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Erie police to carry AR-15 assault rifles

Sunday, April 28, 2002

By The Associated Press

ERIE -- As police in Erie await the delivery of AR-15 assault rifles for "frontline" officers, opponents argue the weapons are unnecessary and too dangerous.

Police Chief Charles Bowers acknowledges his officers have yet to face off with body armor-wearing bank robbers or face a Columbine-type confrontation, but said the police force should nonetheless be prepared.

Each Erie police officer now carries a 9 mm handgun and has access to a shotgun, kept in each squad car. The rifles would replace shotguns in some squad cars, Bowers said.

"In a situation like a school shooting or a workplace shooting, a suspect could be in a hallway 50 or 60 yards away and your pistol would be about useless because you wouldn't have the accuracy," he said.

The pattern of buckshot fired by a shotgun spreads at longer distances and could endanger bystanders, he said.

Bowers said the .223-caliber bullets fired by an AR-15 have greater accuracy at longer distances than both the 9 mm handgun and the shotgun.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and others have voiced concern about the increased firepower.

"Tragedies like the MOVE house in Philadelphia, the killing of Randy Weaver's wife and son and Waco have happened when heavily armed police have been ordered too quickly by civilian executives to resolve standoffs," said Robert Cogan, president of the American Civil Liberties Union's northwestern Pennsylvania chapter.

In 1985, 500 police officers encircled a row house occupied by the radical group MOVE and demanded their surrender. A 90-minute gun battle erupted, followed by a daylong standoff. Police eventually dropped a satchel of explosives on the roof, igniting a fire that killed 11 people.

Bob McDowell, who owns an Erie shooting range and gun shop, said police should be armed as well as or better than criminals, but that there had been no need for the weapons in the past.

"When was the last time someone committed a crime with a rifle [in Erie]?" he asked. "When was the last time police had to shoot 100 yards at someone?"

Bowers said an increasing number of police departments were using semiautomatic, assault-style rifles, including the Pennsylvania State Police. Troopers must undergo specialized training before using the weapon, spokesman Jack Lewis said.

Bowers said the rifles would be used by only those officers who have received advanced training and that officers would have to qualify before being allowed access to the weapon.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said more powerful weaponry was not always necessary

"The chief is wrong [by saying] that if you're a progressive department, you're carrying assault weapons," he said. "Officers should be carrying weapons most suited for them."

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