Buffalo police are getting longer-range weapons - but not as much firepower as the police union thinks is needed.
To ensure patrol officers are adequately equipped in the event of an "active shooter" or terrorist incident, the department plans to buy 115 rifles that will be assigned to supervisor vehicles and certain other police cars, police officials said.
The department is also purchasing 450 "active shooter" vests - to be placed in all police vehicles - that are substantially heavier and provide more protection than standard police vests.
Buffalo police brass have been publicly squabbling for the past year with the Police Benevolent Association over additional firepower.
The union wants each patrol officer equipped with a higher-velocity AR-15 rifle - or a comparable weapon - in addition to their handguns.
Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda had said the department would study the request. But he has also questioned the need for every officer to have a high-powered rifle while on routine patrol. He also questions whether the AR-15 - which has enough firepower to penetrate standard police vests and has been used in some high-profile mass shootings - is appropriate for urban areas.
Derenda decided against the AR-15.
But he did agree to purchase semiautomatic Glock Magazine Quadrail rifles that use the same 40-caliber ammunition as the Glock handguns officers now use. The rifles provide greater long-range accuracy than the handguns, police officials said.
It's too expensive to put a Quadrail rifle in all police vehicles, but all officers will be trained to use them, and cars equipped with rifles would respond when the weapons are needed, said Lt. Jeff Rinaldo, chief of staff for the Buffalo Police Department. He recently met with city lawmakers to discuss the equipment purchases.
"If there's an active shooter call, everyone shows up. There will be multiple supervisors," Rinaldo told The Buffalo News after the meeting.
The equipment is being purchased with a $282,600 state grant.
Derenda did not attend the session with lawmakers, but the commissioner expressed his concern with AR-15s in a memoradum to the Council.
That weapon is used by the Erie County Sheriff's Department and some suburban Erie County police departments as well as the Buffalo Police Department SWAT team, according to police and union officials.
But it is not appropriate as a standard rifle in Buffalo, Derenda wrote.
"Since Buffalo police work in a dense, closed urban setting, we have to ensure our defensive response to high-risk calls is handled responsibly with minimum risk of innocent bystanders," he said.
Police Capt. Mark Makowski, who attended the session along with Rinaldo, said the concern with the high-velocity AR-15s is that their bullets could go through the body of an intended target and then hit an unintended victim.
The Quadrail rifles, Rinaldo said, give police "a lot more accuracy at a distance, while still maintaining control of rounds to the best of our ability."
PBA President Kevin M. Kennedy said the union considers the 40-caliber rifles being purchased "a step in the right direction."
The protocol, with lieutenants and other supervisors carrying the rifles, will get the weapons to the scene more quickly than the current system, where a SWAT team - Special Weapons and Tactics unit - is called out, he said.
"At least by issuing these rifles to our patrol lieutenants, there will be a quicker response once the call goes out," he said. "SWAT will respond to active shooter situations, but by the time the SWAT team can be notified and mobilized, critical time will lapse and tragedy will follow."
Nevertheless, the PBA maintains its position that the department should issue AR-15 rifles to every police officer. The SWAT team has an AR-15, he noted.
Patrol officers typically are the first ones on a scene, Kennedy said.
"It's going to be the patrol officer without this Quadrail set up," Kennedy said. "The hope is the lieutenant or supervisor quickly responds and backs him or her up."
The AR-15 is more accurate and easier to handle than the Quadrail, Kennedy said. Also, the AR-15 can penetrate standard bulletproof vests that shooters in some crime scenes have been known to wear, Kennedy said.
The Quadrail rifles can knock down someone wearing a standard bulletproof vest, but not penetrate the vest, Kennedy said.
The standard vests Buffalo police wear also aren't strong enough to protect officers from high-velocity rifles, but the "active shooter" vests the Buffalo Police Department is buying are strong enough to protect police from these rifle shots, Rinaldo told lawmakers.
"We purchased enough for the patrol division," Rinaldo said. "We are confident this gives them the protection needed."
The Council is expected to vote Tuesday to accept the grant funding for the purchase, thereby authorizing the sale to go forward.
The $282,611 grant Buffalo police are receiving is part of a $471,690 grant from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services that is also providing funding - $189,079 in total - to the Erie County Sheriff's Department and four suburban police agencies, Amherst, Orchard Park and the towns of Tonawanda and Hamburg.
Erie County received $70,674 from the grant. It is buying additional adjustable helmets and additional AR-15 rifles.
With the upcoming purchase, the agency will have an AR-15 in every patrol car, said Sheriff's Department spokesman Scott Zylka said.
Amherst police received $61,000 that will be used for helmets and additional bulletproof vest equipment, said Assistant Police Chief Charles Cohen.
Hamburg town police received $33,691 that is being used to purchase AR-15 rifles, ballistic helmets and trauma vests that go over standard bulletproof vests, to provide additional protection, said Police Chief Gregory Wickett.
Orchard Park police received almost $11,000 that is being used to buy helmets as well as additional bulletproof vest equipment, said Chief Mark Pacholec.
The Town of Tonawanda police received about $23,000 in grant funds.