Winds of Change
There are basically two reasons why an agency will choose to alter its firearms policy to allow its officers to carry backup guns: Something terrible happens to one or more of its officers because they didn't have backup weapons or a new chief comes in and changes the agency's firearms philosophy.
Administrators of the San Antonio Police Department are now in the final stages of changing the department's firearms policy to allow backup pistols. They also claim the soon-to-be-effected policy change has nothing to do with the Jamie Lichtenwalter incident. But judge for yourself.
Last January San Antonio's finest was called to a Denny's restaurant to break up an altercation between Lichtenwalter, a parolee and strip-club bouncer, and his dancer girlfriend and another man. Detectives David Evans and John Bocko responded to the call, and they pretty much thought everything was resolved peacefully, when Lichtenwalter punched Bocko so hard that it broke the detective's jaw, grabbed Bocko's Glock, and started firing.
Lichtenwalter emptied Bocko's Glock, seriously wounding both Bocko and Davis, then lifted Davis' sidearm and continued shooting. Two other officers, Michael Muniz and Nathan Murray, responded as backup and exchanged shots with Lichtenwalter. The gunman was killed in a pitched battle with Muniz who was shot four times and received a Medal of Valor for saving three fellow officers from certain death.
Some San Antonio officers believe that the incident wouldn't have been quite so tragic if department policy would have allowed Bocko to carry a backup gun. And they may have a point.
In an e-mail interview published in the San Antonio Express-News Bocko wrote, "I remember Jamie following me around and just blasting away at me. I pleaded with him, 'Don't kill me, I have kids. That didn't even faze him, and seconds later he finally hit me in the upper back." Witness accounts say that after Bocko was shot in the back Lichtenwalter kicked him and pistol-whipped him with his own Glock.
Backup gun proponents say the Lichtenwalter incident illustrates the reason why officers should have the option of carrying a second handgun on duty. If Bocko had been allowed to carry a second gun, he might have been able to end the Lichtenwalter rampage before three other cops were wounded.
And while the Lichtenwalter incident is not the official reason that San Antonio is changing its backup gun policy, it definitely played a part. A department spokesperson says the policy was changed at the request of officers. It's not much of a reach to believe that those requests became louder and more frequent after four brother officers ended up in the hospital after a rampaging ex-convict shot them with the duty weapons of not one, but two, San Antonio PD detectives.
Tragedies like the Lichtenwalter attack can provide the impetus for policy change in an agency, but a much more common way that policy changes is with a change of leadership. A new chief can come into an agency, especially a small agency, review the policy, and decide "that ain't right."
Which is exactly what happened earlier this year when Chief Ross Licota assumed command of the Lighthouse Point (Fla.) Police Department in northeast Broward County. Licota, who came to his position from the nearby Delrey Beach Police Department, was surprised to discover that his 32 sworn officers were not allowed to carry backup guns, and he set out to change that.
"I think in police work it's appropriate for an officer to be able to carry a backup weapon for safety reasons," says Licota. "It was my opinion that it needed to be changed." Licota, who had carried a backup gun when he was a young street cop, believes a second gun is a key survival tool for officers. "All officers need to have every advantage possible," he says. "The availability of a secondary firearm is something that certainly makes sense to me, and I think it's appropriate for the profession."
Backup gun advocates like Licota don't have to be sold on the concept. But even some chiefs who are opposed to their officers carrying secondary handguns say they are willing to listen to requests from officers who want to do so.
Of course rank-and-file officers may be reluctant to approach their commanders with such requests for fear of being reprimanded or otherwise punished. This is something that each officer will have to assess before speaking up. But some chiefs interviewed for this article say they are open to well-researched discussions of the issue.
And if you need someone to speak to your chief about the benefits of backup weapons, you can call for help. There's a fellow officer in South Congaree, S.C., who's grateful that he will have the chance to watch his children grow up, and he'd be glad to speak with your chief about how his backup guns made that possible.
Murphy Never Sleeps
Why should you carry a backup gun? Because of the law. Murphy's Law.
Murphy never sleeps and his law goes double for someone who is depending on a machine, in this case a semi-automatic handgun, for his or her survival.
Machines break; machines malfunction, and machines as small as handguns can be misplaced or even taken from their owners.
Armorers say that police service weapons rarely break in the field. It happens but not that often.
Malfunctions, however, are another story. Level One and Level Two jams, otherwise known as lockbacks and stovepipes, can probably be cleared in a gunfight, if you have cover and time. A Level Three malfunction is a double feed. This jam happens when the spent casing fails to eject from the chamber but the magazine attempts to feed a new round on top of it. A double feed is a royal pain on the range. In a gunfight, it leaves you with two options for survival: run away (and hope they don't shoot you in the back) or draw your backup gun.
Finally, there's a Level Four malfunction, basically a broken gun. A Level Four malfunction cannot be cleared without disassembling the weapon, and you're not going to do that in a fight.
In a gunfight you have an immediate need for two things: cover and a working gun. And you can be deprived of a working gun by malfunction or by losing it.
The most likely way to lose a gun is to have some prison-pumped gorilla take it away from you. Defensive tactics instructors say the best way to handle this attack is to focus solely on keeping your gun. However, if that gorilla actually gains control of your weapon, your backup gun may be your only hope.
Establishing a Backup Gun Policy
Some agencies set their backup gun policies through verbal command of the chief or other high-ranking officers.
This is really not a good idea. Whether officers can carry secondary handguns, like all other firearms and use-of-force issues, should be established in the departmental policy manual. Having a written policy will help you defend yourself against nuisance lawsuits.
Understand, a written policy won't prevent you from being sued if one of your agency's officers has to use a backup pistol to drop the hammer on a bad guy. But if you can prove the officer carried the weapon in accordance with policy, that the officer has qualified with or otherwise proven competency with the weapon, and, most critically, that the use of deadly force was reasonable, then you probably won't be buying a local member of the Bar Association a new Benz.
Michael McLaurin, a planner who has written or rewritten more than 10 policy manuals for police agencies, says the first step is to get out of the mindset that we've never had a written policy and we don't need one, because you do need one.
"One of the things we do when we work with an agency to write a policy manual is that we capture all of the unwritten policies that describe how the agency operates," explains McLaurin, who works for the Centralina Council of Governments, a Charlotte, N.C.-based regional planning agency. "Typically when we do policies, backup weapons are written in as part of the equipment that officers are allowed to carry. Then the policy spells out the criteria for carrying backup weapons."
Criteria for carrying backup guns varies from agency to agency, but the following are some good basic elements that should be included in any comprehensive backup gun policy:
- Type or caliber of backup gun to be carried.
- Registration of the serial numbers on the backup weapon with the de- partment to safeguard officers from being accused of carrying "throw- down" guns.
- Frequency with which the officer must qualify with the weapon. Some agencies require quarterly qualification with duty weapons, and annual or semi-annual qualification with backup guns.
- Approval of the gun by the department armorer or rangemaster.
No Backup on the Border
If any law enforcement officer in the United States needs a backup gun, it's a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Working huge, isolated areas of the Southwest in one-officer cars, Border Patrol agents are often way out of reach of backup from other agents and even from local law enforcement.
And the job is very dangerous. Border Patrol agents have found themselves in firefights with gun runners, narco traffickers, and illegal alien smugglers. They carry rifles and shotguns in their cars, but no backup handguns.
U.S. Border Patrol agents work very hazardous beats but are not allowed to carry backup handguns. Ranking agents are working on changes in the policy.
How the Border Patrol lost its backup handguns is a cautionary tale for agencies that allow their officers to carry secondary weapons but haven't set the policy down on paper. For as long as veteran agents can remember, the Border Patrol had no policy on backup guns. It was left up to individual agents. Then in the '90s, Border Patrol firearms policy was established by Clinton administration bureaucrats who set the policy that agents could carry only one handgun.
Now that the Border Patrol has been incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security, the agency's commanders are working to change the policy. Assistant Chief of the Border Patrol HarryJames Ruffel says that ranking agents are working on a use-of-force and firearms policy that will permit secondary handguns.
However, federal agencies change their policies at glacial speed, and even Ruffel won't hazard a guess as to when the policy will change.
But Border Patrol officials are listening to requests from the agents, and Ruffel is pushing for change. "We would certainly like to have that option available to any agent who has the foresight to carry a backup weapon."
Ruffel says he is optimistic that the policy change will be approved. "There must be some government support for the idea because the current ongoing Department of Homeland Security pistol procurement very specifically includes a subcompact weapon," he says.