Hairline cracks in 52 of the 1,400 pistols used by Baltimore County police officers have raised concerns about the guns' accuracy -- and the department wants the manufacturer to replace the agency's entire stock.
The damaged weapons -- SIG-Sauer P226s used by law enforcement agencies around the world -- were taken out of service as a precaution six weeks ago when the unexplained flaws surfaced, county police said. The inchlong cracks have not affected the weapons' safety, they said.
"Everyone is safe and sound," county police spokesman Bill Toohey said yesterday. "There is no threat here.
"SIG-Sauer says that [the cracks make] the guns slightly less accurate. Well, we don't want anything less than accurate. We want weapons out there without any kind of flaws."
Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan said the county is negotiating with the gun manufacturer, SIG Arms Inc. The manufacturer has agreed to replace the 52 cracked pistols at no charge, police said.
"Ideally, we'd like to upgrade the weapon to a brand-new gun -- they're all 10 years old," Sheridan said. "I don't want any officers thinking they're carrying something defective."
All but 300 of the county's 1,700 officers carry the SIG-Sauer P226. Replacing the county's gun stock could be costly -- the guns cost $700,000 a decade ago.
"We have always worked with every agency to try and bring whatever concern they have to a successful resolution," said David Flanders, who handles law enforcement sales for the New Hampshire-based gun maker.
But, he said, extensive tests of SIGs with similar cracks have never shown any reason for safety concerns. "The gun will continue to perform and fire," he said.
On Sept. 1, Baltimore County firearms instructors noticed hairline cracks up to about 1 inch long in the top half of the barrel slide, which covers the gun frame. The guns were removed from service, Sheridan said, and replaced with guns from the agency's reserve supply.
Within a week, police firearms experts were sent to each precinct to check every gun, and officers were ordered to have their weapons inspected, Toohey said. Additional inspections have continued each time a weapon is fired, Sheridan said.
Cracked gun tested
County police officers also tested one of the cracked guns by firing more than 300 rounds and found no danger, police said.
But performance of the gun could be affected if the cracks spread, Sheridan said.
"If the rail breaks, the gun still functions," he said. "But there's diminishment of the accuracy."
That loss of accuracy also worries the Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents county officers.
"We're not happy about the situation. The chances are that more of them are going to crack," said Lt. L. Timothy Caslin, president of the county's Lodge 4. "The No. 1 thing to officers is, in the event you need to protect yourself or someone else, you want the gun to work and you want it to work properly."
Other police agencies -- including those in Anne Arundel and Howard counties -- use guns made by SIG Arms, but Baltimore County and the FBI are the only agencies in the Baltimore-Washington region that use the model in which cracks have been found.
Similar problem in N.J.
The FBI says it has had no problems with its P226s. But at least one other police agency has reported cracks in that gun model. In Elizabeth, N.J., police officers reported similar cracks in about 30 of the force's 350 P226s.
"We've had some problems with the SIGs," said Officer Kevin Meagher of the firearms unit in Elizabeth. But he said the company was quick to help. "They do replace them with brand-new ones when I send them back."
Meagher said the department has used the SIG pistols for about 12 years and noticed cracks in them two years ago. In Nassau County, N.Y., where the guns have been standard issue for the department's 3,000 officers for a decade, no problems have been reported.
In considering whether to replace Baltimore County's stock of weapons, Flanders said the company will inspect the department's 52 flawed guns to see whether the weapons were used correctly and maintained properly and whether officers followed the manufacturer's recommended handling practices.
Flanders of SIG Arms said the age of Baltimore County's SIG-Sauers could be a factor.
Caslin is concerned about whether the county will replace the entire stock of guns if SIG Arms doesn't.
"We feel the Police Department is handling the situation well right now, but we do need to decide what we are going to do for the future," Caslin said. "They're going to have to make a decision about whether we are going to have to replace the guns and retrain everybody."