If everything works out, sometime this year the Lebanon County, Pennsylvania's Sheriff's Department will receive up to 20 AR-15s. And it will be none too soon, says Sheriff Michael DeLeo.
"We know from past experience and from what other police departments and law enforcement agencies are encountering that today it's absolutely necessary to have heavy-duty weapons," DeLeo explains. "Simply because the criminals, the perpetrators on the streets, are using body armor to protect themselves....They're out to beat law enforcement."
Just days before G&A talked with the sheriff, police in nearby Harrisburg had a stand-off with a man wanted for murder. He'd holed up in a building, decked out in body armor and threatening police with a rifle. In a situation like this one, DeLeo says, the standard police sidearm-plus-shotgun outfit just won't cut it. Officers would really benefit from the punch of a semiautomatic .223 rifle. So DeLeo got approval by his county board to purchase AR-15s from a government program that sells police departments surplus military arms.
"Nobody really want to have to use them," DeLeo says of the AR-15s. "However, you'd better be prepared when it's necessary."
For years, SWAT and other tactical police units have employed .223 rifles. But across the nation more and more police departments are equipping front-line patrol officers with .223s. Various models of the AR-15 are common, though some police have M16A1s (via the military surplus program).
"We were the first police department in Arizona to adopt the .223 rifle," says Rick Furr, a 28-year veteran of the Scottsdale Police Department, who retired from active duty to teach tactical shooting at the department's academy. "I never liked the shotgun because so many people couldn't shoot them well, due to the recoil. So I kept proposing and proposing we adopt the .223."
That proposal finally went through in the mid-1990s, with the stipulation that officers purchase their own rifles. Many did. But the department eventually picked up the slack, and today every Scottsdale officer has an AR-15 in his or her patrol vehicle. And no shotgun.
Furr traces the shift to the police rifle to a 1997 failed bank robbery in North Hollywood, California. The bank robbers came armed with semi- and fully automatic rifles and fired hundreds and hundreds of rounds. Two of the robbers were killed, and 15 other people, including a reported 10 police officers, were wounded. Police carried duty 9mm Beretta handguns and were outmatched.
In just the last several years, a number of police departments have gone the AR-15 route. This includes the Dallas, Texas, and St. Petersburg, Florida, departments. Dallas allowed its officers to start purchasing their own rifles following the 2004 robbery of a suburban Dallas bank. Several Alabama departments have AR-15s, too, including the Vestavia Hills and Birmingham agencies, plus the Alabama State Patrol. Birmingham made the move after a 2004 incident in which a rifle-wielding assailant killed three city police officers.