Fearful of becoming outgunned by well-armed criminals, the Los Angeles Police Department is considering arming its officers with semiautomatic pistols that have more than double the firepower of the .38-caliber revolvers now in use.
Police Department experts are field-testing an Italian-made Beretta--the same pistol that was chosen by the Army this year as the new standard-issue side arm for American soldiers. Also being tested are several models of semiautomatic pistols manufactured by Smith & Wesson of Springfield, Mass.
"The genesis of the idea is that we're becoming more and more outgunned every day," said Cmdr. William Booth, a department spokesman. "The chief thought it was time for an analysis of acceptable weaponry that is more practical for police use, especially for a handgun that is safe and no more ominous than the one that we now carry."
Booth declined to provide details on the department's weapons testing, saying "it would not be good protocol to read results of our research in the newspaper" before Chief Daryl F. Gates had had a chance to review them.
Gates is expected to receive a preliminary report on those results early next month, Booth said. If the chief endorses buying new guns, the matter would be forwarded to the Los Angeles Police Commission for final consideration.
"We're a long way from that," Booth noted.
The semiautomatic handguns being considered are 9-millimeter weapons, firing bullets that are 0.36 of an inch in diameter. The rounds are slightly smaller than those fired by the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver now issued to Los Angeles officers, but the muzzle velocity is comparable. The difference, however, is not so much in the velocity or the caliber of each weapon's bullets, but in the number of rounds. While the revolver holds six shots, the Beretta can fire 16 before reloading is required. The Smith & Wesson semiautomatics, depending on the model, can hold 15 bullets.
"More firepower doesn't necessarily mean bigger and faster ammunition," Booth noted. "It means having more ammo without having to reload. And an automatic can be reloaded much quicker and much easier than a revolver, especially at night."
All Los Angeles police officers are issued .38-caliber revolvers with four-inch barrels, while many detectives in the department carry smaller, more easily concealed .38-caliber revolvers with two-inch barrels. Only rarely--usually for undercover operations--do their commanders let officers carry semiautomatics.
Despite its drawbacks, the revolver is still favored by most law enforcement agencies. Its simple design, many experts believe, makes it less likely to misfire.
"The revolver is a hell of a lot safer," said state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Chatsworth), a former Los Angeles police chief. "If they go to automatics, they'll pay the price of accidental discharges.
"If the bad guys are all using Uzis these days, then, fine, maybe the Police Department should go to Uzis," Davis added. "But if the bad guys haven't changed very much, then I think the chief and the Police Commission ought to deliberate long and hard. Back in my years as chief, '68 through '77, this kind of thing wasn't necessary. I'm not sure it's necessary now."
More outspoken in his criticism was Michael Zinzun, chairman of the Los Angeles Coalition Against Police Abuses. "More bullets mean there'll just be more bullets flying," said Zinzun, a former member of the Black Panthers and a frequent police critic whose group was formed in 1976 by community activists to monitor police activities after a wave of officer-involved shootings.
But police contend that too many bullets already are being fired by criminals.
In August, for example, Los Angeles had to cope with one set of Uzi-armed bandits who robbed and shot four people in Hollywood, killing one, while another set plundered a jewelry store in the posh Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
A number of police departments in the Los Angeles area already are using semiautomatics. Spokesmen say the weapons have proven to be safe and are fired no more frequently than standard service revolvers.
In Pomona, for example, the city's 150 police officers have been armed since the early 1970s with eight-shot, .45-caliber semiautomatics. Pomona officers have never had an accidental discharge, a spokesman said.
Police in Covina, Glendale and Long Beach, among others, also carry semiautomatic pistols and say they have had similar safety records.
Still other departments have tested semiautomatics and opted to stick with revolvers.
Lt. Bill Reagan, shooting range master for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said his agency reviewed various types of semiautomatics about four years ago but thought they would require too much maintenance.
Reagan said his department also concluded that it would cost too much to buy semiautomatics and train patrol deputies to use them.
HOW THE WEAPONS COMPARE
Los Angeles police are considering purchasing new weapons. Here is how they compare:
Number of Bullet Sugg. retail rounds velocity* price 1. Smith & Wesson .38-cal. revolver 6 1,020 $330 2. Smith & Wesson 9-mm semi-automatic 15 1,170 442 3. Beretta 9-mm semi-automatic 16 1,170 600
* Feet-per-second, based on comparable bullet shape and loads of gunpowder.