By Richard Kerns
Tribune Staff Writer
KEYSER – Keyser City Police will soon be armed with assault rifles under a U.S. military surplus program that the police department recently joined.
Police Chief Karen Shoemaker reported at last week's City Council meeting that the program will provide the military weaponry for each of the department's 11 sworn officers. The weapons cost $900 to $1,200 apiece on the open market, depending on extra attachments.
"Every officer will get an M-16, free of charge," the chief said.
Interviewed after the meeting, Shoemaker noted that other area law enforcement agencies already have assault rifles for their officers, including the Mineral County Sheriff's Office and Potomac State College. "We're kind of the last ones to get them," she said.
Shoemaker, who has served with the Keyser Police Department since 1990, including the last 11 years as chief, said the assault rifles are a reflection of the times. While the vast majority of incidents in Keyser will never require officers to employ their new rifles, she said, given recent school shootings and other mass-casualty incidents in which the perpetrators have been armed with just such weapons, Keyser Police need to be prepared for the worst.
"Would you respond to the average complaint like a dog barking armed with an AR? Absolutely not," she said. "However, if we respond to a school shooting, will we pull them out? Certainly."
Shoemaker noted that a recent drug raid on Orchard Street netted an assault rifle from one of the suspects arrested in the incident. If the bad guys have such weapons, she said, the police need to be able to respond in kind, not only for their protection but to protect the community.
"If you don't have the same weapons as the criminals, it puts you at a severe disadvantage," she said. "You have to plan for the worst-case scenarios."
The chief said that some individual Keyser officers have already been armed with assault rifles they obtained on their own, and carry after being certified to use the weapons. Now all of the officers will have access to the rifles.
The chief assured Keyser residents that city police officers will not suddenly be seen patrolling the community with an M-16 at the ready. "The public will probably never see them," she said. "We just want to be prepared."
The assault rifles are being obtained through a program in which the Department of Defense allocates surplus material to police departments across the country. More than just rifles and other weapons, the program deals with the vast array of equipment used by the military, everything from boats and life jackets to trucks and plows.
"The military has everything," Mayor Randy Amtower said in applauding Shoemaker's enlistment in the program.
Page 2 of 2 - The police chief became aware of the program at a recent meeting in Annapolis of rural law enforcement agencies. At the same meeting, she met a fellow officer who got her in contact with a program that will replace and upgrade the tazers now used by Keyser officers, at no cost to the city.
Noting that city staff are sometimes criticized for attending conferences and other meetings out of the area, the mayor said the military surplus program demonstrates that such events can pay real dividends for city government, and the taxpayers who support it.
"It's important for people to know a lot of these trips that they perceive as just someone out having a good time, there's a real benefit to it," he said.