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Mayor says no to police rifle patrols

Backs M-16s only for special units Some local leaders irate over plan

By Michael Levenson and Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / May 30, 2009
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Facing sharp criticism, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday that he will not approve a Boston Police Department plan to arm neighborhood officers with semiautomatic rifles, although he expressed some support for their use by specialized units.

The police have obtained 200 M-16s free of charge from the US military and made plans to train dozens of officers and arm them with the rifles. A Globe story yesterday said police officials told union leaders months ago and again in recent weeks that they planned to issue the weapons to precinct patrol officers, as well as specialized units such as the bomb squad and harbor patrol.

But Menino expressed deep reservations yesterday about the plans. He said he had not been briefed on the proposal until a few days ago, and in comments to reporters he was clearly unhappy about the idea of officers patrolling the city's neighborhoods with high-powered semiautomatic assault weapons.

"It hasn't been implemented at all," the mayor said outside a Roslindale elementary school. "There are conversations. This is equipment that's been given to us by the federal government. Other cities have done it. But we haven't made any decision. I would not want them on regular patrols."

Menino said the guns would be more appropriate for officers in elite units. "Maybe on specialized units, at special times, yes," he said.

While special units and patrol officers in other cities such as Chicago, Miami, and Denver use semiautomatic weapons, Boston's plans ignited a backlash.

Community leaders decried the lack of public notice and questioned the reasoning behind arming district officers with M-16s when the city's SWAT team - which responds to standoffs, hostage situations, and other major situations with the potential for violence - already has such weapons. They said the plans seemed to fly in the face of Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis's bid to revitalize community policing, which focuses on reducing crime by fostering trust between officers and residents.

"It seems like people wanted to get their free toys, and now they have to make up rhyme and reason for what to do with them," said Jorge Martinez, executive director of Project RIGHT, which runs violence prevention programs in Roxbury. "They come up with these ridiculous ideas. What's wrong with this commissioner? This guy is supposed to be a national leader in community policing."

While saying he has made no final decision, Davis defended the need for the guns in an interview yesterday and said he was not contemplating placing anything near 200 new M-16s on the streets.

He cited the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, where first-responders waited for specialized teams to arrive even as two teen shooters killed their schoolmates inside. M-16s allow officers to level more potent firepower from greater distances, more accurately, countering criminals with similarly high-powered guns.

"We have a new training process where officers are required to immediately confront an active shooter," said Davis. He said it could take 30 or 40 minutes for SWAT officers to arrive on the scene of an attack. "To protect themselves, they need to have some type of equipment readily available to them," he said.

Law enforcement officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told the Globe this week that police administrators had been citing the terrorist attacks last year in Mumbai, India, as justification for the new guns. Those police administrators had told union leaders that the department planned to issue up to 200 guns, the law enforcement officials said.

Davis described a plan yesterday to issue M-16s only to elite units and to sergeants and supervisors in the neighborhoods. Under that plan, only a dozen M-16s would be on the streets at any one time in the neighborhoods, he said. Such a policy would still require dozens of district officers to be trained with weapons in order to cover all shifts in the city's districts.

The commissioner said other police departments in Massachusetts have the high-powered rifles, including Brookline. Boston ordered its M-16s last year.

In meetings since then, department administrators told union leaders they planned to provide up to 40 hours of training to officers selected to carry the weapons, including having each fire some 2,000 practice rounds, according to the law enforcement officials quoted yesterday by the Globe. Other officers would take a less-intensive class on the weapons so they would know how to handle one in an emergency.

The plans seemed to contradict the recommendations of a police review panel, which suggested in 2005 that the department intensively train all officers who could be required to use a special weapon such as a pepper-pellet gun in an emergency.

The panel formed in 2004 after officers fatally shot Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove and wounded two other Red Sox fans with pepper-pellet guns during a pennant celebration outside Fenway Park. Some of the officers ordered to fire the pellet guns that night had not been trained to use them. The review also concluded that the department should notify the community before introducing any weapons into its arsenal.

Davis said it would be impossible to train every officer on every weapon. He said he had planned to notify the public next month. Davis said community leaders would be invited to a demonstration of the guns at the department's shooting range.

Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said residents should have been consulted before the department ordered the weapons.

"We're partners when it comes to ribbon cuttings and cadet graduations, but when it comes to something like this, we have to read about it in the newspaper?" he said.

The plan drew mixed responses from the mayoral candidates. Councilor Sam Yoon said it was a "tragic irony" that Boston obtained rifles even as it faced cuts in violence prevention programs. But he said: "It's hard to argue against a resource that comes to the city for free, and obviously training has to go with that."

Councilor Michael F. Flaherty said: "I'm not quite sure that would be a priority in my administration. We need to put a [crime reduction] plan in place, and just adding guns is not the answer."

South End developer Kevin McCrea expressed support for SWAT officers carrying M-16s, but not district police. "The problem in the city is youth violence, and giving police officers semiautomatic weapons is not going to combat the roots" of crime, he said.