Police chief presses city for rifle program

Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib has a saying he uses to illustrate why the city needs a program to make it easier for Lawrence police officers to carry semi-automatic rifles in their patrol cars.

“Everything is good until it is not,” Khatib said. “In this line of work, you do not want to be caught unprepared.”

On Tuesday, Lawrence city commissioners delayed taking action on a proposal that would make it easier for police officers to purchase semi-automatic rifles that could be carried in their patrol cars.

But Khatib said the program is needed. He said college communities aren’t immune to violent crime, and that more-advanced weaponry may be needed by police to protect the communities from criminals who could be heavily armed.

“We have just as great a likelihood for a major incident to happen here as it would anywhere else,” Khatib said. “We hope that it never happens, but if it does we want to make sure that we have the tools and training to deal with the situation.”

City commissioners at their weekly meeting did not express opposition to the program, but deferred the issue to their Dec. 6 meeting after a resident asked for the item to receive more discussion.

“I’m in favor of the program, but I think it is important to give the public more opportunity to talk about if they have concerns,” City Commissioner Mike Dever said at Tuesday’s meeting, which was lightly attended by the public because it was a special 9 a.m. meeting because of holiday schedules.

City police officers have had the ability to carry “patrol rifles” since 2003, if the officer purchases a rifle that meets department regulations. But Khatib is seeking a program that would allow police officers to purchase patrol rifles through the city.

The lease-purchase program would allow the city to buy the rifle, and then the officer would repay the city through 26 automatic payroll deductions. The city has a similar program in place that allows officers to purchase their patrol pistols. The police department requires officers to purchase their patrol weapons because it believes officers will be more likely to practice with the weapons if they own them, and also will maintain them better. The city is estimating each patrol rifle will cost about $1,600.

The city received one letter objecting to the program. Laura Routh, a frequent critic of the police department, said the department had not made the case that the weapons were needed.

“So-called patrol rifles may greatly increase the city’s liability, and will inherently exacerbate the militarization of the Lawrence Police Department,” Routh wrote. “Such a purchase does nothing to increase the public’s trust in the police department.”

Khatib said the idea of patrol rifles as standard equipment for officers has long been considered a best practice in the industry. He said the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, the Kansas University police force and the Kansas Highway Patrol issue the rifles to officers. In addition, several law enforcement agencies in Johnson County use rifles.

“If you look at the Columbine shooting, that changed the paradigm of what police departments do,” Khatib said. “In that incident they waited for special units to arrive.”

Khatib estimated about 35 of the department’s 141 officers have the patrol rifles. He said all department personnel who carry a rifle — they’re typically a .223 caliber weapon that is a civilian, semi-automatic version of the rifle used by the U.S. military — must go through a four-day training course.