US News & World Report July 20, 2016, at 2:00 p.m.

Police Unions Renew Push for Tactical Gear in Wake of Attacks

Despite a backlash against military-style equipment, labor leaders say police need assault-style rifles and ballistic vests and helmets to protect against targeted killings and terrorism.

By Alan Neuhauser

An officer, equipped with a ballistic vest and helmet, monitors protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in November 2014. Other images of how police responded to demonstrations there provoked an outcry. SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES

A couple inches of Kevlar kept the police bagpipes quiet in Orlando: A bullet, speeding toward Michael Napolitano, fired by the gunman who killed 49 revelers at Pulse nightclub, bounced off the officer's ballistic helmet as he stormed the building, leaving a bruise instead of a bullet hole.

Now one month after that attack, in the wake of two deadly ambushes on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and nearly a dozen shooting rampages in the past year, police unions are renewing calls to put more helmets, thicker bulletproof vests and more assault-style weapons into the hands of first responders.

Civil liberties groups have been skeptical: Just two summers ago, footage of SWAT and riot police pointing sniper and assault rifles at unarmed protesters around Ferguson, Missouri, went viral, sparking an outcry and spurring the White House in May of last year to curtail a program that handed out armored trucks, grenade launchers, night-vision goggles and other surplus equipment to police agencies from New York City to Stutson County, North Dakota.

    
Police chaplain Bob Ossler, visiting from Millville, N.J., walks from the makeshift memorial for three officers killed in Baton Rouge on Sunday. The ambush has fueled calls by police unions for more equipment. JOSHUA LOTT/GETTY IMAGES  

Yet police groups are pushing back. The latest round of shooting sprees, they say, almost all by gunmen wielding powerful military-style rifles, signal the start of a new era, one that's put police in the crosshairs.

"Perversely, a lot of the equipment that will stand up to that kind of armament, it's availability is being reduced when it's being needed most," says James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police organization.

President Barack Obama met with Pasco and other leaders of national police groups on July 12, and the White House emphasized the administration is still providing the equipment that police departments say they need. While certain items like bayonets or tread-mounted tanks are now prohibited, others are merely "restricted" and readily available.

"The program is providing departments with the tools that they need to protect themselves and their communities while at the same time providing the level of accountability that should go along with the provision of federal equipment," Hannah Hankins, communications director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, says in a statement. "We review the program regularly with law enforcement and civil rights groups to ensure that it is achieving its goals."

She adds: "If you just do the paperwork to say this is why you need it, you get the equipment."

In Los Angeles and Houston, union leaders are now pushing police brass to put rifles, thicker vests and ballistic helmets in more patrol cars. In New York City, the nation's largest police union says it's filed a complaint with the state's Labor Department, accusing top officials of maintaining an unsafe workplace by depriving officers of the same gear. Chicago, Boston, Portland, Milwaukee and Dallas are among cities whose police departments have updated their guidelines, requiring officers to patrol in pairs. In Baltimore and New Orleans, police officials are requiring two cars to respond to every call.

"We're fighting domestic terrorists – these punks who are out here killing our police officers – and domestic terrorism calls for a strong response," says Officer Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, which represents patrol officers in the nation's fifth-largest police department. "Any person who opposes what they want to call militarizing the police department, they're not the ones putting on that uniform and going out and getting shot."

    
  Images like this, which recorded how police used military-style weapons during protests in Ferguson and other cities, spurred the White House to reconsider a program providing free tactical gear to departments. JEFF ROBERSON/AP

Rifles of any kind, including assault weapons like the AR-15 – modeled on the military-issue M-16 – were used in just 3 percent of homicides involving a firearm in 2014, the most recent year for which FBI statistics are available. They've also been used in only 2 percent of mass shootings.

Yet in the 10 high-profile mass shootings that have occurred since July 2015, from the attack at a Chattanooga, Tennessee, military recruitment center that left five dead to the San Bernardino, California, rampage that killed 14 to Sunday's ambush in Baton Rouge in which three officers were slain, all but one of the gunmen wielded a semi-automatic rifle, according to data analyzed by Mother Jones.

The weapons pose a particular danger to police: Bulletproof vests thin enough to fit under a uniform generally can't stop powerful rifle rounds; long guns can more readily carry more ammunition than police sidearms; and they're far more accurate at distance.

That's left some officers feeling "outgunned," says one official from the NYPD Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, who asked not to be named.

"Every patrol car should be a mini counter-terrorism unit with heavy weapons, ballistic vests and helmets, and every officer should be fully trained to respond to a terrorist attack,” the union's president, Pat Lynch, says in a statement.

Some manufacturers, like Elbeco, have started making ballistic vests that blend with officers' uniforms even when worn on the outside, but unions maintain that appearances shouldn't matter. While it's a long way from the idyllic image of a beat cop portrayed in a Norman Rockwell painting, officers say times have long since changed.

"If you call the police, I would think you're less concerned about the kind of car they arrive in or the clothes they're wearing when they get there," says Detective Lou Turriaga, a director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. "You want them to get there and eliminate the problem, whatever it is."