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No rifles for police in Smithsburg

May 03, 2001

No rifles for police in Smithsburg



By ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Town council members on Tuesday rejected a request to arm Smithsburg's two police officers with semiautomatic assault rifles this year.

Chief Ralf Berger wanted to use at least $1,500 from a police vehicle fund to buy the weapons, but four council members voted no.

Because the expense was not budgeted this year, Councilman Mike Rohrer said he is against it now, but would support it next year.

Councilman Jerome Martin said he is philosophically opposed to providing deadlier force.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Mann, who was absent from a previous discussion about the rifles, abstained from the vote.

Rifles would give town police officers a fighting chance against a well-armed gunman, Berger said.

Smithsburg's officers carry .45-caliber semiautomatic handguns. They keep shotguns in their patrol cars.

But neither weapon could stand up to a rifle attack, Berger told the council. "I would hate to go against a rifle with a pistol, or a shotgun, God forbid, in a school setting," he said.

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Mayor Tommy Bowers, a former town police chief, sided with Berger and chastised the council for saying no.

"I wouldn't want it on my conscience if we didn't approve this and an officer was killed," he said.

Berger said Smithsburg police may get to the scene of a shooting in a few minutes, while a county SWAT team could take 15 minutes to get there.

Washington County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Mark Knight, a leader of the Washington County Special Response Team, confirmed that time estimate Wednesday.

The team is a cooperative effort between the sheriff's department and Hagerstown City Police.

Knight said sheriff's department team members carry .223-caliber AR-15 rifles, vests and other tactical equipment in their cars and go right to the scene. Depending on where they are when they are sent to a call, it would take between one and 15 minutes to get to Smithsburg, he said.

Knight said many police departments have switched from shotguns to rifles, which are more accurate and more effective in some situations .

Hancock Police, who carry .40-caliber Glock pistols, do not have rifles. "We've found we don't have any use for them," Chief Donald Gossage said Wednesday. "I think for a small community, there's a better use of funds."

The department owns three shotguns, but officers rarely carry them in patrol cars either, Gossage said.

As a small department - two officers and a chief - Hancock relies on the county and state special response teams, Gossage said.

As an example of vulnerability, Knight and Berger cited a 1997 California shootout involving two bank robbers armed with assault rifles and wearing body armor. The duo outgunned more than 100 officers who had 9mm and .38-caliber handguns.

In the aftermath, Los Angeles police began using semiautomatic M-16 rifles.

Smithsburg police officers already have "adequate firepower," so rifles would be excessive, Martin said Tuesday.

"Morally, I just can't do it," he said, arguing that there is not enough crime in Smithsburg to justify extra police firepower.

"Columbine didn't have any stats either until they started shooting," Berger replied, referring to the death of 15 people at a Colorado high school in 1999.

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