Several hundred people gathered Tuesday night in east Columbus to protest a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.
Columbus Area Law Enforecment Battle High Powered Weaponry
There’s something of an arms race happening on the streets of Columbus. The police say they’re encountering more and more assault style weapons in the hands of law-breakers, tilting the balance of power in the criminals’ favor. The police say they’re implementing ways to meet the challenge.
It may sound like it’s nothing out of the ordinary, but this AK-47 assault rifle, kept secured in the police division’s ordinance section, is a devastating weapon.
“Well it is capable of going through a brick wall, through steel, through a car; it’s a very powerful round. It’s very capable of defeating body armor,” says Columbus police gunsmith and instructor Ronald Barker.
Barker says that’s what happened ten years ago this month during the notorious North Hollywood bank robbery in California. Two AK-47 wielding gunmen engaged police in a shootout for more than half an hour. Bullets from the officers’ side arms bounced of the shooters’ body armor, while rounds from their assault rifles left small craters in patrol cars. As officers radioed dispatchers, it was clear the LAPD was completely outgunned.
DISPATCHER: Requesting someone to stop the vehicle north of Kittridge; it’s a gray vehicle.
OFFICER: Do not stop it. They have automatic weapons. There’s nothing we have that can stop ‘em.
In the end 12 officers and a civilian were wounded. One gunman committed suicide, the other bled to death. The incident was a defining moment for law enforcement says Steve Martin, criminal division chief deputy in the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.
“We have that on video and it’s not uncommon for us to show that to people to show that we need weapons like that,” Martin says. “We need to be able to defend ourselves and also defend the public at the same time.”
Columbus police Sgt. Kevin Corcoran says assault style weapons, which can be purchased legally, are now routinely turning up in the city.
“Just about every night on the street we’re encountering numerous assault weapons,” Corcoran says. “Most of them are AK-47 or similar style rifles, with a magazine capacity of 30 rounds or more. Some of them have been fully automatic, some have been semi-automatic. In those types of situations we are heavily out gunned.”
That’s one reason Columbus police are upgrading officers’ weaponry. Corcoran says the department is replacing the Smith & Wesson 4506 with a new, higher capacity pistol.
“That was a concern of officers on the street. They wanted more ammunition,” Corcoran says. “These magazines will hold 15 rounds as opposed to the old eight rounds that the 4506 held. It gives the officer less magazine changes in tense situations.”
Columbus police officers and trainees at the city academy have been training with the new .40 caliber M&P model as an instructor supervises the session.
“Next exercise. When the target turns to face you, draw your weapon, fire two shots, holster up, back to the center of the booth. Is the line ready?”
At the department’s indoor firing range, large cardboard targets turn to face eight officers in training, and they fire as instructed.
Columbus police will now be carrying 21 more rounds for the new pistol bringing the total capacity to 46. But since a federal assault rifle ban expired, criminals, says Scott Hunter, Firearms Committee chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, still can carry larger amounts of ammunition.
“People can buy magazines that can hold 10, 20, 30, even 100, which is devastating to a street officer who typically is only carrying a side arm,” Hunter says. “They may well likely be outgunned.”
That’s why Reynoldsburg officers may now choose to carry an AR-15 rifle in their cruisers – it’s a civilian version of an M16. Columbus police have a supply of M1′s; the county has M16′s.
“We have SWAT guys on the street all the time,” says Franklin County chief deputy Martin. “And they carry their equipment with them so depending on what their specialty is or what their arms are we can have sophisticated weapons. We have armored vehicles now; we didn’t used to have those. So it’s just a sign of the times, really.”
But police, according to Scott Hunter, will always be constrained in their choice of what weapons to use. He says they cannot indiscriminately fire high powered rifles as criminals do, because of the risk to civilians.