Philadelphia police 'outgunned' in last week's shooting

Posted: July 20, 2010

His guy shouldn't have had a chance.

That's all Lt. Vincent Testa, head of the Philadelphia Police Department's firearms investigation unit, could muster as he surveyed the "military-style" weapons recovered last week on the 3000 block of North Water Street in Kensington - where Officer Kevin Livewell escaped with only a leg wound after exchanging gunfire with driver Ramon De Jesus and at least one of two heavily armed passengers in his white van.

"They were outgunned," Testa said. "I couldn't believe we didn't have several dead officers."

For the Police Department, most news in the aftermath of the shooting has been good: Livewell underwent minor surgery Monday and is resting comfortably, according to Deputy Police Commissioner William Blackburn. De Jesus, who was arrested Thursday at the scene, and one passenger - 27-year-old Anel Cuenas, who was located Monday morning on the 3300 block of Potter Street - are now in custody, charged with two counts of attempted murder and aggravated assault, among other infractions.

Investigators, Blackburn said, are working to identify the third individual.

But the incident, Testa acknowledged, also begs a sobering question: How can police possibly contend with this sort of firepower?

Cuenas and another man dropped two assault rifles, an AK-47 and SKS carbine, and a Glock pistol before fleeing Thursday night. Inside the van, police recovered two Bushmaster AR-15 assault-type rifles, a Taurus PT24 pistol, a TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol, and another Glock. Blackburn said the arsenal was unlike anything he'd seen in his nearly 30 years on the job.

Bullets from the assault rifles, Testa added, travel up to 3,000 feet per second - nearly three times the speed of sound. They can puncture a standard police vest. And even someone wearing a SWAT-style flak jacket, weighing up to 60 pounds, may still face serious injury or death from the kinetic energy generated by the rifles.

"You have to rely on your training and your street sense," Testa said. "A prayer doesn't hurt, either."

While armor technology continues to evolve with modern weaponry, police resources are often limited.

The department is always "looking for an edge," he said. "A lot of it costs money. Sometimes there are certain things that you just can't prepare against."

While all of the arms can be purchased legally in Pennsylvania, several of the weapons had been modified illegally to allow the shooter to fire more rounds. On the SKS carbine - which comes with a 10-round magazine - Testa said a 30-round magazine had been inserted. On one of the Bushmasters, two 30-round magazines were taped together to allow maximum firepower.

Paul Raynolds, training instructor and certified firearms instructor with the National Rifle Association, said a collection like this is rarely recovered from criminal hands because of concealment issues - "you can't hide these things." And assault rifles cost much more than handguns.

Police are working to establish how De Jesus and Cuenas acquired their weapons. Both men, according to Blackburn, "are known to police" for past offenses.

A search of court records for De Jesus and Cuenas showed that Cuenas has several drug convictions. He pleaded guilty to drug dealing and criminal conspiracy, and was sentenced in 2002 to 231/2 months in prison. He also pleaded guilty to drug dealing and was sentenced in 2003 to six to 12 months in prison. He was charged with several violent crimes as an adult, including attempted murder, but those cases were either withdrawn or dismissed.

Investigators explored whether the suspects had been connected to a gang - particularly the Latin Kings - but Blackburn said no clear link had been found.

"We're attempting to identify . . . how those individuals came in contact with that type of firepower," Blackburn said. "When you see that type of firepower - those weapons in one central location - it's not common."

Of this, Testa is painfully aware - and grateful there were no officer or civilian victims of stray gunfire, as he expected given the arsenal's contents.

As he and Raynolds know full well, pitting a police handgun against technology like this isn't a fair fight.

"They can take cover," Raynolds said, listing the officers' best options. "Philadelphia's a dangerous place, dude."


Contact staff writer Matt Flegenheimer at 215-854-5614 or mflegenheimer@phillynews.com.

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