CALEXICO, Calif. — With the Mexican metropolis of Mexicali just a dozen yards behind him, Calexico Police Officer Eric Hackett is explaining why officers here need more firepower to protect themselves and the residents of this Imperial Valley town.
"We are the first cops, and the last cops, in America," he said. "As it stands now, anybody with a deer rifle -- a drug gangster, or bank robber, maybe a fugitive on the run -- could hold this town hostage and there isn't anything we could do about it."
With Hackett as president, the police officers association is locked in an angry dispute with the police chief and City Council over the officers' request to carry AR-15 assault rifles in their squad cars -- the kind of weaponry used by an increasing number of Southern California police departments.
To the officers, Calexico's proximity to Mexicali (population 1 million) presents a clear and present danger that Calexico officials refuse to acknowledge. Among the tempting targets for cross-border criminals, officers say, are eight banks within three blocks of the border and money-exchange businesses that stay open 24 hours.
"We know that organized crime is alive and well in Mexicali," said Sgt. German Duran, a 12-year veteran. "Calexico is pretty much a suburb of Mexicali. We need the tools to get our job done."
But city officials say officers are overestimating the dangers, and that most Calexico residents are uncomfortable with the idea of police with assault rifles.
"I'm hearing from residents that they're afraid of officers with rifles," said Councilman Alex Perrone. "These are good officers but, in my mind, they think the things that happen in Logan Heights [a Latino section of San Diego] or Compton or L.A. are going to happen in Calexico. They're not."
A city of 27,000, Calexico has 45 officers and a recent history of antagonism between the police officers association and city officials over contract matters and disciplinary actions taken against officers.
The city has had five police chiefs in the last decade.
Two years ago, the police chief allowed officers to buy AR-15s with their own money, with a promise that, once the officers were trained and the weapons registered with the Department of Justice, they could be carried in squad cars.
The chief then left for a job in South Gate and was replaced by longtime Calexico officer Mario Sanchez, whose appointment was praised by the police officers association.
The AR-15, with a 30-round clip, is the semiautomatic civilian version of the fully automatic M-16 military rifle. Fifteen Calexico officers bought AR-15s at about $750 apiece. By law, only law enforcement members can own the AR-15 and then only with approval from federal officials.
The rifle has become popular with civilian law officers in the wake of a 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery in which Los Angeles police waged a gun battle with the robbers and complained that they were outgunned.
Some officers ran to a nearby gun store and borrowed rifles to defend themselves.
The Imperial County and San Diego County sheriff's departments, for example, include the AR-15 as standard equipment for cases in which a handgun or shotgun are inadequate. Handguns have limited range and a shotgun blast "scatters" too quickly and widely to be used on distant targets.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department this week will take receipt of 200 AR-15s, a step toward ensuring that every patrol officer has one.
After initially approving the purchase of the rifles, Sanchez changed his mind and ordered officers to leave the rifles at home. Two weeks ago, he ordered his officers to turn in the rifles or be fired. Officers are to be reimbursed.
The officers complied but arrived at the police station carrying angry protest signs, including one that accused the chief of being a liar. Two officers wore ski masks.
"The officers showed extremely bad judgment," said Carlton Hargrave, a restaurant owner who serves on the Calexico Police Commission, an advisory group. "The women who worked at the department were very frightened, especially by the ski masks. Officers with rifles and ski masks, that's not good for Calexico."
Another protest is planned for this week's City Council meeting.
There is talk of a lawsuit claiming the city is endangering the officers' lives by denying them adequate weaponry.
Communication between the chief and his officers is minimal.
"Our chief is not an open-minded person; it's his way or the highway," said Duran, who, like Sanchez, grew up in Calexico. Sanchez declined to talk to The Times.
"This has never been a happy [police] department," said Hildy Carrillo-Rivera, executive director of the Calexico Chamber of Commerce. "Some of these officers scare the community; they seem to have a Rambo-like attitude."
Mayor Pro Tem David Ouzan said he would like to find a compromise: possibly storing some AR-15s to be used in case of emergencies.
"These are the soldiers of our community," he said. "They need to have the tools to protect us." Also, unlike many in the community, he was not offended by the sign-waving demonstration.
"Everybody has the right to protest," he said. "This is still America."