Rifles carried by Spokane police on patrol will soon be equipped with suppressors, a move the department says will protect officers and civilians from hearing damage.
“It’s nothing more than like the muffler you put on your car,” said Lt. Rob Boothe, the range master and lead firearms instructor for the department.
Outfitting the department’s 181 service rifles with suppressors will protect the city from the legal costs of worker’s compensation claims filed by officers, as well as from potential lawsuits filed by bystanders whose ears are exposed to firearm blasts. The sound of a fired shot can be louder than the takeoff of jet engines, the department says.
The $115,000 contract raised some eyebrows on the Spokane City Council, who signed off on the purchase last month after they say police satisfied concerns the devices would soften, not silence, a rifle’s report.
“I had a couple citizens contact me about why the police are using suppressed rifles,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said. “I thought it was appropriate to get information.”
Suppressors are sometimes interchangeably referred to as “silencers,” a remnant of early 20th-century advertising for the first device to muffle a gunshot’s blast.
The type of rifle that is used by the department produces a gunshot that can reach 152 decibels, said Maj. Eric Olsen, who briefed the council on the purchase of the devices. The suppressors the department purchased, manufactured by Boise-based firm Gemtech, reduce the noise level to 134 decibels, which is still louder than the whir of a chain saw. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration identifies any exposure to sound greater than 140 decibels as creating a risk for irreparable hearing damage.
Agencies interested in purchasing the devices must complete paperwork with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives pursuant to a federal law regulating suppressors that Congress is considering amending. Law enforcement agencies are forgiven the $200 tax imposed by the law that individuals must pay, and the requests are usually expedited, said Jason Chudy, a spokesman for the ATF in Seattle.
While the use of suppressors on patrol rifles will be new in the Spokane Police Department, the agency’s SWAT team has used the devices on its firearms since at least 2013.
Rifles were used in nearly half of the department’s officer-involved shootings since 2009, according to internal police statistics. Officers fired rifles in 12 of 26 shootings, and a rifle was fired in all such incidents since 2010.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said his agency had looked into purchasing the devices for their firearms, but hasn’t moved forward not only due to costs but also how citizens might react to their use.
“Those are serious concerns. Especially in this day and age of things that are going on with the public and law enforcement,” Knezovich said.
There’s some misunderstanding about the effectiveness of suppressors, largely due to depictions in movies and TV shows where the devices hush lethal blasts to a whisper, said Boothe, of the police department.
“There’s this Hollywood mystique,” Boothe said. “Probably the best way to say it, beyond suppressors, is this is an OSHA-approved noise reduction device.”
Boothe demonstrated the Gemtech suppressor at the department’s training facility this week. The sound isn’t the only concern with an unsuppressed rifle, Boothe said, but also the change in concussive energy near the gunshot. Suppressors slow the escape of gas from the gun’s muzzle after a shot is fired, which has the added effect of lessening the thud to the chest and ears.
“It captures absolutely all the pressure, and that’s what we want,” Boothe said, after firing several rounds into a plywood wall with the suppressor attached to his weapon. “That’s why we’re doing this.”
Knezovich said if his department were to buy the devices, he’d want to make sure there was an outreach to citizens about their purpose.
“We protect our people to the best that we can. At the same time, we need to be cognizant of having the public understand why we would purchase that piece of equipment,” the sheriff said.
Five officers in the police department have filed claims with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries for hearing loss as a result of gunfire, the agency said. Olsen said buying the suppressors would save the city money by avoiding having to pay for devices like hearing aids and batteries if a worker’s compensation claim is upheld.
“If we have to buy those for a person who lives another 30 to 40 years, these suppressors will more than pay for themselves,” Olsen said.
Maj. Kevin King filed a claim with the state after a shooting in August 2013 left him with hearing damage. King now wears hearing aids in both ears.
“I had immediate, significant pain,” King said. “It’s not only officers we’re concerned about, but those around as well.”
A fellow officer fired a rifle near King at Danny Jones, a 40-year-old man who was revving the engine of his truck outside the Salvation Army complex on Indiana Avenue, according to court records. Jones was killed in the shooting, and the family has filed a federal lawsuit against the city and department alleging civil rights violations.
Roger Clark, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s lieutenant who’s been hired by Jones’ family to provide expert testimony at trial on police tactics, defended law enforcement’s use of suppressors to enable communication between officers during an event, though he didn’t comment on the specifics of the Jones case.
“You can’t put muffs on when you’re in these situations,” Clark said. “I think there’s a lot of positive, and not anything negative.”
City Council members said they were satisfied with the answers provided by the police department and believe the purchase will improve safety.