ST. LOUIS COUNTY • Jason Dite nicknamed his rifle the "Zombie Hunter." Kevin Minor calls his "Snake Doctor."
They are among a growing pool of St. Louis County police officers allowed to carry personal rifles on patrol to bolster firepower in tight budget times. Chief Tim Fitch said it's a stopgap until the county can afford more rifles, which offer longer range and greater accuracy than the handguns and shotguns already provided.
Use of rifles has raised questions in some communities about liability and the propriety of issuing military-style weapons to rank-and-file officers who seldom encounter terrorist or spree shooting situations.
But Fitch cited a 2008 Maplewood shooting, in which a sniper killed a firefighter and wounded two police officers, and the 2008 Kirkwood City Hall attack, that left six victims and the killer dead, as situations in which rifles would be valuable.
"I understand the criticism, but it isn't realistic," Fitch said. "Hoping that it never happens is not a good strategy."
'MY OWN SETUP'
St. Louis County was among large departments to issue rifles after a 1997 incident in which two heavily armed bank robbers shot it out for 44 minutes with Los Angeles police, wounding 11 officers and seven civilians before being killed. Out-gunned police obtained rifles from a gun shop to fight back.
The county police have bought about 156 rifles with asset forfeiture money, about half the number needed. At more than $1,000 each, it could take years, Fitch said.
In April, he invited officers to bring their own. Dite and Minor were among the first. "I like my own setup," Minor explained. "It gives you a lot of confidence."
Dite said officers must trade in their shotguns to carry rifles, but he didn't mind. "With a rifle, you can hit a target from a greater distance," he explained. "With a shotgun, you always have to worry about the pellets hurting someone else. The rifle gives you better accuracy."
CHECKS AND BALANCES
A personal rifle must meet department standards and use its .223-caliber ammunition. The owner must qualify in the same program as officers with department rifles. Fitch believes those steps help manage any liability.
The Illinois State Police and the Missouri Highway Patrol have similar policies, as do police in Shrewsbury and Chesterfield.
Some St. Louis officers carry department carbines — short-barrelled rifles that fire the same 9 mm rounds as their handguns. City officers in some specialized and undercover units are allowed to carry personally owned weapons.
Chief Dan Isom said his department has been re-evaluating weapons since the 2010 ABB Inc. shooting, in which a disgruntled factory employee killed three co-workers and himself. "As part of the ABB review, officers said what they needed," Isom said. "But funding is the major issue."
He said he would like to assign a rifle to every patrol car but has reservations about personally owned guns. "I would prefer for us to control the weapons," he said. "There would have to be a lot of thought put into it because of liability issues."
'GOING IN TO WIN'
Few large departments allowed personal rifles 10 years ago, noted Steve Mayer, law enforcement sales manager for Rock River Arms. Now, he said, about half his customers, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, allow it.
"It's a growing trend that allows them to put more rifles on the street without the expense to the county or city budget," he said.
David Klinger, associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said departments must regulate the officers' use of rifles, but noted, "If they are to be trusted with a pistol, they should be trusted with a rifle."
County police Lt. Col. Ken Cox said the department tells officers to break out rifles if there is reason to expect an encounter with an armed suspect. "We don't want them to think, 'Well, it might be a handgun, so I'll just go in with a handgun,'" Cox said. "No, you want to go in with the weapon that's going to give you the best edge. And we're going to go in to win."
Minor said he has pulled out his rifle but never used it, adding, "And I hope I never will."
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