Are Iowa Police Departments Armed for Mass Shootings?

Police weapons vary across the state with some departments arming each officer with a semiautomatic rifle. Others have a handful of rifles in the field each watch, and yet other departments have no semiautomatic rifles at all.

In the post-Newtown world, police departments, campus police and even school district police are arming up to level the playing field with the assailants carrying out mass shootings at a greater frequency around the country.

Towns like Marion, IA, a sleepy suburb of about 35,000 people in America's Heartland, don't want to be caught flat-footed.

"Every time you turn around there is an active shooter somewhere, in a school, in a business," Marion Police Chief Harry Daugherty said. "It's just getting out of hand."

If the December Newtown elementary school shooting that left 20 school children and six staff members dead taught us something, it's these small communities are not insulated from that type of terror and violence. Not, even places like Marion, where the city council says the Pledge of Allegiance before meetings, local school children are honored for "If I Were Mayor" essays and building a roundabout is the hot button issue.

Marion anted up with AR-15s for all frontline officers following Newtown. Others had already and others haven't and have no plans to.

There isn't a definitive roster of which police departments do and don't have AR-15s or other semiautomatic rifles, but it clearly varies across the state and nation.

"It's not equal across the whole state," said Sam Hargadine, who's on the board of directors of the Iowa police chief association and is police chief in Iowa City.

Iowa departments such as Ames and Cedar Falls have semiautomatic weapons in all officers hands, others such as Iowa City arm a handful of officers each watch with a rifle, and yet other departments, such as in the Des Moines suburb Waukee have no semiautomatic weapons at all.

"My opinion is that cost is one reason and another is perception," Jeremy Logan, president of the Iowa Police Chiefs Association and police chief in Oelwein, said in an email. "Some smaller communities are under the impression that 'it won't happen here.'"

An October bank robbery involving assailants using "assault rifles to shoot at police and citizens is further affirmation that these incidents can happen anywhere," he said.

AR-15s: The Most Popular Rifle in America

Soon, every Marion police officer will be armed with AR-15s - to the tune of $64,000. After training, officers will be expected to carry the guns in their cruisers when on duty.

This comes as good news to some, such as Dianne Kamp, 69, a retired Marion resident, who was shopping last week in uptown Marion, a few blocks away from the Marion Police Station. Kamp's worried about the amount of dangerous weapons available to criminals, and supports the police upgrading their armaments.

"It needs to be a fair playing field between the police and the criminals," she said. 

Many departments turn to the AR-15 or something similar.

The AR-15 is the same semiautomatic model used in several mass shootings, including Newtown, a movie theater in Colorado and a mall in Portland, OR, according to New York Times reports. 

The lightweight, civilian version of the military's M-16 rifle can hold magazines with up to 100 bullets and fires as quickly as the trigger is squeezed, up to 120 rounds per minute, according to a Huffington Post report. A CBS News report, and many others, call it the most popular rifle in America.

"We need to have at least the same type of firepower being used by assailants. They are not using pistols for the most part, and my people on the street don't have those assault-type weapons," Marion Police Chief Daugherty said.

"I have to sleep at night. I have to send my officers out into the field prepared for the situations they may face."

Police departments across Iowa require multi-day trainings for officers to carry semiautomatic rifles.  

Iowa Police Departments Approach Weapons Differently

Turn to the college town of Iowa City, about an hour south of Marion, where four officers per watch carry a rifle. Across the river, its neighbor town Coralville assigns a semiautomatic rifle to every police car. 

"They want to be able to put a rifle in the hand of any officer that needs them," Iowa City Police Chief Hargadine said. "With us, it's a specialty position."

Hargadine prefers the precision of rifles that stay with and zeroed to individual officers, so the weapons are as effective as possible. The weapons that are assigned to the vehicles have a universal setting and therefore can be less accurate, he said.

Other Iowa towns, such as Ames and Cedar Falls, also have a semiautomatic in every squad car.

Cedar Falls squad cars have an M-4 rifle and a shotgun. The weapons were purchased through a grant from the Department of Justice about two years ago, Police Capt. Jeff Sitzmann said. Before that, Cedar Falls had M-16 rifles on loan through a federal military surplus program. M-16s and M-4s can shoot more rapidly than a semiautomatic rifle, like the AR-15.

Waukee, a Des Moines suburb with fewer than 14,000 residents, doesn't have any semiautomatic rifles and they have no plans to add them.

"At this time, we are not exploring purchasing assault weapons for the department," Waukee Police Lt. Troy Mapes said. "Our officers have been trained in dealing with mass shootings and will continue to receive training in this area."

Other departments declined comment or said they'd rather keep their weaponry confidential, such as the Johnston Police Department.

"We have a progressive firearms training and policy that we do multiple times throughout the year," Johnston Police Chief Bill Vaughn, only noting that officers on the force have access to high-powered weapons, if needed.

A number of Iowa police departments that don't provide rifles allow officers to carry one if they pay for it and take training. The cities typically cover the cost of ammo.

There's similar variation in approaches around the country.

Towns like Owasso, OK, have semiautomatic rifles for each officer thanks to a private donation of $30,000. Nashville, TN, will allow officers to carry rifles with training, but at the officers expense. The Fontana, CA, school district police department bought 14 AR-15s for campus, and a San Diego school district police department was scrutinized by the school board after news reports revealed some of its officers were carrying rifles.

Iowa Campus Shooting and Others Offer Lessons For Police

In 1991, University of Iowa and Iowa City police faced an active shooter tragedy when a doctoral student named Gang Lu went on a rampage killing five and permanently debilitating another.

Police departments learned from this tragedy and others, such as the 1997 Los Angeles shootout between police and heavily armed and armored bank robbers, the 1999 Columbine high school shooting and the 2007 Virginia Tech campus massacre.

"The worst thing is complacency, thinking 'this can't happen here,'" Hargadine said.

One change is no longer waiting until a perimeter is set, but rather enter an active shooting situation when two or three officers are present. Another is getting more guns with a longer range and rapid fire ability in the field. Departments across the country collaborating with school staff to train for emergency situations.

Twenty-one years after the Iowa City shooting, in which Lu turned the gun on himself as police closed in, one of the main lessons for police remains that the gunmen will take their own lives when they feel the pressure of police officers closing in. The message to officers is, act quickly and save lives.

"So, in active shooter training, the quicker we can get them to do that, the more lives saved," Hargadine said.

Budget May Play A Role in Which Departments Can Afford Rifles

The Iowa State Patrol changed its policy in 2008 to arm each officer with a semiautomatic rifle. It's Smith & Wesson's version of the AR-15 - the M&P15, .223 caliber ammo. 

It took two years to get the entire 400 police force transitioned into the rifle, said Capt. Shane Antle, who works in procurement.

"It was for overall officer safety," Antle said. "What can we do equipment-wise to meet the demands today in this business? What tools can we provide to officers to ensure their safety and help them ensure the safety of the public?"

The move may prove valuable, particularly in poorer rural communities that may lack the budget for rifles. State Patrol provides back up around Iowa, and in some cases they are the first to respond.

But, arming comes at a price. The weapons cost $1,000 to $1,200 a piece, the agency spends $100,000 a year in ammunition alone and then there is the time and cost of training, Antle said. 

"In other agencies, what are their ability financially and training ability to arm their people with a rifle," Antle said. "It's challenging for all agencies, financially for all of us."

Rifles Go Hand-in-Hand With Training

Many Iowa police departments have been migrating toward the semiautomatic rifles and high capacity magazines for several years, Oelwein Police Chief Logan said, and dozens of departments have now acquired rifles for tactical and emergency response situations.

As much as high capacity weapons are seen as part of the answer for police in the age of active shooters, they go hand-in-hand with increased training.

While training includes practice at tactics and proficiency on weapons, it's also work with schools and others in the community to develop plans for a mass shooting.

"The acquisition/use of these firearms are just one tool in the toolbox," Logan said.

One can't definitively answer if police departments are prepared, not until they are called to action. What is clear, is that police departments are gearing up as best they can, whether that includes more weapons or not.

"Police Departments across Iowa have taken the appropriate steps to prepare and train for such incidents," Logan said. "Through training, communication, cooperation and an understanding of response procedures, departments are more prepared to address these situations."

Alison Gowans, Beth Dalbey, Deb Belt, Ashlee Kieler, Jessica Miller, Stephen Schmidt, Megan Byrd also contributed to this report.

Kurt B. February 17, 2013 at 01:02 PM
Wow.... folks. Let's think about this again. If you look back, for example, at the V T incident in 2007, there were many many cops there with the AR-15 type of rifle. By the time they arrived, the incident was over. The shooter was armed with 2 handguns and had chained the doors shut. So, even if the arriving police had the most fierce of weapons, for any foe , what could they have done ? Nothing. They would have had to be on the inside of the building , with their finger on the trigger already. And not one of the first to be taken out by the shooter. Same thing at Columbine. And, much the same at Newtown. Let's rethink getting everyone armed to the teeth. Don't forget what the most common weapon is on the other side of the world - a car bomb or something similar. How are automatic rifles going to defend against that ?
B.A. Morelli February 17, 2013 at 04:49 PM
Good points, Kurt B. From police perspective, they say they are being asked to act quickly and enter shooting scenes before SWAT arrives. At Columbine for example, police were criticized for waiting to enter.
Dede Seg February 18, 2013 at 03:19 AM
I do not think it is a good idea for the MEDIA to be telling the Bad guys what Police/Sheriff depart.s around Iowa about what weapons are on hand, saying Waukee has NO semi-auto weapons, is a red flag to me! You could of done the article with out naming town names... it just sets them up for Bad guys to come visit them!
Dede Seg February 18, 2013 at 03:22 AM
ALSO having Schools be a Gun Free zone is like putting a target on them, I think certain people inside the Schools, teachers, admins. and building personel should be able to have concealed guns to protect the kids, OR just hire a Security officer with a gun for each site... Gun Free zones, just say to crazy people & bad guys, OH there is no guns at this site I will be able to have my way here! WE can do better!
maxine weimer February 18, 2013 at 03:39 AM
Great points Dede. The media is alot of the problem these days. Everything is put out there for everyone to see and know. Isn't there anything kept quiet anymore? I get so mad when the media talks about the military and all there moves and secrets. Its like giving the enemy a blueprint of our strategy.


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