Most Nassau County patrol officers lack the precision rifles designed to quickly take down a gunman during a mass shooting attack despite a vow from department brass that the high-powered long guns would be distributed to street cops.
Patrol officers in Nassau, like uniformed police officers across the country, are often the first to respond to shootings and would be tasked with charging into a school or other building to immobilize an active shooter.
Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder says such military-style weapons should not be distributed widely across patrol ranks, citing security and oversight concerns. But James McDermott, president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, argues that street cops — armed with department-issued .40-caliber handguns — are at a distinct disadvantage against a gunman wielding a semiautomatic weapon of war.
McDermott, in an interview Tuesday ahead of the opening of hundreds of Nassau County schools this week, said all the department’s patrol officers should be trained to use the rifles and there should be one long gun assigned to each patrol car.
“I feel scared for the public and my officers who are left in a very vulnerable position as patrol cops, outgunned by bad guys,” McDermott said in an interview. “You expect officers to go in and risk their lives. Why wouldn’t you give the police officers the tools they need?”
Ryder said his predecessor's pledge four years ago to give out the long guns was "not a well-thought-out plan." He said doing so would require ongoing highly specialized training for every officer, making it impractical. The use and maintenance of such high-level tactical weapons must be tightly controlled, he said.
"My philosophy is, everybody can't be the pitcher, everybody can't be the batter," said Ryder. "We have professionals that train — our [Bureau of Special Operations] officers train twice a week ... If you took members out to do all this training, there'd be nobody doing the patrols."
Ninety-six of the 150 previously purchased rifles remain in storage, Ryder said. But he said he has a plan to deploy 50 to 60 of them, training the department's new complement of 24 problem-oriented police officers, or POP cops, to use the rifles, as well as members of Homeland Security. Some of the department's specialized units, such as BSO — which Ryder said he recently beefed up to 35 officers — already have the rifles.
"We have the firepower to do what we need to do, but we want to do it properly," said Ryder. "We want to make sure everybody's safe and the equipment is secure. Just because I have extra, doesn't mean that you go hand them out. You gotta have a strategy that's safe for both the public and our members."
Unlike Nassau, the Suffolk County Police Department, assigns the rifles — with the ability to accurately strike a target at a longer range than a handgun — to patrol supervisors and a handful of cops in each precinct. Suffolk police confirmed in an email that it distributes assault rifles to “some precinct officers, supervisors and some specialized commands” noting that officers who are assigned the weapons “go through extensive training.”
McDermott said he was speaking out after the department announced last week it was arming patrol officers with breaching devices and tourniquets to deal with active shooters — tools he conceded were helpful but didn't go far enough.
“We’re not as prepared as we should be,” he said.
Ryder said Nassau's smaller size, compared with Suffolk's, makes it easier for his specialized teams, who have the long guns, to respond to shootings more quickly and give the responding patrol officers backup they need.
"As a tactically trained officer for eight years, I know what's tactically sound for my department," said Ryder, who was previously in BSO for eight years.
McDermott said the rank and file is eager to be trained on the rifles as the number of mass shootings rises. There have been 289 mass shootings in the United States as of Tuesday, putting 2019 on pace to record an average of more than one mass shooting a day, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit which tracks shootings of four people or more.
When the Nassau County Police Department announced in December 2015 it was purchasing 150 Sig Sauer M400 SWAT rifles, it cited the longer range and accuracy of the rifles, saying they would put officers on an even footing with shooters using assault weapons.
Then-Commissioner Thomas Krumpter, who now heads the tiny Lloyd Harbor Police Department, said the rifles would be distributed to 150 officers, including some in special units and patrol, specifically for use in an active shooter scenario.