Protect And Serve? Oklahoma City Residents Question Police Rifle Expansion
A string of violent attacks across the country has many cops on high alert. And now, some departments are arming officers with more powerful gear. In Oklahoma City, that means police can soon start carrying personally owned rifles on duty, a decision that’s leading the department to find a balance between gearing up and preserving community relations.
'No longer rare'
It’s police sergeant Rob Gallavan’s day off. There’s a large black bag sitting on his kitchen table. He unzips it and casually removes a solid black, department-issued firearm.
“It's a Rock-River AR-15. It's a semi-automatic rifle,” Gallavan says as he shows it off.
Gallavan’s had this gun for a year now. He’s loaded it in the field a handful of times but never fired it outside of training. About half of Oklahoma City’s officers have department-issued rifles. But these days, Gallavan says more widespread protection can’t hurt.
“Unfortunately, I don't think Baton Rouge and Dallas will be anomalies, I just don't. And then mass shootings as a whole are no longer rare,” he says.
The guns are becoming standard issue in many departments. Edmond, Norman and Oklahoma Highway Patrol all provide them to every officer. But other cities have been slower to do so.
Private rifles for public police
Following the Dallas ambush last month, Oklahoma City’s Fraternal Order of Police President John George wanted a change. George reminded the chief of police of a solution the FOP’s suggested for years: let officers carry their own rifles.
“It just seems like the assailants are better-armed now. A lot of them you see around the country, they have body armor themselves which our handguns won't penetrate that,” George says.
At first, Police Chief Bill Citty didn’t like the plan. He called the Fraternal Order of Police “alarmist” and said additional rifles weren’t really necessary.
“The reality is that most officers are going to be shot at very short range with a handgun,” Citty argues.
But a few days later, there was another attack. Chief Citty changed his mind.
“I knew after Baton Rouge there was no way I could hold that. I'm a realist,” Citty says.
“We may never have that again in years, but the bottom line is that I have a responsibility to make these officers feel better”
The department now allows officers to use personal rifles once they complete mandatory training. The change means up to 250 more cops could carry their own.
Eventually, the chief hopes to provide rifles to all officers who request them. Citty’s hesitant to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on equipment that’s not absolutely needed though. And he’s cautious about gearing up too much.
“You just don't want officers running up and down the street with guns over their shoulders and that type of thing,” he says.
All rifles are stored in patrol car trunks and are only removed in severe situations. The same goes for personally owned rifles now, too.
Roughly 200 city-issued rifles have been on the streets for years now, and the department says community members haven’t complained about militarization because of it. While many residents support the expansion of a rifle program, the shift is making some uneasy.
“It almost feels as if you're trying to protect yourselves from us. When we're the community you're supposed to be protecting and serving,” says Grace Franklin, the co-founder of OKC Artists for Justice. Her group advocates for the rights of minority women.
OKC Artists for Justice and others organizations like the local Black Lives Matter movement chide the decision to up the amount of lethal equipment without one key tool: body cameras.
The city suspended its body came pilot program earlier this summer after the Fraternal Order of Police filed a grievance over when supervisors can review footage, and Franklin is worried.
“Understand policing totally. I get it. I understand why police officers are concerned,” Franklin says. “The question is: do you understand why the citizens are concerned?”
“I don't really understand the concerns. Nor do I care,” FOP President John George says.
“My job is to make sure our officers have the proper tools to protect themselves and the citizens out here. Comparing the rifles to body cameras is apples and oranges. There's no comparison,” he argues.
George insists he likes body cameras and expects them to be back on the streets within months. The FOP and the city just have to agree on a policy.
Sergeant Rob Gallavan goes further: he’d wear one tomorrow if they’d let him. The better trained and equipped officers are, the happier Gallavan is.
“If we have people who are able to qualify on the rifle and are willing to buy their own rifle, why wouldn't you give that officer the opportunity to go through excellent training and carry that weapon on the street?”
Handguns, rifles, more training and body cameras, Gallavan says, bring it on.
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