- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Last fall, a 30-year-old mother of three jumped from her disabled SUV after a chase, holding a gun to her head to keep police back. Officers fired a stun gun, but the nonlethal weapon was foiled by her heavy coat.

When she pointed her handgun at the two nearest deputies, officers switched to assault rifles, hitting Sarah Marie Stanfield of Boise eight times with bullets designed to break apart on impact to increase internal damage. She died of multiple gunshot wounds.

Some jurisdictions across the United States have been arming rank-and-file officers with high-powered assault rifles for a decade or more. But law-enforcement officials say that trend has accelerated in the last year because of greater numbers of shootouts, standoffs in which police were outgunned, rising officer deaths and mass shootings of civilians by heavily armed gunmen.

“If you get into a firefight, you want to be the winner,” said Scott Knight, police chief of Chaska, Minn., and chairman of the firearms committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “Our departments are moving to those weapons out of necessity across the country.”

Chaska, 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis, is a town of only about 24,000, but earlier this month, Chief Knight ordered the department’s first 10 assault rifles, each with two 30-round magazines.

Only patchwork information is available on how many other law-enforcement agencies are outfitting deputies and patrol officers with assault rifles — the kind of firepower once reserved for specialized SWAT teams. But from Chaska, Minn., to Miami to college campuses, agencies are acquiring AR-15s or M-4s, both close relatives of the military’s M-16. The rifles fire bullets with enough velocity to penetrate some types of body armor and have greater accuracy at longer range than handguns.

Law-enforcement officials say the trend toward issuing assault rifles to regular patrol officers started in Los Angeles after a 1997 shootout following a botched bank robbery. Two heavily armed men wore body armor that stopped 9 mm bullets fired by the handguns carried by police, 11 of whom were injured along with six civilians. The two robbers were eventually killed. The Los Angeles Police Department now issues AR-15s.

In the Idaho case, an investigation cleared the deputies earlier this month, noting they initially risked their lives by attempting to use nonlethal means before firing their assault rifles.

“Any time that we perceive great bodily harm or death may result, we may take action,” said Ada County Sheriff’s Lt. Scott Johnson.

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