February 15, 1999

The Police Department's 9-Millimeter Revolution

The tragic death of Amadou Diallo in a barrage of police gunfire requires us to look back at how New York City police officers went from carrying virtually any weapon they wanted to the current high-capacity, semi-automatic pistols that allowed 41 shots to be fired at Mr. Diallo in a matter of seconds.

When I was New York Police Commissioner, I sat at the same desk Theodore Roosevelt used when he held the job in the 1890's. It served to remind me of the reforms he brought to American law enforcement, including the standardization of weapons. Before Roosevelt insisted that they be issued the same revolvers, individual New York City police officers carried any weapon they liked, regardless of firepower or reliability.

As a result of Roosevelt's reforms, New York City police officers were required to carry a six-shot, .38-caliber revolver as their on-duty weapon for most of the 20th century. It was reliable and easy to maintain. It also provided better or equal firepower in most gunfights. Most criminals were armed with cheap, easily concealed, small-caliber guns -- "Saturday night specials" that were no match for superbly manufactured Smith & Wesson or Colt police revolvers.

Things changed, however. By the mid-1980's, the streets of most American urban centers were awash in narcotics, cash and "nines," or 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistols that became the weapon of choice for drug dealers. They were light and accurate and carried a capacity of up to 16 rounds. For more firepower, street criminals relied on machine pistols and other high-capacity, high-velocity guns. Their use in drive-by shootings killed or wounded scores of innocent bystanders, including children, whose mounting fatalities prompted the Dinkins administration to hire thousands of new police officers in the early 1990's.

Semi-automatics in the hands of criminals posed another problem. They outgunned the police. Criminals not only had the advantage of greater bullet capacity, but they could also reload much faster after they emptied their guns. Officers with revolvers faced the choice of reloading one bullet at a time or using a so-called speed loader, which involved the insertion of five or six bullets at a time if done just right. But neither method could compete with the speed and ease of dropping a magazine from a semi-automatic pistol and replacing it with another 16-bullet clip. The difference was demonstrated most dramatically during a 1986 gunfight in which an outlaw executed Scott Gadell, a New York City police officer who was in the process of reloading his revolver.

Most other major police departments and Federal law enforcement agencies had already switched to semi-automatics by the time I authorized their use by New York City police officers in September 1993. I approached the decision slowly and deliberately -- and after careful testing -- because more was at stake in densely populated New York than in smaller cities. The semi-automatic's capacity, and the potential for overshooting, still concerned me. So I directed that the guns' magazines be reconfigured to limit capacity to 10 rounds. The decision was not popular in the Police Department, but I thought the precaution necessary given the vagaries of policing New York.

After I left the Police Department, in 1993, that restriction was lifted. Now may be the time to re-impose it and to intensify training that teaches police officers to hold their fire until they know why they are shooting.

Raymond W. Kelly was the Police Commissioner of New York City in 1992 and 1993.

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