South Salt Lake • Like educators and police officers across the country, Randy Johnson is worried about a gunman walking into a school and shooting children and teachers.
So Johnson, the chief of the Granite School District Police Department, has issued AR-15 rifles to 12 of his full-time officers. Johnson and two sergeants have something similar — M-16 rifles from a government program that gives military surplus to state and local police.
His officers don’t want to kill anyone, Johnson said. Rather, “We’re out to stop people from what they’re doing.”
Sixty-two Utah police forces belong to the 1033 Program — the U.S. Department of Defense program that gives departments surplus gear ranging from blankets to rifles to armored vehicles. But of those 62 agencies, the Granite School District is the only one whose primary mission is education.
That doesn’t mean Granite School District police are an anomaly.
In an online newsletter published in 2010, California’s Baldwin Park Unified School District reported receiving a van from the 1033 Program. Indiana University has six rifles from the 1033 Program, a spokesman there confirmed last week.
In 2013, Ohio State University received a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, MRAP for short. The University of Massachusetts Amherst received a Humvee, according to the open government website Muckrock.
Tools and humanitarian supplies are given to police. The weaponry is loaned, though the police forces can keep the weapons so long as they are maintained and not given away or sold.
The Defense Department is loaning weapons in an era when police nationwide are increasing firepower to combat what they see as better-armed criminals and in which shootings at places like Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School have parents, educators and police on edge.
Johnson said Granite police received the three M-16s in 2005. Johnson arrived at the police force in 2006. He got rid of the police department’s shotguns and replaced them with the rifles.
“If we have to use that weapon, I wanted it to be a surgeon’s scalpel and not like a sledgehammer,” Johnson said, in comparing rifles to shotguns.
M-16s are military versions of the $1,100-a-piece AR-15s, and the loan from the Pentagon means three less rifles Johnson’s force has to buy.
Granite’s police officers keep their rifles locked in a rack inside their cars, Johnson said, so they can be retrieved quickly if there’s a threat.
All of his officers must target practice with their AR-15 or M-16 and receive an annual certification. Johnson said some officers may have deployed them when a threat was suspected at a school, but, in his eight years as chief, no one has fired a rifle at a suspect.
The M-16s still have the automatic fire function intact, so Johnson keeps one and assigned the other two to sergeants to ensure there’s someone responsible carrying the weapon, though he said no one fires the rifle on its automatic setting.
David Perrodin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral researcher on school security, said school police officers need to be able to match the threats they encounter, but a rifle probably isn’t going to be much good unless an officer is carrying it with him at all times.
One quarter of school shootings end within five minutes, Perrodin said, citing his research. Nearly all end within 15 minutes.
“If you’re going to have an M-16, my position would be you have it with you at all times, just like you have a sidearm at all times,” Perrodin said.
As of 2012, the likelihood of any school having a shooting is once in every 13,870 years, Perrodin said, though he noted school shootings are increasing.
Johnson said that for any officer anywhere to carry a rifle at all times is not practical. He described the rifles as a tool.
“You use them when you need them and then you put them away,” Johnson said.