Chief Savano Statement Regarding Patrol Rifles

I recognize and support the importance of gun control and the simple perspective and feeling that less guns on the street means less violence. The gun issue is not something we can fix here tonight or from Petaluma and it will take nationwide leadership and change to address. Until then, I respectfully ask that you consider the following information in support of our officers being properly equipped for their safety and the safety of this community. I pray we never need them, and I will remain hopeful for a day when they are no longer needed by law enforcement and we can surplus them.

I want to provide some background to help everyone better understand the situation involving our semi-automatic patrol rifle program.

The discussion regarding patrol rifles began to change from being issued to specialized teams to regular patrol officers following the 1997 Hollywood bank robbery where suspects were armed with body armor and high powered automatic rifles. Officers were at a significant disadvantage and twenty officers and innocent community members were shot and injured. In addition to this incident, the increasing frequency of domestic terrorism and mass casualty shootings has moved modern law enforcement to issue patrol rifles to each officer as standard issue equipment, just as we do for their sidearms. These weapons are tools to be used within specific policy for specific types of violent encounters which are rare, but usually very deadly.

In response to the increase in these incidents, the City of Petaluma authorized our Department to carry patrol rifles in 1999.  Over the last 21 years, we have implemented training and deployment polices based on best practices from research conducted across the country and around the world.  I have compared our policies at the local, state, and national level and found them consistent with best practices.

Our policies are very specific on when an officer may deploy with a patrol rifle and without a specific threat; we never deploy them as a show of force.  Since 1999, I am proud to say we have successfully implemented and deployed patrol rifles without incident or concern.  Presently, the use and issuance of departmental semi-automatic patrol rifles is an industry standard amongst law enforcement agencies across the state.

When I began in law enforcement more than 30 years ago, I never imagined patrol rifles would become standard issued equipment in most police departments.  I also never imagined the threat of violence from suspects armed with automatic or semi-automatic rifles involved in mass casualty events would rise to the level or frequency that we have seen in our country and around the world.

I am grateful when I recognize our officers have not had to respond to a tragic active shooter event.  However, my job as your police chief is not to plan for what has not happened but to maintain a professional, well trained, properly equipped, and ready to respond to any situation police department.  Our deployment policy for active shooters who are actively engaged in killing or injuring innocent people is to deploy with a patrol rifle and locate and neutralize the threat. We do this because we do not have a full-time always on duty tactical team like larger agencies and if we wait for a specially equipped tactical team, innocent people will die.

When the patrol rifle program was approved, the City lacked funding to purchase and issue a patrol rifle to each officer. The Department received a small amount of used surplus military rifles that were shared by officers.  Training here in Petaluma and shooting incidents outside of Petaluma showed that rifles shared by multiple officers creates safety, training, and liability challenges.  A request was made at that time to receive more surplus rifles to issue each officer, but they were not available.  The City still lacked the revenue to purchase new rifles.  As the need was so great and obvious to maintain the safety of our community, officers were forced to purchase their own rifles. Since then, because of the concerns mentioned above with the shared military surplus rifles, many of our officers have made the same purchase to maintain their safety and readiness to respond.

I am sensitive to the optics of militarizing our police force.  We have maintained a long history of professionalism, sound deployment decisions, good judgement with regard to force, and an extremely high level of training and accountability with all of our special teams and equipment.  From police canines, the special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team, our armored rescue vehicles, to our patrol rifle program we have never presented, shown, or used force that would be considered inappropriately aggressive or oppressive.  Because of this, I have been proud to serve with the men and women of this department and as your Police Chief, I am absolutely committed to maintaining that outstanding record.

Because the amount of training needed on this weapon system and the fact that it must be sighted in for each officer in order to meet the high level of accuracy in qualification, the best practice is to issue each officer their own patrol rifle. In addition to accuracy and confidence, it is always with them when they are on duty and they can respond immediately.

Our patrol rifle program has identified training, safety, equipment maintenance, and city liability with officers carrying a personally owned patrol rifle.  The personally owned rifles are not standardized and present training challenges.  Officers placed in a situation to have to use deadly force to stop an armed suspect posing an imminent threat of death or great bodily injury should have the best weapon system that is maintained and supplied by the City.  Liability exists when equipment standards fall short of industry standards for safety and reliability, not to mention using a personally owned weapon for official use.

I am also sensitive to the fact that when we initiated this process last September after identifying available funds, the situation we find ourselves in today with COVID19 and social unrest for events occurring outside of our community. The delay in this process in unfortunate, but the need remained. This process was delayed by current research and a formal bidding process.  I want everyone to know that we have tried to remedy this situation in prior years but were not successful in identifying funding.  If we were not able to secure grant funding for another project in our budget, the funds for this replacement would not have existed.

We unfortunately know of many incidents in recent history, worldwide, which we don’t ever want to imagine could happen in our city.  Locally, our county has experienced incidents of gun related violence on the campuses of our high schools, as we did this past October in Santa Rosa. Regionally, we have experienced gun violence at community events such as the Gilroy Garlic Festival, where the suspect was armed with a high-powered assault weapon.  While we hope that our community never has to endure one of these situations, we would be derelict in our duty to this community to not prepare for them and should they ever occur our officers are properly prepared and equipped to best protect the community and themselves.

When I began in law enforcement more than 30 years ago, I never imagined patrol rifles would become standard issued equipment in most police departments.  I also never imagined the threat of violence from suspects armed with automatic or semi-automatic rifles involved in mass casualty events would rise to the level or frequency that we have seen in our country and around the world. .

by Police Chief Ken Savano

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