Chicago Police Using Military Style Rifles | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Chicago Police Using Military Style Rifles

The Chicago Police Department continues to move forward with a plan to equip rank-and-file officers with rifles that were originally designed for military use. Chicago, like other big cities and some smaller towns, has made such weapons available to tactical officers. Now they'd go to cops on the beat. Superintendent Jody Weis says around 500 officers have gone through the training that allows them to use the semi-automatic gun on duty. One group of young people has continually opposed giving Chicago cops the increased firepower, but they've not had much luck changing Weis' mind. WBEZ's Robert Wildeboer reports on the stalemate and the powerful weapon that's behind it.

Since the end of last year a group of kids has been going to monthly meetings held at Chicago Police Headquarters. They showed up again last week, about 30 kids in all.

CARNEY: I'm gonna call the meeting to order, Good evening I'm Demetrius Carney, president of the police board. We have a number of students here from the Southwest community youth collaborative. I'll call each one of them first. Christopher Hightower.

The young people put their questions about the semi-automatic M-4 rifle to Superintendent Weis. The department has purchased 375 of the guns but Weis is also allowing all rank and file officers to buy and carry the weapon while on duty, provided they pass a 40 hour training session.

The students think that's a bad idea and they try to grill Weis on it but they're are not terribly articulate and they struggle with the two minute time limit on public comments, and the board, which sits through unintelligible tirades every month rigorously enforces the time limit.

ambi: That is beyond what... Time is up.

The discussion over the guns never really gets anywhere. It devolves into the students ranting against the police department while board members sits passively watching the clock. It's another month in an ongoing stalemate. As the meeting ends I catch up with the Superintendent.

WEIS: Almost everyday we're taking an assault weapon off the street.

Weis defends making the M-4 rifle available to all officers because he says they need weapons that can compete with the increased firepower of gang members. He says an officer armed with a handgun doesn't stand a chance against someone with an assault rifle.

WEIS: If the offender has an assault rifle, you know, he can just sit there and pick officers off left and right. And you can say, well how often does that happen? The fact that were taking almost an assault rifle a day off the streets of Chicago, I think the propensity for that happening to our officers could happen on any given day of the week, any hour of the day.

Weis has been making that argument to the kids but they're not buying it, and they're not the only ones. Police watchdog groups worry the widespread use of the M-4 rifle is one more symbol of the department looking like an occupying military force rather than a partner in community safety.

And there are more measurable concerns. Opponents are worried that these guns are just plain dangerous, no matter who's got them, especially in crowded urban neighborhoods. They're worried that the bullets from M-4s can travel up to two miles, and penetrate walls and even cars. To get some answers about exactly what this gun is and isn't, I turned to someone who knows a whole lot about guns, John Nixon.

NIXON: I went to the Royal Military College of Science in England and studied weaponry there, weaponry design, the science of ballistics etcetera.

Nixon, an engineer and scientist, used to do reverse engineering for the British Military. That means he'd take foreign weapons and study them and figure out how they were made and what their weaknesses are and how they could be beaten. Now he often works on shooting cases and offers expert testimony. We talk in a garage behind his house in rural Indiana. Sitting between us on '60s era metal desks are two M-4 rifles that he shows off.

NIXON: So we have this 30-round magazine here and that fits into the magazine well.

It's an intimidating looking rifle, something you'd see in an episode of 24, or a Bruce Willis action movie. And you can attach lots of stuff to the barrel like a bi-pod to steady it, and a flashlight, and a scope.

NIXON: You just flip the lens covers down and when you look through here you see a red dot. You put the red dot on what you want to hit and just pull the trigger.

That scope, the longer barrel, the fact that you hold the M-4 rifle with two hands, Nixon says all of that leads to one thing: greatly increased accuracy.

NIXON: Despite what you see in the movies, shooting with a handgun it's extremely difficult to hit anything and I've worked on cases where people have shot at each other across the hood of a car and they've emptied a pistol magazine and not hit each other.

To prove the point Nixon grabs a handgun and an M-4 and leads me outside. We set up a target and he hands me a SIG 226, a 9 mm handgun. He tells me to fire 10 shots at a piece of regular office paper about 20 feet away.

ambi: Shots fired

NIXON: You can see there that out of your ten shots, you managed to get seven on the paper which is pretty good for a novice. They're spread all over the paper and the other three shots are off the paper. And this is only seven yards with a stationery target, stationery shooter and good daylight so if you're in a house where it's dark in there, or a back alley that's dark, the perpetrator's moving and you're moving,  there's a lot happening, you're in distress, they're shooting back at you, your chances of hitting that paper drop quite dramatically. 

We then do the same exercise with the M-4 rifle.

ambi: Shots fired

With the handgun, the bullet holes were all over the sheet. With the rifle they're all within a couple inches of each other. Nixon says the increased accuracy will mean fewer stray bullets to hit unintended targets. That's weapons-speak for innocent bystanders. But if there is a stray bullet?

NIXON: This particular military round of ammunition was designed to go through both sides of a military helmet at 600 meters, but in reality the bullet may well go a couple of miles.

With the potential to travel that kind of distance it's very likely, in the city of Chicago, the bullet would hit something. And Nixon says the ammunition from and M-4 has the added danger of being designed to penetrate walls, and even cars. But the real danger, and this may seem obvious, the real danger is for those who are in shoot outs with police armed with M-4 rifles.

NIXON: With a handgun you're...lethal area.

Every year, 40 to 50 people are shot by police. Typically about one third of them die from their wounds. But if John Nixon's predictions are correct, that number will go up as more and more cops use the accurate and powerful M-4 rifle.

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