JOHNSON CITY — When Los Angeles law enforcement officers responded to a bank robbery in progress more than a decade ago, the nation watched two gunmen armed with assault rifles outshoot dozens of policemen who had only sidearms to protect themselves and innocent bystanders.
That’s when Johnson City police officials revamped their approach to being prepared for the unknown, according to Johnson City Police Major Trent Harris.
Officers already carried shotguns secured inside their vehicles in addition to their service handguns, but the department started a weapons program to provide more firepower to the force.
Now there are designated officers on each patrol shift who carry more powerful arms, Harris said.
“(Some) officers carry special weapons and are prepared to meet a threat of force,” Harris said.
He would not say the exact type of weapon those officers have or how many are on each shift.
In addition to those officers, there is also the police department’s SWAT unit, which has other specialized weapons.
At the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, patrol officers are armed with a duty handgun, a shotgun and a Ruger mini-14 assault rifle — at least for now.
“We have been approved for a federal grant and we’ll be replacing our mini-14s for AR-15s,” said Capt. Bryan Horton.
“We were the first agency to go to an assault rifle for our officers when we went to the mini-14 in 1998.”
The weapon fires a .223 round, just like an AR-15, which is the civilian model of the military M-16, Horton said.
Horton said his officers have seen assault rifles at some crime scenes, which means there is the potential for those weapons to be used against an officer.
“What we’ve confiscated are some different types of assault rifles, some fully automatic weapons and some that have had sound suppression.
“Most of those have been where we have arrested drug dealers. We haven’t had a situation where our officers have been fired at,” he said.
“It tells us the potential is there. Anytime we serve a drug search warrant and come across this type of weapon, the potential for these weapons to be used against an officer is there,” Horton said.
According to Harris, most of the weapons confiscated in the city are handguns, which are more easily concealed.
“We’re mostly seeing automatic handguns. We’re not seeing assault rifles. Mostly what we’re seeing is what’s easily concealed,” Harris said.
He said a partnership between the city and the U.S. Attorney’s Office through Project Safe Neighborhood has helped get a lot of guns and criminals using guns off the streets.
“We have a special prosecutor program the city and chief have initiated. That has been very, very successful and we’ve prosecuted some felons who have been in possession of some firearms.
“We’ll continue to be in that program because we want felons to know to not come to Johnson City,” he said.