Ala. Troopers Getting AR-15 Rifles

Alabama state troopers are joining a growing number of law enforcement agencies adding weapons to match the firepower of criminals.

Department of Public Safety Director Mike Coppage said Monday his department has bought 100 AR-15s and could buy more. Eventually, he said, he''d like all 330 patrol troopers to be armed with the semi-automatic civilian version of the U.S. military''s M-16.

"One of the problems we have is we''re in so many predominantly rural areas and we''re seeing an increase in the type of weapons the bad guys have - AR-15s and AK-47s," Coppage said. "We''d like to give the troopers an equal chance."

A number of agencies across the nation are making the move toward the weapons. The Birmingham Police Department is in the midst of a battle with Mayor Bernard Kincaid over whether to allow city patrol officers to carry semi-automatic rifles.

Three Birmingham officers - Harley Chisholm, Rob Bennett and Carlos Owen- were shot to death in June with a semi-automatic SKS rifle. The officers were armed with handguns.

Kincaid has said he''s dedicated to giving the police department the best equipment possible but that he''s still unsure if that should include high-powered rifles.

Coppage said he''s aware of the controversy in Birmingham. "I think it has a lot to do with the political climate there," he said. "A faction still thinks the police are the bad people."

But the move toward the rifles, he said, is a natural progression.

"Law enforcement has always been adapting to changes in weapons," he said. "Way back when, as the bad guys started getting bigger guns, police changed" from .38-caliber, six-shot revolvers to 9 mm semi-automatic pistols with higher capacity.

"Realistically, what you have to look at is changing times," said Coppage, a former Birmingham police chief.

Coppage said he''s considered purchasing the rifles for some time. Using federal grant money through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, he bought the guns in November.

The department tried out several kinds before deciding on the .223-caliber AR-15s. That is the same cartridge used by the U.S. military in the M-16, the fully automatic version of the AR-15.

Weapons are available that can be tailored to a department''s needs, such as rifles with cartridges with shorter ranges to use in urban areas.

The department is still drafting its carry-and-use policy. While many departments require officers to carry the rifles in their trunks, Coppage is considering a fixed mount inside trooper patrol cruisers.

Coppage said he hopes to start training in February or March.

"The biggest problem we''re having is finding the ammunition," he said. "With the conflict in Iraq, it''s hard to come by."

Coppage said it just makes sense for the troopers to carry the weapons. In the more rural areas, it could be too late by the time tactical teams arrived for backup with their high-powered rifles.

In one incident, he said, troopers were called to back up a sheriff''s department. They were still half a mile away when they came under fire.

"We can show without question," he said, "the bad guys are more heavily armed."

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