ST. PETERSBURG — Semiautomatic rifles are in the hands of everyone these days, from law-abiding citizens to criminals.
But St. Petersburg has a plan to put even more high-powered rifles in the hands of its police: The city will loan money to officers so they can buy their own.
"You don't want to be in a situation where someone is shooting at you with a rifle," said Sgt. Tim Brockman, "and you're sitting there with a handgun."
The rifle most commonly used by law enforcement is the AR-15 carbine, a civilian variant of the military's M4 rifle.
But the weapons are so expensive — they cost up to $1,000 each and need to be modified for the individual user — that many departments give them only to special units, like SWAT teams.
That's why Tampa Bay's police agencies have long allowed patrol officers to buy their own.
The problem, according to patrol Sgt. Chris Emmert, was that not every officer could afford the expense of buying and equipping such a weapon. He's spent $2,500 on his own rifle.
"The younger or newer officers on the low end of the pay scale didn't have the financial means," Emmert said, "especially when trying to support their families."
He said officers long ago came up with a way to make them affordable: interest-free loans. Then, after three officers were killed by gunfire early this year, he pitched the idea to Police Chief Chuck Harmon.
A survey of the rank-and-file found "overwhelming" support, according to police spokesman Bill Proffitt. The deaths of Sgt. Thomas Baitinger, K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz and Officer David Crawford also factored into the chief's decision.
"I think after what happened on Jan. 24 and Feb. 21," Proffitt said, "there was renewed interest in having a program like that."
Starting Oct. 6, the city will give officers who signed up an interest-free loan of $1,150. Then it will deduct $45 from their weekly paychecks.
Brockman, the department's training supervisor, said officers will be allowed to use the carbines only in "high-risk" situations: facing an active shooter, a barricaded suspect, setting up a perimeter, pulling over a dangerous suspect. Officers must also train annually with the weapons.
"If the officers aren't properly trained," Brockman said, "then you've created a bigger problem for yourself."
The ultimate goal, according to Emmert, is to have more firepower than your adversary: "If we have two officers responding to a man with a gun call, the hope is that at least one of them has a rifle.
"We don't want to bring a handgun to a handgun situation. We want to bring a rifle."
The rifles have better range and more accuracy than a handgun, according to Emmert, a firearms instructor.
The nation's police agencies learned in 1997 that they can't always wait for SWAT. That's when two heavily armed bank robbers outgunned dozens of Los Angeles officers armed with only revolvers, pistols and shotguns.
In the years since, the rifles have become standard issue. When St. Petersburg finally let street officers use their own rifles in 2004, it was one of the last Tampa Bay agencies to do so.
The move was spurred in part by a 2003 St. Petersburg incident: suspects armed with SKS rifles killed a bystander in a drive-by shooting, then fired at pursuing officers.
More recently, high-powered rifles were blamed for one of the city's worst tragedies. Police said an 8-year-old girl was killed in 2009 when her house was raked by AR-15 rifles.
The St. Petersburg Police Department is poised to undergo even more tactical changes today, proposals that were also spurred by the recent officer casualties.
The City Council will consider whether to spend $511,000 in forfeiture money to buy gun lights, new bullet-resistant vests, thermal imagers and, a first for the city, its own armored vehicle.
St. Petersburg's police force is catching up with a growing, but not universally accepted, trend across the country.
"There's been a blend of military and law enforcement philosophy that frightens some people," said Roy Bedard, a Tallahassee police consultant.
"But I don't think the public is worried about law enforcement officers. I think they're worried about the threats law enforcement seems to be facing."