El Paso, TX - Members of the El Paso City Council appear to favor the purchase of over 1,000 assault rifles for the police department, which says it needs them to protect the city from increasingly better armed criminals.
The council will be asked on Tuesday to approve the purchase of 1,145 assault rifles at a cost of $772,646. That would supply all patrol officers with the civilian version of the M-4 military rifle. The lowest bid is from recommended bidder GT Distributors Inc. of Austin.
The money would come from a federal grant of up to $899,287, funds targeted at stimulating the economy.
The case for the purchase is usually couched in terms of the drug-cartel violence in Juárez.
“We definitely don’t want our police officers to be outgunned by any cartel operatives who might come over to El Paso,” says El Paso Mayor John Cook.
But in the wake of shootings at Fort Hood and incidents here involving soldiers, some council members say they are also concerned about errant soldiers.
Peter Pacillas, assistant chief for training and special operations, does not single out soldiers for concern. He says, “Anybody who has the capability of using a high-caliber weapon is a concern for us.”
Three incidents in El Paso involving soldiers last year underscore those concerns. In each, soldiers used handguns, but police say the logical defense would be a rifle capable of shooting accurately over a significant distance.
Last April, a Chapin High School student was killed by a solider who was firing from across the street. The soldier, according to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, used a handgun. He was charged with murder.
In August, a solider was charged with shooting another solider at an El Paso bar. That, too involved a hand gun, according to the CID.
But perhaps the most notorious case cam in June, when an 18-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Bliss was charged in connection with the contract killing of a Mexican drug cartel lieutenant who also was a police informant. According to the El Paso Police Department, Michael Jackson Apodaca used a semi-automatic handgun.
According to statistics kept by the police department, the total number of guns seized by the police during searches and arrests has dropped over the last three years. What is worrisome, police say, is the increase in the percentage of those guns that are automatic or semi-automatic. Being able to fire more lead in a short period of time makes the criminal more dangerous.
Police seized 287 weapons in 2007, 265 in 2008 and only 253 in 2009. But the percentage of those weapons that are automatic or semi-automatic rose from 46.7 percent in 2007, to 50.2 percent in 2008, and to 59.7 percent in 2009.
“I feel comfortable with the request,” says Beto O’Rourke, city representative for the Westside District 8. “We are not trying to outgun the people with guns in our community, but to protect the public.”
Susie Byrd, District 2 representative, says she still has some questions.
“You always want police to approach any situation with an abundance of caution,” she says. “Having big assault rifles might embolden less cautious behavior.”
But she says she also worries about the violence across the border and the possible impact of military gangs.
According to the National Gang Threat Assessment for 2009, issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, the number of gang members who are in or who have come out of the military is unknown.
But, the report says, “the threat that (gang members with military training) pose to law enforcement is potentially significant, particularly if gang members trained in weapons, tactics and planning pass this instruction on to other gang members.”
A spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division acknowledges the presence of criminal gangs in the military, but says the problem is not rampant.
“We certainly recognize this is a serious issue, and each incident or credible allegation will be fully investigated,” says Chris Grey, Army CID chief of public affairs.
The population increase caused by expansion at Fort Bliss may become a factor in crime levels, says city Rep. Steve Ortega, District 7.
“If you add to that a population coming back from an extremely violent environment integrating with the civilian population, we want to make sure that the police department has all the resources it needs to make us the safest city in the nation.”
For West Side District 1 Rep. Ann Morgan Lilly, the decision was relatively easy.
“If the police are asking for them (the assault rifles) and need them, that’s OK,” she says. “(Police Chief) Greg Allen never asks for anything he doesn’t need.”
If council approves the purchase, the M-4s could be here in 90 days. Police officials say all officers will receive 40 hours of training before putting the weapons in the locked racks of their patrol car trunks.