The spray of bullets that killed a police officer and hurt three others this week came from something increasingly common on this city’s streets: a high-powered assault weapon, fast becoming the gun of choice for gang members and violent criminals.
And when the guns, once found solely in the hands of soldiers, are aimed at officers on patrol, there’s little authorities can do to escape.
“It’s almost like we have water pistols going up against these high-powered rifles,” said John Rivera, president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association. “Our weaponry and our bulletproof vests don’t match up to any of those types of weapons.”
Federal officials don’t compile statistics on the number of crimes involving assault weapons like the AK-47, and municipalities’ numbers across the country are patchwork. But in Miami, at least, there are signs it is becoming a major problem.
In 2005, the Miami-Dade Police Department reported two homicides involving an assault rifle; last year there were 10. That agency covers numerous unincorporated areas in the nation’s eighth-largest county, but not its biggest cities, which have their own police forces.
The Miami Police Department said 15 of its 79 homicides last year involved assault weapons, up from the year before. This year, already 12 of the 60 homicides have involved the high-power guns.
“We’ve noticed an increase in the amount of assault weapons that we’ve seen on the street, and certainly the amount that have been used in murders and other shootings,” said Detective Delrish Moss. “And it seems to be increasing every year.”
Details of manhunt
Police do not yet know where the 25-year-old suspect in Thursday’s shooting of the Miami-Dade officers got his weapon. Shawn Sherwin Labeet was found hours later and 30 miles from the crime scene. Police said they shot and killed him after he refused to drop his firearm.
On Friday, officers arrested four people accused of aiding Labeet. Alba Bello, 47; her son, Alain Gonzalez, 24; and Bello’s boyfriend, Lazaro Guardiola, 35, were charged with accessory after the fact on suspicion of harboring the killer. Labeet’s girlfriend, Renee Dangelo, 26, was charged with giving police false information.
Later Friday, Labeet’s brother, Shane Labeet, 32, was charged with aiding his brother’s flight. Also arrested was Shawn Labeet’s nephew Jaleel Torres, 22, who was charged with resisting an officer with violence as investigators tried to question him about his uncle’s whereabouts.
Labeet is also the stepbrother of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ most wanted criminal, Ishmael Ali LaBeet, said Miami-Dade police Cmdr. Linda O’Brien.
Three decades ago, Ishmael Ali LaBeet and four accomplices opened fire during a robbery on St. Croix, killing eight people. They were caught and convicted of murder, but LaBeet escaped and hijacked an American Airlines jet to Cuba in 1985.
Weapons a status symbol in gangs
The rising number of deaths by assault weapons reflects growing availability of the weapons and their elevation to a status symbol among gang members, said Carlos Baixauli, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“In the early ’80s to ’90s, it was more common to have a handgun in your waistband and the bigger the caliber, the more powerful you were,” Baixauli said. “Now it’s escalated to the assault weapons.”
Another issue potentially at play is the 2004 expiration of the federal assault weapons ban, 10 years after its passage. The legislation outlawed 19 types of guns, including the semiautomatic AK-47.
The guns are readily available on streets, Baixauli said, or can be ordered by mail for under $200.
More powerful weapons
Shootings involving assault weapons were among the reasons U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta set up an anti-gang task force of federal, state and local law enforcement officials this year. He assigned 15 federal prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Greenberg, to the effort.
“These bullets are very powerful: they go through walls, they go through cars, and if you just spray the general vicinity you’re going to get innocent bystanders,” Acosta said. “A shooting that might have been an injury previously is now a death.”
Kevin Morison of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund said his organization is considering tracking when assault weapons are involved in police shootings. Officer shootings had been on a downturn until this year.
More U.S. police officers were killed while on duty in the first six months of 2007 — 101 — than during any such period since 1978, according to the organization.
To date, there have been 132 officer fatalities this year, compared with 97 at the same time last year.
'Give us a fighting chance'
Rivera pleaded for leaders to allow police to carry higher-power weapons — though not necessarily as strong as some already on the street — and provide stronger protective vests.
“Give us a fighting chance,” he said.
Police officials said they were bogged down with the aftermath of the shootings and unable to respond to Rivera’s comments.
They did say they were trying to cope with the loss of Officer Jose Somohano.
The Miami-Dade department was helping to plan the funeral, and Officer Jody Wright was recovering from a gunshot wound to the right leg, O’Brien said. The other two officers were treated and released.
“Anytime a fellow officer has been killed, it destroys us,” O’Brien said. “It’s almost got no words to it. Your blood just runs cold.”