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 May 15, 2005
Past cases of officers� guns stolen likely won't change policies
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- The headlines have been grim for law enforcement. In a recent six week period, a handful of officers from Rhode Island to Illinois have had their guns taken from them after they allegedly were overpowered by suspects or inmates. In each case, the ending was deadly.

The string of fatal incidents has shaken departments, and raised questions about safety procedures. But some law enforcement experts say not much will change�and shouldn�t. Despite the latest tragedies, they say there�s no evidence that basic procedure is failing officers.

�You do not write policies to deal with the extreme,� said Michael Brady, an expert in police procedures in the Administration of Justice department at Salve Regina University in Newport. �The one thing the incidents do have in common is that they are a reminder of how dangerous police work is.�

On March 11, a defendant on trial for rape in Atlanta allegedly overpowered a courthouse deputy, took her gun and killed four people, including two law enforcement officers.

A little over a month later, a Providence detective was fatally shot with his own weapon while interviewing a suspect at police headquarters.

Then on April 21, in Augusta, Ga., hospital police shot and killed an inmate who fled a medical building after overpowering a state corrections officer and taking his gun, authorities said.

Two days later, a man under arrest in Spring Valley, Ill., wrested away an officer�s gun and beat him with it. The suspect then fatally shot himself, police said.

�It�s one too many when it happens,� Brady said. �But if you look nationwide, the frequency of a police officer�s gun being taken by a suspect is extremely rare.�

There are no national statistics on how many times officers� guns are taken away. But the FBI reports that of the 616 law enforcement officers feloniously killed on duty from 1994 through 2003, 52, or 8 percent, were killed with their own service weapon.

�What�s remarkable is that it doesn�t happen more often,� said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police in Washington, the nation�s largest union for law enforcement officers.

Pasco said law enforcement officials are constantly out in public, and often involved in one-on-one interactions with people, which makes them vulnerable. They are trained to protect their weapons if they are attacked, and to resist using their guns unless a threat is imminent. Experts said if a weapon is grabbed, the officer always tries to retrieve it, and often is successful.

More than half of all officers murdered between 1994 and 2003 didn�t use or attempt to use their own weapons during the attacks, FBI statistics show.

Law enforcement agencies around the country use a variety of methods to reduce the chances that a suspect will be able to overpower officers and get a gun.

Michael White, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the deputy who was overpowered in Atlanta should�ve been accompanied by more officers.

�Certainly when you�re moving someone from prison to a courtroom, if that person�s not going to be shackled, you need to have more than a one-to-one ratio,� he said.

Defendant Brian Nichols wasn�t restrained, partly because of legal rulings against letting a jury see a defendant in shackles.

White said some courts have defendants wear stun belts which can send an incapacitating jolt of electricity and can be activated remotely. But a defendant in Texas last year put a sandwich between his belt�s batteries and electrodes, causing it to fail, and was able to attack a witness during his trial.

In Spring Valley, Ill., Robert S. McFadin was able to take advantage of the fact that in a small town police department, there was limited staff on duty when he wrestled an officer�s gun away.  The investigating sheriff has said it is not uncommon for there to be just one officer per suspect in rural departments.

Brady said more complicated holsters can sometimes help.  Uniformed patrol officers use specialized security holsters to make it difficult for a suspect to remove a gun. But most plainclothes officers use simpler holsters designed to conceal, rather than secure the gun, experts said.

In the Providence case, Esteban Carpio allegedly grabbed Detective Sgt. James Allen�s gun while being questioned in a locked conference room. Providence Police will not discuss how Carpio got Allen�s gun, or what kind of holster Allen was using, but Brady said it�s likely Allen, a 27-year-veteran, had a simpler holster than one used by a patrol officer.

In many cases, departments have weapons-free zones, often in holding cells and interrogation rooms. Suspects are kept in restraints in some areas. But in the Providence case, police say, Carpio was not under arrest so he wasn�t in handcuffs. Allen has his gun with him, but they were in a conference room, not a weapons-free zone. The additional safety procedures didn�t apply.

Experts said there is talk about developing specialized guns that are activated with an ID chip implanted in the officer�s wrist. The gun would only fire if that officer was pulling the trigger. But the guns raise safety concerns, partly because of the possibility the technology would fail.

Experts said it�s easy to �Monday-morning-quarterback� the recent incidents, but it�s also important to distinguish them from each other, and not go overboard making policies based on the worst-case scenario.

�Imagine a traffic cop coming up to your car in full riot gear because you might be the one person to turn on him,� Brady said.  �You�d think that�s a little over the top, right?�

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