SHIRLEY — When a list of police departments that received semiautomatic weapons from the military was published recently in The Boston Globe, Shirley was on the list.
The accompanying article questioned why small departments need such big guns.
When The Shirley Oracle asked acting Police Chief Gregory Massak that question last week, his answer was swift and sure.
“We’ve had two guys shot in the line of duty,” he said. “There are two banks in town that are fairly open to the public.”
There’s also a state prison. One of the two officers Massak referred to — Sgt. James Mikel — was shot by an MCI Shirley inmate who was missing from a now-defunct work-release program. Sgt. Dale Prentiss was shot more recently in a domestic incident. Both officers were seriously injured and have retired on permanent disability.
According to Massak, the past incidents are reason enough to be prepared for a worst-case scenario.
“The potential for robbery is there,” he said.
Although the town’s two banks have not been hit, he spoke of a recent bank robbery in Hollis, N.H., in which the suspects were caught in Shirley, on Townsend Road.
But Massak’s defense of department weapons related more to semiautomatic patrol rifles purchased two years ago from Bushmaster Firearms than to old military weapons. Every officer has one of the new semiautomatic weapons locked in his or her cruiser, in addition to traditional rifles.
“The technology is there. … It’s the norm for police departments now,” Massak said.
The new guns keep the department “up to speed,” he said. They have the same frame as the M-16 (military weapon) but are a little shorter, with collapsible stock. Officers prefer them because they have less kick than a shotgun, load easily and shoot 30 rounds from a single magazine. The bullet path is “more true,” he said.
“They’re designed for man-sized targets,” Massak said of the semiautomatic weapons.
Once the bullets hit their mark, they stay put, as opposed to a shot that can pierce a target, come out the other side and keep going, possibly injuring a bystander, he said.
Massak said his department’s original government-issued inventory consisted of a converted machine gun and two Vietnam-era M-14s that were obtained from the military several years ago. The M-14 predates the M-16 and M-21, which the military now uses. It’s a high-powered rifle that carries a big round. The newer versions have a special barrel.
“Ours were retrofitted as semiautomatics,” Massak said. “They’re not machine guns.”
The military also lists other surplus gear police departments can put in requests for, such as helmets and tear gas.
The vintage stock was obtained through a North Star program, which several New England agencies participate in, Massak said.
“It’s not unusual to get firearms,” he said.
If guns are handed out, the state keeps track of them, bullets and all, requiring departments that have the weapons to submit annual reports updating the weapons’ whereabouts, security measures used for safekeeping and accounting for ammunition, Massak said.
As far as preparing for the worst, Massak said officers also have other gear they hope never to have to use, including gas masks and protective suits.
But items in demand now are not weapons but upgraded communication tools, so agencies can talk to each other on the go. Massak said radios that change frequency are high on the wish lists of most police departments these days.
“Interoperability is key now,” he said.