N.J. police stockpile assault weapons
By Serdar Tumgoren
BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. — North Jersey police are stockpiling some of the most sophisticated tactical and assault weapons on the market, but some residents question the need for such firepower in sleepy suburban towns.
Nearly half the agencies in a Record survey of 44 police departments said they own tactical weapons or plan to purchase them in the near future. Most departments are buying semiautomatic guns capable of one to three shots per trigger pull, while a handful of departments have fully automatic weapons capable of firing 10 bullets a second. A few have military-grade M16s or urban rifles that can blast through body armor.
"You're not looking at major crime in these towns," said Eric Krasnov, a 26-year-old from Harrington Park who works in Tenafly.
Krasnov and his colleagues were surprised to learn that Tenafly, a town with fewer than 15,000 people and with just a handful of violent crimes in the last few years, has an emergency tactical unit armed with fully automatic submachine guns.
"Our taxpayer money is not going to good use for these automatic weapons," Krasnov said.
Police insist, however, that they must beef up their arsenals to keep pace with criminals and prepare for school shooters, terrorist attacks and other threats.
Experts say North Jersey's weapons proliferation matches a national trend that began in the 1990s, sparked by events such as the North Hollywood bank shootout in California and the Columbine school massacre in Colorado. Fears of terrorism after 9/11 accelerated the transformation of police from patrol and investigative roles into that of "first responders."
Keeping up with criminals
"There is a trend around the country of police departments getting more and more sophisticated weapons," said Closter resident Maki Haberfeld, professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The reason is that we have the same trend with our criminals, who are arming themselves with these weapons.
"After 9/11, police departments became much more militarized in terms of response," she added. "Tactical units were no longer just looked upon as a response to a situation with a couple of hostages, but more of a counterterrorism unit. There is this feeling that we now live in an era of counterterrorism, and the feeling is that you need to be prepared."
Such fears come as crime rates are declining nationwide, Haberfeld said. New Jersey's rate of nearly 17 violent crimes per 10,000 people ranks just above the median, according to 2006 crime statistics reported by local agencies to the FBI. Passaic County has 12 violent crimes per 10,000 people when excluding Passaic and Paterson, and 53 per 10,000 when those two cities are included.
Bergen County has fewer than 11 violent crimes per 10,000 people, and many of its more affluent towns fall far below that level.
Yet semiautomatic tactical guns are cropping up in towns such as Alpine, Closter and Norwood - where median incomes exceed $100,000 and where a total of eight violent crimes took place in 2005 and 2006.
Alpine beefed up its arsenal in the last year with a pair of Heckler & Koch UMP .40s, the most popular new weapon among the departments surveyed. The UMP, which costs $1,300, uses bullets that are interchangeable with officers' handguns. But the UMPs are more accurate and powerful and can fire two-round bursts. Closter and Norwood have identical weapons, though their versions can only fire a single bullet per trigger pull.
"The criminals outgun us nowadays," said Alpine police Lt. Michael LaViola. "Plus there are situations in the schools that have happened across the country. We practice active shooter scenarios these days, and these weapons are the best ones to handle these types of situations."
Six of the police agencies surveyed have specialized tactical units, while the remaining towns rely on regional SWAT teams. In Passaic County, Clifton, Paterson and West Milford have SWAT-like units, said Bill Maer, Passaic County Sheriff's Department spokesman. Wayne phased out its tactical team in recent years but has an arsenal that includes semiautomatic UMP .45s.
Police in Pompton Lakes also rely on county SWAT, although they have ordered four M4 urban rifles capable of piercing body armor.
"Paterson, Passaic and Clifton should be armed to the teeth because there are a whole lot more weapons found in those areas," Pompton Lakes Detective Sgt. Steve Seifried said. "Up here, we need to have them in case we have a situation like in the North Hollywood robbery. ... I don't think in an area like this it would be feasible to have every officer have weapons like this in the trunk of their vehicle."
In Bergen County, even towns with their own tactical weapons continue to rely on the Bergen County Police Department SWAT team and, occasionally, on a tactical unit from the Sheriff's Office. The police SWAT team handles roughly 10 incidents per year, typically involving "high-risk" arrests and barricaded subjects, said Officer Scott Williams, a weapons instructor and 10-year veteran of the SWAT team.
He said SWAT members have not had to shoot a single person in the course of 400 jobs since the team's creation in 1974.
"We're very fortunate that we've come to some very peaceful conclusions to most of the jobs over the years in Bergen County," Williams said.
Police in Bergen County towns also rarely use their weapons outside of training, according to firearms discharge reports filed with the county Prosecutor's Office. In 2006 and 2007 combined, police officers in Bergen County fired 13 bullets: 10 shots to kill sick or dangerous animals (most of them in Norwood), and three accidental firings during the disassembly or inspection of a gun.
Such statistics hardly obviate the need to prepare for school shooters and other emergencies, according to local police chiefs, who say police cannot wait in such situations for the county SWAT team to arrive. Police chiefs even dismissed the idea of having clusters of towns rely on nearby agencies for first-response services - a move that could help smaller departments save on the costs of weapons and training.
"If you have to wait for somebody to go to Paramus to pick up a UMP it absolutely defeats the purpose," Ramsey Police Chief Bryan Gurney said. His 30-member department has UMP-style weapons and shotguns.
"These weapons have to be deployed immediately," he said. "It's not like a firetruck or a street sweeper you can schedule. It's a piece of equipment that has to be readily available to an officer at a moment's notice."
That philosophy has led North Arlington's tactical squad to acquire one of the most diverse arsenals in the region, complete with shotguns, fully automatic submachine guns, high-powered urban rifles and M16s, a fully automatic military rifle.
"I wouldn't care if they had tanks if they needed them," said Bob Henke, a 52-year-old postal worker from North Arlington. "I'm for having everything at your disposal as long as it's used cautiously and in a measured way."
Matthew Marinaro, 40, wasn't convinced of the need for such weapons.
"I think the police have the right to protect themselves the best they can," Marinaro said. "But it's not like the movies. This is North Arlington. I could see it in New York City, but it's relatively quiet here."
By the numbers
* Total rounds discharged in 2006 and 2007 by Bergen County police departments: 13.
* Rounds used to kill sick or dangerous animals: 10.
* Rounds fired accidentally: 3.
* Number of people shot during 400 incidents handled by Bergen County Police Department SWAT team since 1977: 0.
The Heckler & Koch UMP .40 is one of the most popular new weapons among North Jersey police departments. While most have standard semiautomatic versions of the gun, a handful of departments have purchased fully automatic models.
Source: Heckler & Koch
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