Agencies are finding better ways to secure their firearms in vehicles.
- In Clayton County, Ga., police officers pursued suspects in possession of two stolen firearms: an MP5 submachine gun and an AR-15 assault weapon.
- In Taos County, N.M., the sheriff's office sent out a crime broadcast advising of the theft of a Bushmaster Model XM14-E2S short-barreled AR-15 rifle.
- In Contra Costa County, Calif., officers arrested a man after he was found to be in possession of about $15,000 worth of stolen weapons and equipment. The recovered property included several assault rifles, a modified shotgun, ballistic vests and helmets, night vision equipment, and about 5,000 rounds of ammunition.
All of these firearms were stolen from law enforcement vehicles.
The idea of breaking into a patrol car isn't particularly novel. Bad guys know that you have good stuff in your car, including guns and ammo, and they've been targeting patrol cars for decades.
What is different now is the caliber and firepower of the firearms that are available in your vehicle. The fact that you have better guns and more guns means that this type of crime is on the upswing. In recent months, police departments have even received e-mail warnings saying that gang members are increasingly "shopping" for guns inside law enforcement vehicles.
From the point of view of the bad guys, your car is the best gun source in town. After all, it's easier and safer breaking into a patrol car than a gun store. When a bad guy breaks into a firearms retailer, he faces alarms, maybe dogs, and possibly armed store personnel. In contrast, a parked and empty patrol car usually has no alarm to alert others to the burglary, no video surveillance to document the crime, and no armed occupants. And it often contains really good and really expensive guns, especially now that many agencies provide ARs to officers so that they can engage active shooters.
For example, the Los Angeles Police Department deploys with Colt, Bushmaster, or Smith & Wesson ARs; and Benelli or Remington shotguns. The rifles are secured in the trunks and the shotguns are located in a rack between the seats. That's a pretty common set up for most departments. But is it secure enough?
"No, not at all," according to Scott Smith, POLICE Magazine contributing editor, firearms instructor, and former federal law enforcement officer. "You see these units with the split bucket seats: The buttstocks of these long guns fit nicely between and rest well against the seat. That's pretty much how they secure them. You can readily identify them from outside the car. Some larger agencies have electronic locks and fingerprint recognition systems in place, but most don't."
Smith wishes that a greater premium were placed on securing these weapons, but he isn't surprised that it isn't. "We're not shy about putting out big bucks for sexy things like tactical body armor and MRAP rescue vehicles for SWAT teams, but we don't want to put out a couple of hundred for firearms security. We're big on big toys, but not practical toys."
Kent Hogge, a retired Washington state trooper, says that while his generation may not have had the opportunity to carry ARs, their cars may have been better suited for it. "We used to carry our long guns in a boot that was mounted down out of sight along the front seat bench," reflects Hogge.
"With the center consoles and bucket seats of today's patrol cars, that wouldn't work," he says. "You lose the advantage that we had with our shotgun racks-keeping the weapons out of sight from the public unless needed-and these days they're readily recognizable from outside the car. Personally, I've always thought it somewhat unwise to have them in plain sight."
Lock and Key
There are numerous companies that make systems and equipment for securing rifles in police vehicles. They range from the locking shelf systems to wrap around metal locks. All make it harder for bad guys to score an AR from a patrol car.
Regardless of what security system an agency chooses Jeff Chudwin, president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Association and chief of the Village of Olympia Fields (Ill.) Police Department, emphasizes the need to approach the problem promptly and constructively. "However you set up your security system, it should not be so obvious that a person with malicious intent can walk in and easily remove it. If one of your kids can figure out how to release it, then you need to come up with a system that's more secure than that."
Chudwin also notes that theft prevention needs to be weighed against weapon accessibility for the police officer.
"We have this difficult balance between having these rifles and shotguns accessible to us at the moment that our life is at immediate risk vs. having them so secure that an officer can't deploy it," Chudwin explains. "What we need is a level of security that the agency, the officer, and the community can all be comfortable with."