Safety issues may prompt county police to fire Beretta
Sep. 11, 2002
Manju Subramanya
Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Beretta USA

Montgomery County Police is considering replacing its decade-old Beretta handguns with lightweight plastic Glocks because of safety concerns and an aging stock.

Nine Berettas failed to fire between March and July. The problems prompted Chief Charles A. Moose in June to set up an internal committee to look into the issue.

The committee recommended last month that the officers be equipped with .40 caliber handguns from Glock Inc. USA, an Austrian-owned company increasingly popular with law enforcement agencies, said Lt. Robert Bolesta, the committee chairman. Bolesta is deputy commander of the police's Training and Education Division.

The Glocks, along with holsters and magazine holders, will cost roughly $500,000 to $750,000, Bolesta said. Final cost estimates are still being worked out and ultimately must be approved by the County Council.

Eight of the nine "fail-to-fire" incidents took place during routine qualifying courses at the police department's firing range in Rockville or its outdoor facility in Poolesville. A ninth failure occurred as an officer was trying to kill a wounded deer, said Assistant Police Chief John A. King.

"I know this is a very serious officer-safety issue that requires and demands immediate attention," Moose wrote in his biweekly bulletin to the department in late July. "I do not want to create panic or inspire a lack of confidence in the Beretta. But I want you to know this effort is real."

The concerns

Bolesta said the firing problems apparently were caused by broken locking blocks, which fix the barrel in place while firing and absorb the recoil; broken trigger springs; and "high mileage."

The department has about 960 9mm Berettas and about 210 slimmer Smith & Wessons for undercover detectives; the committee recommends replacing both with the Glock.

"I don't want to point fingers at Beretta," Bolesta said, saying the weapons are nearing the end of their life expectancy, estimated at about 17,000 to 22,000 fired rounds. "But it's time to get a new weapon."

The Montgomery County Sheriff's Office is also concerned about similar problems with the Berettas its 115 sheriff's deputies carry, said Capt. Rodney Brown, who oversees administrative services.

"Naturally, it is a concern when you have equipment failure when it relates to public safety," Brown said.

Moose is expected to discuss replacing the Berettas soon with County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and the County Council, Bolesta said.

"We would expect the department would make a decision after making side-by-side comparisons," said Jeff Reh, vice general manager at Beretta USA in Accokeek in Prince George's County.

"Purchasing sidearms from Glock will not keep or put jobs in Maryland," he added. Glock's U.S. operations are based in Smyrna, Ga.

"The Beretta has a reputation for high reliability, malfunctioning an average of only once every 17,000 rounds," Reh said.

Reh said he had heard that Moose's personal preference is for the Glock.

"I have seen situations in the past where a new chief comes in and has a preference for a product and a gun acceptable for years is suddenly not acceptable," he said. "I don't know whether that is the case here."

That's not the case, Bolesta said. Moose showed no preferences even when he was asked and told Bolesta that he would go along with the committee's recommendation. The committee chose the Glock for many reasons, including its attractive 40,000-round warranty, Bolesta said.

Reh said he was not aware of MCP's recent problems with Beretta, adding that the company is alerted only when an agency has major problems.

A recurring problem

This is not the first time that Montgomery County Police has had concerns about its sidearms.

In 1996, after 57 of its Beretta 92D Centurions failed to fire because of broken locking blocks, the county negotiated with Beretta to have them replaced for free with the current model, the Beretta 92 Brigadier, according to a 1996 report in The Montgomery Journal.

Reh faulted the county at that time, saying police used the wrong ammunition.

The original 10-year or 10,000-round warranty on the handguns, purchased for $308,000 in 1992, expired in July, Bolesta said.

Police have not been able to figure out how many rounds have been fired from the weapons because the department has not tracked them, Bolesta said. The committee is recommending setting up a database to track weapons and rounds fired.

Police also have been inspecting the Berettas more frequently since mid-July as a precaution.

A range of choices

The 9mm Beretta's popularity soared in 1985 after the Maryland company landed a $75 million contract with the Department of Defense. Soon the semiautomatic jumped to the silver screen, with Mel Gibson brandishing a Beretta in 1987's "Lethal Weapon" and Bruce Willis following suit in 1988's "Die Hard."

Law enforcement agencies eagerly sought the handgun. Maryland State Police replaced its .357s with the Beretta in 1988 and Prince George's County Police -- under County Executive Parris N. Glendening -- turned to the Accokeek company the same year.

Neither State Police nor Prince George's Police has experienced problems with Berettas, the agencies' spokesmen said.

Rockville's 50 officers use Swiss-made Sig-Sauer handguns, police Chief T.N. Treschuk said. "We are fortunate -- knock on wood -- that we have no problems," he said.

The City of Gaithersburg also uses Sig-Sauer semiautomatics for its 35 officers, said Don Pike, the city's administrative police director.

In Portland, Ore., where Moose served as police chief before he came to Montgomery County in 1999, police spokesman Officer Henry Groepper sings the praises of the Glock.

The 32-year police veteran said the department's 1,050 sworn officers have carried Glocks for more than a decade.

"I'm not selling Glocks, but I've seen them dropped and banged, and they still shoot great," Groepper said. "They are high-tech plastic but function very well."