Norris questions troopers' gun buys

Rifles were displayed at Townsend speech in last year's election

January 28, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Maryland State Police officials said yesterday that they are investigating troopers who bought two assault rifles that were displayed at a news conference held by former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend while she was running for governor.

Col. Edward T. Norris, who was appointed the new superintendent of the state police by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., questioned whether the rifles were bought as props to help Townsend's campaign.

But David B. Mitchell, Norris' predecessor, strongly denies that, contending the rifles, a Bushmaster and a Colt AR-15, were bought for testing and were later used at the news conference to illustrate a loophole in state law regarding the purchase of assault weapons.

The rifles, purchased with state police funds, were exhibited during an Oct. 29 news conference in Rockville when Townsend proposed a ban on assault-style weapons in the wake of last fall's sniper slayings. A Bushmaster rifle has been linked to the two sniper suspects.

Norris described the purchase of the rifles as "inappropriate" yesterday.

"We're not the wing of a political party," Norris said. "We're the police."

At least two troopers -- a captain and a detective sergeant -- from the Firearms Enforcement Division, were involved in buying the weapons, which cost several hundred dollars each, officials said.

Investigators from the State Police Internal Affairs Division are reviewing whether procedures for purchasing and storing the weapons were properly followed, Norris said. It appears at least one of the weapons was stored at a trooper's house, officials said, a possible violation of departmental policy.

Mitchell said yesterday that Townsend's campaign had nothing to do with buying the rifles.

"I'm suspicious about the timing of this investigation, which began right after a new administration took over," Mitchell said. "I think it's all about politics."

He said he was among more than a dozen police chiefs in the state at the news conference in Montgomery County after the sniper attacks.

"This was not a campaign event," Mitchell said, who was criticized by the trooper's union for supporting Townsend's candidacy. "I don't go to campaign events in police uniform. And I was in uniform that day."

"The point of the press conference was to point out there is a loophole in Maryland law regarding the purchase of assault-style weapons," said Mitchell, who was directed by Townsend to draft a bill that would ban assault-style weapons. "I think there's a difference between using money for policy purposes and for political ones."

Mitchell said state police frequently testify before lawmakers and make purchases to illustrate the need for policy changes. For example, he said, state police made charts and graphs when then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced the speed limit would be raised from 55 mph to 65 mph along some highways.

Townsend could not be reached for comment yesterday.

It is not clear whether police will use the rifles, which have been returned to the property room at headquarters in Pikesville, for another purpose. Members of the Firearms Enforcement Division occasionally buy guns for testing purposes, officials said.

The investigation into this particular purchase was launched early last week, Norris said.

"The rank and file waited for a new administration before they brought this to the attention of Internal Affairs because they feared retaliation," the superintendent said. "They speak of a circle of fear. The allegations being investigated came from troopers, not from me."

Mitchell said he had no doubts about the integrity of the captain and detective who are being investigated and have been transferred out of the firearms division.

"It's ludicrous to accuse these two officers," said Maj. Tom Bowers, who supervised the two troopers.

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