Trending Topics

Cases of Officers Killed by Their Own Guns Likely Will Not Change R.I. Policies

The Associated Press

Over a recent six-week period, a handful of officers from Rhode Island to Illinois had their guns taken from them after they allegedly were overpowered by suspects or inmates. In each case, the ending was deadly.

The incidents have shaken departments and raised questions about safety procedures. But some law enforcement experts say not much will change _ and shouldn’t. Despite the latest tragedies, they say there’s no evidence that basic procedure is failing officers.

“You do not write policies to deal with the extreme,” said Michael Brady, an expert in police procedures in the Administration of Justice department at Salve Regina University in Newport. “The one thing the incidents do have in common is that they are a reminder of how dangerous police work is.”

On March 11, a defendant on trial for rape in Atlanta allegedly overpowered a courthouse deputy, took her gun and killed four people, including two law enforcement officers. A little over a month later, a Providence detective was killed with his own weapon while interviewing a suspect at police headquarters.

Police in Augusta, Ga., killed an inmate who fled on April 21 after overpowering a state corrections officer and taking his gun, authorities said. Two days later, a man under arrest in Spring Valley, Ill., wrested away an officer’s gun and beat him with it. The suspect then fatally shot himself, police said.

“It’s one too many when it happens,” Brady said. “But if you look nationwide, the frequency of a police officer’s gun being taken by a suspect is extremely rare.”

There are no national statistics on how many times officers’ guns are taken away. But the FBI says that of the 616 law enforcement officers killed on duty by criminals from 1994 through 2003, 52 were killed with their own weapon, amounting to 8 percent.

“What’s remarkable is that it doesn’t happen more often,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest union for law enforcement officers.

Police are trained to protect their weapons if they are attacked, and to resist using their guns unless a threat is imminent. If a weapon is grabbed, the officer always tries to retrieve it and often succeeds, experts said.

Michael White, assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the deputy overpowered in Atlanta should have been accompanied by more officers.

“Certainly when you’re moving someone from prison to a courtroom, if that person’s not going to be shackled you need to have more than a 1-to-1 ratio,” he said.

Defendant Brian Nichols wasn’t restrained, partly because of legal rulings against letting a jury see a defendant in shackles.

White said some courts have defendants wear stun belts, which can produce an incapacitating jolt of electricity and can be activated remotely. But a defendant in Texas last year put a sandwich between his belt’s batteries and electrodes, interrupting the current, and was able to attack a witness during his trial.

Uniformed patrol officers use specialized security holsters, but most plainclothes officers use simpler holsters designed to conceal rather than secure the gun, experts said.

In the Providence case, Esteban Carpio allegedly grabbed detective Sgt. James Allen’s gun while being questioned in a locked conference room. Police will not discuss how Carpio got Allen’s gun, or what kind of holster Allen was using.

Many departments have weapons-free zones, often in holding cells and interrogation rooms, and suspects are kept in restraints in some areas. But in the Providence case, police say, Carpio was not under arrest so he was not in handcuffs. And they were in a conference room, not a weapons-free zone.

Experts said there is talk about developing specialized guns that would be activated by an ID chip implanted in the officer’s wrist and would only fire if that officer pulled the trigger. But the guns raise safety concerns, partly because of the possibility the technology would fail.

Experts said it’s important not to go overboard making policies based on the worst-case scenario.

“Imagine a traffic cop coming up to your car in full riot gear because you might be the one person to turn on him,” Brady said. “You’d think that’s a little over the top, right?”