire fight, you want to be the winner," said Scott Knight, police chief of Chaska, Minn., and chairman of the firearms committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Our departments are moving to those weapons out of necessity across the country."

Chaska, 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis, is a town of only about 24,000, but earlier this month Knight ordered the department's first 10 assault rifles, each with two 30-round magazines.

Only patchwork information is available on how many other law enforcement agencies are outfitting deputies and patrol officers with assault rifles, the kind of firepower once reserved for specialized SWAT teams. But from Chaska to Miami to college campuses, agencies are acquiring AR-15s or M-4s, both close relatives of the military's M-16. The rifles fire bullets with enough velocity to penetrate some types of body armor and have greater accuracy at longer range than handguns.

Last year, Miami Police Chief John Timoney authorized his patrol officers to carry AR-15s because of a rise in assault rifle use by criminals.

"This is a national problem. Police agencies all over the U.S. are going to bigger weapons," said Timoney, whose agency now has about 50 AR-15s and expects to get 150 more. He blames the 2004 expiration of the federal ban on assault weapons for the escalation of heavily armed violence.

In 2007, according to preliminary numbers compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 69 officers were shot to death, up from 52 in 2006 and the most in five years. Last year included six shootings where two or more officers were killed in the same event, fund spokesman Kevin Morison said.

"There just seems to be a more brazen, cold-blooded killers out there," he said.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said it understands the moves to assault weapons. "Police officers need to be able to defend themselves and the rest of us, and they need the weapons to do so," said spokesman Peter Hamm.

Law enforcement officials say the trend toward issuing assault rifles to regular patrol officers started in Los Angeles after a 1997 shootout following a botched bank robbery. Two heavily armed men wore body armor that stopped 9 mm bullets fired by the handguns carried by police, 11 of whom were injured along with six civilians. The two robbers were eventually killed. The Los Angeles Police Department now issues AR-15s.

Two years later, police began rethinking a strategy of securing areas and waiting for negotiators and SWAT teams after two teens killing 13 people and wounded two dozen others at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Campus police at Arizona's three large public universities are being armed with assault rifles. Officials say the weapons will enable officers to shoot at targets at the ends of long hallways or atop tall buildings.

In the Idaho case, an investigation cleared the deputies earlier this month, noting they initially risked their lives by attempting to use nonlethal means before firing their assault rifles.

"Any time that we perceive great bodily harm or death may result, we may take action," said Ada County Sheriff's Lt. Scott Johnson.