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Madison police officials have tried for years to get more assault rifles, but the City Council hasn’t wanted to cough up the money. Now the Police Department has a solution: Have the officers buy their own.
The department wants to assign an AR-15 assault rifle to each of its roughly 300 operations officers, those that routinely patrol the streets or drive squad cars in the line of duty. But the department is about 100 rifles short. The reason behind the push to buy more is to allow each officer to have a weapon that is adjusted for accuracy based on the officer’s size and shooting style.
The City Council is expected to approve the proposal Tuesday, but some are concerned that the officers who own the weapons will be allowed to take them home, potentially increasing the chance that they will be lost or stolen.
“The question that many of us have is: What do you do?” says Ald. Paul Skidmore, a member of the Public Safety Review Committee, which endorsed the measure last month. “If you take it home at night, do you throw it in the back of the car? You throw it in the trunk? What if it gets stolen and somebody uses it? There are a whole number of problems that could happen.”
Skidmore offered an amendment that would have required to leave the weapons at work at the end of their shifts, but it was shot down by the committee.
Capt. Vic Wahl says the Police Department approached the mayor’s office with the plan, and Mayor Dave Cieslewicz subsequently offered a resolution for the city to buy the weapons, which go for about $1,200 a pop. Officers can then buy the rifles from the city in 52 payroll-deducted payments.
It’s similar to how the department issues handguns, which officers purchase on a 26-week payroll-deduction program.
For years, says Wahl, officers have been able to take their sidearms home, and even carry them when they’re off duty.
“It hasn’t been a problem,” he says.
But Skidmore says long rifles pose a different set of problems.
“You carry it on your side,” Skidmore says of pistols. “You don’t throw it in the back of the car when you drive home.”
Wahl says if officers owned the weapons, the department couldn’t stop them from taking them home, adding that there are sound reasons for doing so. Since the officers would be responsible for maintaining the weapons, they would likely have to take them home to do that, or they might want to have them on hand to take to the shooting range. At any rate, Wahl anticipates that officers would opt most often to secure their rifles at work. If they did take them home, Wahl says, there would be policies and standards in place to prevent problems.
“Obviously, people can’t be armed when they’ve been consuming alcohol, and certainly there are expectations on how they would be carrying them to and from work,” he says, adding that officers will be held to a much higher standard that the general public.
“Joe Citizen can go out and buy a rifle today and throw it in the back of his trunk and go to the grocery store or have a beer, and that’s all, in most cases, perfectly legal,” he says.
From the department’s perspective, the core issue is weapon accuracy, Wahl says. In order for officers to be able to hit what they’re aiming at, each one needs their own personalized rifle.
Under the current system, one officer adjusts the sights on all of the roughly 200 assault rifles in the department, which are checked out by officers at the beginning of a shift and secured in their squad cars.
While officers train and must show proficiency with “universally sighted” weapons, Wahl says, “they’re never going to be as comfortable or as accurate with a universally sighted one as with an individually sighted one.”
A lack of confidence in the accuracy of a weapon can have a profound effect on how an officer handles a life-threatening situation.
“It severely limits when we might use it,” Wahl says.
Madison is not exactly forging new ground with the rifle proposal. In fact, like Tasers and other controversial advances in police weaponry, assault rifles are becoming the new norm.
In response to a growing number of incidents around the country in which police have been outgunned, several jurisdictions, including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the Arizona State University System have recently issued assault rifles to officers, and San Antonio and Dallas allow officers to use their own rifles.
In terms of rifle use, Madison is ahead of the curve.
“We made the decision over a decade ago to make the transition from shotguns to rifles,” Wahl says. “A rifle offers a number of advantages over a shotgun in terms of accuracy and distance, less recoil, multiple shot capacity.”
They are rarely fired. Wahl can only think of one instance in which a patrol officer actually fired an AR-15 in the line of duty. That was in 2007, when a man called police to say he had a gun. When police arrived he brandished the pistol, which turned out to be a pellet gun, and a Madison officer shot him dead. It was deemed a case of suicide-by-cop.
But rifles are often used as a precaution.
“In terms of them being taken out to be deployed on a high-risk traffic stop or a building search or whatever the case may be, they’re used every day,” Wahl says. “To the public, there will be no visible effect.”