Some cities have been arming officers with high-powered assault rifles for a decade or more. The Associated Press reports that the trend has accelerated in the last year because of greater numbers of shootouts, standoffs in which police were outgunned, rising officer deaths, and mass shootings of civilians by heavily armed gunmen. “If you get into a firefight, you want to be the winner,” said Scott Knight, police chief of Chaska, Mn., and chairman of the firearms committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “Our departments are moving to those weapons out of necessity across the country.”
Agencies are acquiring AR-15s or M-4s, both close relatives of the military’s M-16. The rifles fire bullets with enough velocity to penetrate some types of body armor and have greater accuracy at longer range than handguns. Last year, Miami Police Chief John Timoney authorized his patrol officers to carry AR-15s because of a rise in assault rifle use by criminals. He blames the 2004 expiration of the federal ban on assault weapons for the escalation of heavily armed violence. In 2007, according to preliminary numbers compiled from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 69 officers were shot to death, up from 52 in 2006 and the most in five years. The trend toward issuing assault rifles to regular patrol officers started in Los Angeles. In a 1997 shootout after a botched bank robbery, two heavily armed men wore body armor that stopped 9 mm bullets fired by the handguns carried by police.