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Pistol for police marketed to public

City leaders criticize the modified version of a gun made for an elite LAPD unit with history of fatal shootings.

January 12, 2008|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

To the dismay of some city leaders, a gun company is marketing a line of high-end pistols named for the LAPD's Special Investigation Section, an elite group of plainclothes detectives with a history of fatally shooting suspects.

The guns for the undercover unit were created at the request of the Los Angeles Police Department. Kimber, a Yonkers, N.Y.-based gun maker, is marketing a slightly modified version to the public, touting the weapons as the "hot new SIS pistols" on the company's website.

For each of the more than $1,000 guns sold, Kimber says it will donate $15 to the nonprofit Los Angeles Police Memorial Foundation, which provides financial support to officers and their families in times of death, injury or illness.

But news that a weapon is being marketed with an "SIS" serration -- a clear reference to the LAPD -- was met with criticism from city and civil rights leaders.

"It is very disturbing," said Councilman Jack Weiss. "If any member of the public is shot with one of these guns or, heaven forbid, a cop is shot with one these guns, what would be the explanation?"

LAPD officials said the department does not endorse the gun but has no control over how the manufacturer markets the weapon.

Regarding questions about the weapons marketed to the public, Police Chief William J. Bratton dismissed the topic as a "nonissue," calling it "foolish."

Capt. Kyle Jackson, head of the Robbery Homicide Division who oversees the SIS, said the department did not request that the initials be placed on the guns it ordered. And, he said, Kimber did not need the department's permission to sell the modified versions.

"It isn't trademarked," Jackson said. "No one at the LAPD is profiting from this. This is not an endorsement."

But Jackson said he believed the product "enhances" the LAPD's image.

"It says that people are impressed with the training and equipment of the section," he said.

He noted that many gun manufacturers market weapons to the public by citing the law enforcement agencies and military branches that carry them.

In promoting the company's SIS pistols, Kimber's website features an article published this month by a national weapons magazine that includes photographs the publication says are of current and former SIS officers.

The LAPD began using four models of the single-action, semiautomatic .45-caliber handguns late last year. LAPD officials said it took 18 months to develop the weapons, which they said are designed to be lighter and more easily concealed than the guns regularly used by the department.

Kimber's SIS models for the LAPD and the public can be cocked and fired with one hand, in case the other is injured or otherwise unavailable. The company designed various models of the weapon for different police uses: two 5-inch versions for officers' belts and vests, and the smaller 4- and 3-inch versions for the stakeout vehicle and off-duty protection, respectively.

LAPD officials said the SIS pistol sold to the public has a different firing mechanism and gun sights. The LAPD version has a special safety firing pin.

"There is something fundamentally wrong with the commercial sales of these highly specialized weapons to the public," said civil rights attorney Carol Sobel.

Police Commission Vice President John Mack said he is concerned that the marketing of the guns seems to play off the Special Investigation Section's record, which includes payouts in civil rights lawsuits.

The SIS has long been a source of controversy, which has stemmed from the unit's practice until recent years of following suspects and waiting for them to commit crimes before confronting them.

The strategy has sometimes turned deadly; at least 37 suspects have been killed by SIS detectives since the unit was founded in 1965, according to police records.

LAPD officials have defended the section's work, saying detectives needed strong measures to go after the most treacherous criminals.

The unit was responsible for solving the murder of Bill Cosby's son, Ennis, and worked on the Alphabet Bomber and Hillside Strangler cases.

Since Bratton's appointment six years ago, SIS detectives have stopped waiting to catch suspects in the act before making arrests, cut back on the use of deadly force and started calling in backup from uniformed officers.

Jackson, the captain of the division, said the unit has changed over the years.

"This is not your grandfather's SIS. This is the SIS for the 21st century," he said. "We bring in the most qualified people for SIS. We bring in a wide range of diversity.

"Scores and scores of operations occur without a single use of force," Jackson said. "If they didn't have reverence for life, I wouldn't allow them to be there."

Ignatius Chinn of the state Justice Department's Bureau of Firearms said there are past examples of guns created for law enforcement agencies, and embossed with their insignias, being sold to the public.

In the 1970s and '80s, he said, Smith & Wesson sold a California Highway Patrol .38 Special and the Texas Ranger .357 Magnum. Chinn said he believed that like those weapons, the SIS pistols eventually will become collector's items.

richard.winton@latimes.com

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