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Two former police officers provide contrasting views of rifles in patrol cars

Both are former police officers who know the job’s dangers. To them, “violence in the streets” is more than a cliche.

But Scott W. Phillips, a SUNY Buffalo State criminal justice professor, and Thomas H. Burton, a Buffalo defense attorney, have different takes on the latest police proposal – whether patrol officers should be armed with high-powered rifles.

In Dallas and Baton Rouge ambushes last month, eight police officers were shot to death and 10 others wounded. The Baton Rouge attack fueled the controversy over high-powered rifles in patrol cars.

That’s when a SWAT team rifleman took out the gunman from more than 100 yards away, Baton Rouge officials said.

Those two incidents prompted the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association to renew its support for arming patrol officers with AR-15 rifles.

Phillips, a former Houston police officer who analyzes data on policing across America, sees no strong evidence for patrol officers being armed with such high-powered weapons.

“There’s no empirical research that supports or justifies providing street-level officers with patrol rifles,” he said.

Phillips understands the fears and concerns, as well as the political risks: “If something happened in Buffalo and police had responded to an incident, like a school shooting, and they didn’t have high-powered weapons, people would second-guess them to death.”

But public policy should be based on sound data, not on the emotions created by such horrific attacks, he said.

Burton, a former Hamburg police officer and Erie and Oswego county sheriff’s deputy, doesn’t advocate putting a high-powered rifle in every patrol car. He also doesn’t want to do nothing. Instead, Burton favors a compromise.

“Politically, arming every squad car with an AR-15 won’t float,” he said. “Doing nothing isn’t acceptable. There’s got to be a common-sense middle ground, especially if these assaults against police continue.”

Burton suggested a variation of the old Buffalo police “flash car,” with an assistant chief responding to serious felony crimes. At least one car on every shift could have a supervisor or highly trained officer carrying added weapons in the trunk, like a rifle, shotgun or tear gas, Burton suggested. In just a few minutes, that car could rush to a potential shooting where a patrol officer faces high-powered weapons.

“It would be a better option while the SWAT Team is saddling up and responding,” Burton said. “As good as the SWAT Team is, that takes precious time, which the responding officer does not have when bullets are flying.”

In separate interviews, Burton and Phillips helped frame the debate over this thorny new police issue.

Former street cop

As an associate professor of criminal justice at Buffalo State, Phillips crunches numbers, but he’s no ivory-tower egghead. He was a patrol officer with the Houston Police Department for three years in the mid-1980s, so he knows what life on the streets is like.

Now he studies crime from afar, statistically. And he realizes that can sound cold.

“The police officers in Dallas, the police officers in Baton Rouge, ... those families don’t care about statistics. Their father is dead. I understand that, but we don’t make public policy based on individual events.”

Phillips noted that there is “literally no research” on the usefulness of patrol officers carrying high-powered rifles in major confrontations with an assailant, probably because they happen so infrequently.

“These incidents of police-officer-involved shootings are exceedingly rare, ridiculously rare,” he said.

One example: Statistically speaking, a police officer in New York City would have to work 700 years before having to shoot and kill someone, he said.

Phillips has been involved in two studies on the issue, neither one of them random or scientific. One was a survey of 370 police officials at the FBI National Academy last year, the other a sample of 170 local and state police agencies (out of some 18,000 total in the nation) that arm patrol officers with rifles.

Here are some observations from his and other studies:

• Officers receive an average of 20 hours of high-powered weapons training for five different types of scenarios.

• Long-distance shootings involving police are extremely unlikely. Only 5 percent of such shootings are over 50 feet.

• Even at short distances – most shootings occur within 10 feet – police officers hit their targets only about 50 percent of the time, studies have shown, because of the stress that can create distortions in time and space.

That inaccuracy gets worse at more than 50 feet, Phillips suggested.

• Policing is not as dangerous a job as people think.

Phillips cited national statistics that show policing doesn’t crack the top-10 list of deadliest jobs, lagging behind logging, fishing, piloting and roofing. Police work isn’t the most dangerous occupation as measured by workplace homicides; it’s No. 2, far behind taxi drivers.

“If I were the commissioner of the Buffalo Police Department, I would say this in no uncertain terms: ‘There are very few police-involved shootings,’ ” Phillips said. “I would tell the public and the police that the misinformation and myths they have been fed for decades are just inaccurate.”

He believes one problem is that everyone wants what he calls “protection perfection” from the police. That’s impossible, because of mistakes and egregious behavior.

“If you want to spend $400,000 to make the public happy, that’s a political decision,” Phillips said, referring to the cost of arming Buffalo police with AR-15s. “But you’re wasting your money. You’re doing something to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Seeking middle ground

Burton knows about police-involved shootings. For years, he has represented local police officers who have shot someone while on duty.

He won’t quibble with Phillips’ statistics. In fact, he agrees with some of them. But he still thinks doing nothing is the wrong response.

And Burton gave a simple rebuttal:

“If I was a Dallas cop, I would have preferred heavier armament rather than waiting for a criminal justice professor to do a study.”

All the survey findings don’t change the dangerous, lopsided odds that patrol officers face when they are badly outarmed by the bad guys, Burton said.

“I agree generally with the professor about the stress factors involved in a gunfight, but denying the officers an option of heavier weaponry doesn’t make things safer for the officer,” he added.

He also fears that the Dallas and Baton Rouge attacks could become more common. “It’s too early to see if there’s a trend,” he said.

But Baton Rouge and Dallas suggest that the old police model – arming patrol officers with only a handgun – may not work anymore, Burton said.

That’s why he proposes a stop-gap measure, putting rifles in a few cars per shift.

“It’s something that can be implemented quickly, it’s not terribly expensive, and most importantly, it can give cops a protective option they don’t currently have,” he said.

“Waiting for full-blown studies can wind up with more cops being dead.”

Going to keep trying

Right after Baton Rouge, PBA First Vice President John T. Evans renewed the union’s call for arming patrol officers with higher-powered rifles.

“For a police officer to respond to an active shooter with a high-powered rifle, we’re pretty much defenseless,” Evans said two weeks ago. “We’d have to wait for the SWAT Team. In the meantime, the carnage could be terrible.”

Since then, no one from City Hall has contacted him to discuss the issue, he said.

Evans has slightly revised his suggestion, calling perhaps for a smaller M4 rifle, compared to the AR-15.

But he liked the sound of Burton’s suggestion.

“In a perfect world, there would be one [rifle] in every car, but if we had three or four in a shift, we’d have something,” he said.

“For a start, I’d be fine with that, because currently we have nothing. This would at least give us a fighting chance.”

Evans knows the political realities, citing the people who want to “demilitarize the police force,” politicians sensitive to that idea and what he called a “silent majority” that supports a more high-powered weapon.

“It’s a weapon to preserve life, to save the public more than us,” he said. “We’re just going to keep trying.”


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