Any residents of St. Helena Parish caught riding around the parish with assault weapons will be arrested, Sheriff Nat Williams warned Tuesday.
“As far as them riding around with an assault rifle, it will not be tolerated,” he said. “Somebody with an assault weapon is no different from a criminal and will be treated the same way.”
Some residents of the parish’s 6th Ward, angered by a rash of recent break-ins, have conducted informal patrols, sometimes while armed with AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, the civilian version of the U.S. military’s M-16.
“If somebody is out riding around with an assault weapon, that’s not protecting the neighborhood, that’s terrorizing the neighborhood,” Williams said.
“Anybody want to ride around their own community, that’s fine, call us,” Williams said. “But any assault weapons, they’re going to jail.”
Williams and other officials met with leaders of the ward’s newly formed Community Watch on Tuesday morning to let them know that those doing the patrolling did not need to be heavily armed.
“The meeting went well,” Williams said.
In a written statement, Williams said the meeting had “cleared up some misunderstanding and agreed on some policy matters that will guarantee a better working relationship.”
As for residents riding around with assault weapons, “We nipped that in the bud,” Williams said.
At least one of the patrollers, Alton Travis, said he had not heard that yet.
“Nobody’s told me anything about an assault rifle,” he said.
However, Travis said that calling the deputies was always the plan of those on patrol, and the guns were just for protection.
Calls to other leaders of the Community Watch program were not returned.
Both the M-16 and the AK-47 rifles are capable of full automatic and semiautomatic fire, but special licenses are required to possess fully automatic firearms in the U.S.
True assault rifles are capable of being operated in fully automatic and semiautomatic modes, at the user’s option. They are designed for, and used by, military forces, but they also are used by some law enforcement agencies.
Williams also announced in his statement the arrest of 15 people accused of burglaries and other crimes around the parish.
All but two of the 15 were arrested and booked with crimes that occurred in the 6th Ward, Chief Criminal Deputy Chester Pritchett said.
Williams said those arrested were responsible for the majority of break-ins in the parish.
“It’s all been taken care of,” Pritchett said. “We are in the process of recovering stolen property.”
Travis called the arrests “very reassuring.”
“That’s the best thing that’s happened in a long time,” he said.
Several weeks ago, the St. Helena Parish Sheriff’s Office moved three deputies who work under a federal grant for Community Oriented Policing Services, also known as COPS, into the 6th Ward.
“When we have a problem area, like we have in the 1st and 6th wards, we pull them in,” Pritchett told a meeting attended by several hundred 6th Ward residents last week.
Those efforts are working, Williams said.