Some LAPD SWAT team members are shown on the job earlier this year. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
A cache of Los Angeles Police Department submachine guns and handguns was stolen last week from a secured building used by the department's SWAT unit, raising fears that the weapons, which police had altered to fire only blanks, could be converted back to lethal use, police officials confirmed.
The weapons, which include 21 MP-5 submachine guns and 12 large caliber handguns, were moved Wednesday night to a multistory building at 14th and San Pedro streets downtown and stored in a locked box on the building's first floor, said LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing.
Members of the SWAT unit, which specializes in hostage rescues and other high-risk situations, were scheduled to train at the facility Thursday, Downing said. A police officer arriving at the building around 9 a.m. Thursday discovered the weapons were missing, according to Downing. The officer also found electrical equipment stacked near a back door, indicating the burglars may still have been working and fled when the officer arrived.
Downing said the building, although not a guarded LAPD facility, was considered secure. To get to the weapons, the thieves cut through bolt locks on an outside door and two internal doors and forced their way through a metal roll gate, he said.
"I guess 'secure' is all relative now," he said. "It's embarrassing.... It's a lesson learned."
The theft was particularly awkward because it involved the SWAT unit, one of the most prestigious assignments in the department and one whose members are trained to methodically think through the possible outcomes of situations before acting.
When told about the weapons theft, other LAPD officers, who asked that their names not be used because they did not want to criticize fellow cops publicly, questioned why the weapons weren't simply kept at SWAT's headquarters, about a mile from the training site. "Even with some locked doors, they should have seen this as a possibility," one said.
As a rule, Downing said, officers are not supposed to leave weapons unattended at the building. He added that "appropriate measures" had been taken in response to the gaffe but would not specify if anyone had been disciplined. He said officials are also reviewing SWAT's procedures for using the building to see if changes are needed.
The building, which once housed textile companies, was donated to the department. Inside, the department put up walls and made other changes in order to create realistic scenarios for training exercises. They did not install an alarm system or surveillance cameras.
Shortly after the break-in was discovered, detectives from the LAPD's local police station and forensic technicians were summoned to the building, but several hours passed before Downing and other senior LAPD officials were made aware of the breach. When Downing finally learned of the stolen weapons about five hours later, he ordered investigators with expertise in gun thefts to take over the case, he said.
Those investigators are "working on leads," Downing said. He declined to elaborate but added that he believes the weapons will be found.
It was no secret that the facility, named the Kennedy Building after its owner, was used by SWAT for training. The officers could be seen coming and going and sometimes put on public demonstrations there. That raised the possibility that the thieves had been surveilling the site.
Asked whether there was any indication that the burglary was an inside job involving LAPD officers, Downing declined to comment, except to say, "We're not ruling anything out."
"You wonder if this was a planned operation, what information they had, whether they were conducting surveillance," Downing said.
About a month ago, a woman was seen photographing the building, which triggered an investigation by the officers from the department's counter-terrorism division, according to Downing. That incident appears unrelated to the break-in, but investigators are continuing to investigate, he said.
The obvious concern is that whoever stole the weapons will convert them from firing blanks to using live ammunition. Downing acknowledged that was "definitely a possibility" but said that to do so would require an understanding of the inner workings of the weapons.
Gun experts and online tutorials suggest, however, that the process is relatively simple and requires only a few parts. The company that manufactures the conversion kits used by the LAPD has an instructional video on its website that walks a viewer through the steps of returning an MP-5 to its original form in about five minutes.
The parts required to change the MP-5 back to live firing were for sale on a gun supply website. It was unclear, however, what documentation or background checks would be required to purchase them.
The idea that nearly three dozen high-powered submachine guns and .45-caliber handguns could make their way onto the black market or be put to use by criminals worried LAPD officials enough that they notified law enforcement agencies in the region.
"This is a big deal," Downing said. "We're concerned. We want to recover them."