Crime & Courts

Wichita police want to add rifles in cars

Wichita police officials are exploring the possibility of adding rifles to patrol cars to give officers more firepower in responding to potentially violent situations.

"This is something we're examining seriously," Deputy Police Chief Nelson Mosley said.

Most area law enforcement agencies already issue rifles to their officers in recent years, reflecting a nationwide trend in response to increasingly violent threats.

"It's not as cut-and-dried as going out and buying a rifle and putting it in a car and saying, 'Have a good day,' " Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams said. "You've got to look at a lot of possibilities."

The two biggest considerations are securing a place for officers to practice and finding the money to pay for the guns and ammunition, Williams and Mosley said.

They do not yet have an estimate on how much it would cost, they say, because they're not sure how many rifles would be added. The discussion is occurring as budgets are tight, so finding the resources would be a challenge.

But officers need to have rifles to protect officers and residents, say sheriffs and police chiefs elsewhere in the area.

"Without the rifles, we were under-equipped to deal with a lot of situations," said Butler County Sheriff Craig Murphy, who issued rifles to deputies about two years ago. "You have situations out here where the first officer on the scene may need to go into battle right then if he's going to save lives.

"All we had were shotguns and hand weapons," he said. "Well, that wasn't going to get it done."

Some rifles already

Wichita's Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, teams already have rifles. Each SWAT member is assigned their own rifle, Williams said.

But incidents around the nation in recent years alerted law enforcement agencies to a possible need for more firepower, local authorities said. Among them:

* The attempted robbery of a bank in North Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 28, 1997, where two men dressed in body armor and armed with high-powered rifles engaged in a running gun battle with law enforcement that lasted for nearly an hour before the men were killed.

Six officers and six bystanders were wounded in the gun battle, during which officers had to go to a nearby gun store to obtain rifles and other weapons with more firepower than their handguns.

* School shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, as well as a middle school in Russia.

"It used to be that if you had an active-shooter situation, you'd call in SWAT and set up a perimeter, and then move in," Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said. "But Columbine and other school shootings, other spree shootings, showed you can't afford to wait.

"The sooner you can mount a response to that, the more lives that are saved and the sooner you can bring it to a resolution," he said. "We can't just send people into harm's way without having the right tools."

Sedgwick County has 35 rifles in its arsenal, deployed mostly with deputies on patrol. The department plans to double that number soon, Hinshaw said.

A rifle is a much better weapon than a shotgun, he said, because it's more accurate and has a much longer range.

The M4s used by sheriff's officers have an effective range of about 300 yards, compared with 50 yards for a shotgun, he said.

"A violent criminal who's using body armor — it's becoming much more prevalent," Hinshaw said. "The rifle gives us the ability to penetrate that body armor."

Bullets penetrate walls

Because rifle bullets can travel farther than shotgun pellets or even a round from a handgun, Williams said, officers need to be careful when and where they would fire a rifle — and to hit their target as well.

"It's one thing to be able to pick up a shotgun," Williams said. "It's a whole different ball game to pick up a rifle.

"You're going to have some issues ... that may have some deadly consequences for an innocent person."

Williams pointed to a shooting at Towne East earlier this month as an example. A dispute between feuding members of the same gang escalated until one of them pulled out a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous shots at two men just after they walked out of the mall.

Some of the shots went through the outside walls into the Dillard's store — and one went through several interior walls and missed a man in a Dillard's changing room by inches, Williams said.

The shooter had a handgun, Williams said, "so you can imagine what a rifle's capability can be.

"You've really got to be proficient with using those weapons, because it's going to penetrate a lot of buildings," he said.

The Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office uses hollow-point bullets in its rifles because "a hollow-point fragments on whatever it hits," Hinshaw said.

Other bullet types will pass through a wall and could wound or kill others, he said.

To reduce the risk of rounds missing their targets, Williams and Mosley said, officers will need plenty of practice with their rifles.

Officials are looking at whether the shooting range that city and county law enforcement officers share at Lake Afton should be expanded and reconfigured or if a new location has to be found.

There's also the cost of purchasing the rifles and how many officers should have them, Williams said.

"You've got to determine how many rifles do you want on the street?" he said.

The department has 175 marked cars used for patrol.

"Do you put a rifle in every one of those?" Williams asked. "What is the most practical and feasible?"

Hinshaw said outfitting a deputy costs nearly $1,500 per rifle. That's the combined cost of the weapon, accessories and ammunition for training and use.

Haysville wants rifles

Haysville police are also looking at adding rifles to their arsenal.

"We've been looking at it for the past year," Haysville Police Capt. Bruce Powers said. "It just seems like the budget wouldn't allow it."

Powers said he hopes to add rifles soon.

"The officers a lot of times on calls are outgunned," he said. "There's a lot of semi-automatic rifles that the officers come into contact with."

Powers pointed to the ambush killing of Sedgwick County sheriff's Deputy Brian Etheridge last September as an example.

Richard Lyons shot Etheridge in the back as he lay hidden, then tried to shoot the deputy a second time, but the rifle jammed.

Lyons then hid in a nearby field while law enforcement officers searched for him. He was spotted several hours later and killed in a shootout.

"If he still would have had his rifle, he could have picked off anybody in that one-mile section," Powers said.

Goddard Police Chief Sam Houston called rifles "a tool of the times."

"I wish we didn't have to have them," he said, but they've become necessary.

"Law enforcement has always been behind the times, and now they're finally catching up to where they're not outgunned anymore."

"It's not cheap," he said. "But if that weapon saves that officer's life or a citizen's life, it is paid for in full."

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