Arizona State University police obtained 70 semi-automatic M-16s from a military program in 2013 that the force doesn't actually need.
The ASU police department has 71 sworn officers, according to its website, meaning the junior-league offshoot of the state Department of Public Safety has upped its firepower potential considerably.
But with no invasion of ISIL shock troops imminent, nor any need to take over ASU's campus by force, the rifles are about as useful as a chainsaw in a kitchen knife set.
Lou Digirolamo, interim assistant chief, showed New Times one of the de-militarized M-16s on Wednesday.
ASU received the rifles from the state DPS in 2013 at no cost through the military's much-publicized Department of Defense Excess Property Program, also known as the "1033" program.
Pima Community College and Arizona Western College in Yuma received several rifles each from the program as well. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education article from last week, 60 educational institutions around the country received military surplus from the program. The schools received all sorts of gear, from fiber-optics cable to underwear. No other institution in the nation received as many guns as ASU, though.
The weapons "were acquired to handle situations such as an active shooter, as the weapons offer increased accuracy and allow police to utilize a weapon that could be similar in fire power to what a perpetrator would use," says Julie Newberg, ASU spokeswoman. The rifles were converted from fully automatic to semi-automatic because being able to shoot only one bullet each time the trigger is pulled offers "increased accuracy in situations such as an active shooter."
In other words, despite the worries over the firepower an "active shooter" might bring, ASU saw no need for even one of the guns to remain fully automatic. ASU wants "similar," not superior, firepower. Of course, fully-auto weapons would be scarier to the public. Presumably, ASU must also balance its security needs against its carefully cultivated PR efforts.
Even in semi-auto mode, the M-16 with its .223-caliber ammo packs a much-bigger punch than nearly any pistol. But it's not like ASU police will have them slung across their backs while on bicycle patrol. Newberg confirms that the rifles won't be visible, generally, to students and the public. Most will be stored at the headquarters at any given time. After training, officers may shove one in the trunks of their patrol vehicles.
In an "active shooter," situation, ASU police would be lucky to have one officer with an M-16 in the right place at the moment the shooting starts. Most mass shootings, as the public knows from the sheer number covered on the news in recent years, don't involve a police officer or anyone else returning fire immediately. The incident begin, and then there's a response. Common sense dictates that police would want to assess a shooting situation, then deploy appropriate force to the scene.
What would never happen, in our humble opinion, is a need for 70 ASU police with M-16s in hand. Or anywhere near 70. Adjacent to ASU, no further away from campus than ASU's police headquarters is the Tempe Police Department, which has more total firepower than ASU, plus a trained SWAT team. Minutes away, too, are the heavily armed police forces of Chandler, Mesa, Scottsdale and Phoenix.
Yet even Tempe police don't see the need to provide each officer with an M-16, (or the civilian semi-auto version, the AR-15). Usually, one rifle is issued per squad of officers, says Lieutenant Michael Pooley, Tempe PD spokesman.
"We like to have a rifle out there on the streets in case something happens," Pooley says. Still, the long rifles are carried in a vehicle and aren't handy for immediate use by patrol officers, Pooley admits.
Cops don't normally tote them in a way that's visible to the public. The department has no official policy on that, but Pooley says if an officer decided to sling one over a shoulder while walking a beat on Mill Avenue, his or her supervisors would probably want to chat about it.
Showing up with long rifles to, say, a domestic-violence call-out would simply not be done, he says.
"A rifle -- that's intimidation," Pooley says. "We do not want to intimidate people."
Tempe police received some military equipment through the 1033 program, too. Mainly a few tents, but also one big-ticket item: an armored vehicle. The department prefers to have two armored vehicles, and the new one replaces a vehicle that is retiring, Pooley says.
Why Tempe needs even one armored vehicle is probably more of a testament to regional competition and pride among municipalities than any actual security need. In 2009, we reported that Valley agencies had a total of eight armored vehicles, including a $250,000 Bearcat vehicle that had just been granted to the little town of Buckeye. We don't have a current total, but it's likely higher now.
The issue of excess military gear in the hands of civilian police agencies has received a lot of attention since the heavy-handed crackdown in August on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. The 1033 program also served to embarrass Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio recently -- because his office was kicked out of it for losing nine firearms.
Matthew Van Camp, a Payson police detective who manages the 1033 program for Arizona, says each police agency determines its own need for equipment. The federal government would only look askance at a request if it was obviously out of whack with a perceived need, he says.
One rifle per officer is just fine, and the feds don't care what ASU police does with them as long as they're used for a law -enforcement purpose. If the department wants to "beat up" the free rifles by using them for extensive training, that's fine, he says. The rifles are "Vietnam-era" weapons that the U.S. military had stored, unused, for decades.
The one thing ASU officials can't do with the rifles, Van Camp says, is sell them.
Which is too bad: The proceeds could buy a lot of bicycles and Segways -- items the ASU agency actually needs.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
UPDATE: September 30 -- The Arizona Republic reports that ASU is returning the rifles.
Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.