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Television Violence

Could It Happen Here? Chief Lou Cobarruviaz and Mayor Susan Hammer announced plans to buy 150 semiautomatic rifles two weeks after the North Hollywood shootout.

Three months after the L.A. bank shootout, San Jose 's leaders have decided to spend $100,000 to buy new AR-15 assault rifles for the local police, but are they skimping on the training?

By Michael Learmonth

THE HORRIFIC SCENE was broadcast into 25 million homes. Two men armed with AK-47s and a death wish sprayed North Hollywood streets with bullets after a botched robbery attempt, stopping only to discard spent clips and reload. L.A. police hit the pavement, some wounded and some diving for cover. Their 9mm handguns barely gave the gunmen pause as the bullets were absorbed harmlessly by neck-to-ankle body armor.

The videotape was watched by police departments around the country, who played, rewound and played it again. Over and over, cops looked on as their brothers in Los Angeles fired round after round in a vain attempt to stop the gunmen. They watched as the first gunman shot himself and the second continued to wreak havoc for an hour until a lucky shot pierced his neck.

"It was extremely scary," says San Jose Police Officer John Carrillo, who watched the gun battle on video in his office. The image, he says, lingers in the minds of officers on the beat.

"After seeing what happened in L.A., anytime an officer responds to a robbery or weapons call, that is one of the first images you get--being outgunned."

Two weeks after the shootings, San Jose Police Chief Lou Cobarruviaz and Mayor Susan Hammer called a press conference.

"As long as I am mayor, I will do everything in my power to prevent that chilling scene from ever happening in San Jose," Hammer said.

The mayor's first step in that direction was dramatic. She pledged to provide $97,000 to arm the police department with 150 .223-caliber AR-15 assault rifles--a SWAT team favorite. Beginning in July, these semiautomatic rifles will be tooling around San Jose locked in the trunks of 144 SJPD squadcars, available in the event of a marauding gunman.

Bucking the Trend

AT THE TIME of The Incident, as the North Hollywood shootout has come to be known in police departments nationwide, the SJPD had just completed an 18-month study on the purchase of semiautomatic rifles. But because of budget constraints, the purchase plan had been shelved. The Incident changed all that.

"It was a fortuitous circumstance because it jarred some money loose," said Sgt. Larry Weir. "And we're not too proud to take advantage of that."

So jolted by The Incident was the City Council that the midyear budget allocating the money for the gun purchase sailed through on March 24 without debate.

"That [purchase] and grenade launchers are OK with me, too," says Councilmember John Diquisto, whose son is a police officer in San Francisco. "I'm not saying we have an unsafe city, but you never know when the dummies are ready to come in. You gotta be prepared to blow them away."

Councilmember Trixie Johnson, who, unlike Diquisto, supports gun control, joins him in saying that the time to upgrade police weaponry has come.

"It's not a heartening thing," Johnson says. "You would like to think you would never have to use these. It's like England coming to grips with the fact that bobbies are going to have to carry more than a stick."

The mayor's office has logged no opposition to the gun purchase, according to Mayor Hammer's spokesman, Kevin Pursglove.

But the escalation can't be justified by the level of violence on the streets of San Jose. It seems to have been entirely inspired by what the police and local politicians saw on television.

In San Jose, the number of assaults against officers has declined steadily, and it's been eight years since an officer was killed in the line of duty.

This trend is reflected nationwide. According to the National Law Enforcement Association, a total of 117 police officers died in the line of duty in 1996, a 30 percent decline from the previous year. Of the officers killed in 1996, 55 were killed by firearms and one by an assault weapon. That is down from 71 police deaths by firearms in 1995 and 10 deaths by assault weapons.

The last time an officer was killed in San Jose was 1989, when Officer Gene Simpson was executed with his own handgun at the corner of Fifth and Santa Clara streets and Officer Gordon Silva was killed in the ensuing shootout. The number of assaults against police officers in San Jose declined from 120 to 95 between 1994 and 1995 alone.

So if violence against police officers seems to be declining, why does the SJPD suddenly need the big guns?

"There has been a trend nationwide [toward assault rifles]," said Lt. Larry Weir of the SJPD. "The pistol is only a 25-yard weapon. If someone else has a rifle, even if it is a .22, it outclasses a pistol."

Weir points to two incidents in San Jose: the officers murdered in 1989 and a shooting spree on Blossom Hill Road last year. At the Blossom Hill shootout, there were no injuries to bystanders or police, thanks to some incredible marksmanship by a patrol officer who stopped the gunman with three shotgun blasts at 75 yards. This was remarkable shooting given that shotgun pellets spread at a rate of one inch per yard of travel.

In the future, the semiautomatic will replace the shotgun in similar incidents. Had the officer been armed with an AR-15, Weir says, the 75-yard shot would have been "a piece of cake." It also would have decreased the danger of a stray pellet hitting a civilian.

Big Guns: The AR-15 assault rifle, soon to be carried in the patrol cars of the SJPD.

Low-Powered Training

WEAPONS LIKE THE AR-15 used to be the exclusive domain of a few specialists on police SWAT teams. This can be a liability when a wacko on the street starts shooting. The SWAT team in San Jose, known as MERGE, can take from 15 to 45 minutes to assemble. The same is true in L.A., which is one of the reasons the North Hollywood gunmen were able to pin down 100 police officers for so long.

By arming 144 patrol officers with AR-15s, SJPD hopes they can more quickly get the big guns to the scene of an incident. But in order for these guns to be useful, these officers will also have to be armed with training.

Weir says each officer will initially receive 30 hours of training on the rifle and will have to qualify again every six months. This contrasts with the San Francisco Police Department, which issues less than half as many AR-15s and requires more specialized training.

SFPD has 48 patrol officers armed with AR-15s dispersed throughout 10 patrol districts and collectively called the "specialist unit." The specialists are expected to essentially drop whatever they are doing and be the first on the scene of any critical incident to seal the area until the SWAT team arrives. To carry an AR-15, the SFPD officers must complete two weeks, or 80 hours, of training.

The Sunnyvale Public Safety Department gives each officer 90 hours of regular training every year and 40 hours of training on the AR-15, plus additional informal work. SFPD Lt. Bob Armanino says the specialists must also spend one day every other month training with the rifles and complete additional incident training.

"Not to make San Jose look like they're not getting enough training," Armanino said, "but we also do a lot of tactics."

Robert Sculley is a retired 25-year Detroit police officer and director of the National Association of Police Organizations, which represents 185,000 law enforcement officers. He says it's about time for San Jose to upgrade to the AR-15.

"I think the administration in San Jose has come to the reality that police have to be properly equipped and trained for an event [like the one] that happened in L.A.," Sculley says. "I would say they're catching up. Maybe they are taking advantage of the situation in L.A., and rightfully so."

Haunting Reality

OTHER EXPERTS SAY THAT actual crime conditions should be studied before the decision is made to go to semiautomatics.

Patrick Murphy, former New York City police commissioner and now a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, ran down a list of questions a study should answer before a city makes the move: "Have you analyzed the shootings and attacks on police officers in the last two to five years? Have you been in contact with other departments of similar size?"

Murphy suggests conferring with six to eight other departments of similar size "that have very good reputations for police policies and the way officers should be trained."

Sgt. Weir says San Jose consulted two smaller local departments (Santa Clara and Sunnyvale), the CHP and the FBI.

"L.A. was a very dramatic event, but then you have to sit down and say that was one event. Even the military cannot operate on the most extreme example," Murphy says. "You don't make policy on the basis of one incident."

But for Weir, who sends men out on the street every day, it's not about policy or statistics.

"If the bad guys are going to have rifles," he says, "we want rifles, too."

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From the May 8-14, 1997 issue of Metro

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