New York City police officers will begin this fall to phase out their .38-caliber revolvers for 9-millimeter semiautomatic handguns, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said yesterday.

The move reflects a change of position for the department, which had resisted the quicker, more powerful weapons, and for the Commissioner, who had expressed reservations that the guns might be too dangerous in crowded urban settings.

But Mr. Kelly said that many months of testing had allayed his concerns that the weapons were prone to accidental discharge and might prompt officers to fire more rounds than they would with revolvers.

Mr. Kelly said that the gun’s trigger mechanism would be tightened so that it would be more difficult to pull, and that the magazine would contain 10 rounds instead of the 15 in the guns used in the test program. The revolvers now used by police officers hold six rounds.

‘Psychological Element’

While he said he was not acting in reaction to officers’ demands for semiautomatic weapons, Mr. Kelly acknowledged: “There’s the psychological element. Officers feel more secure, and that’s something that can’t be discounted.”

The use of semiautomatic pistols has been the subject of intense controversy in New York City, pitting rank-and-file police officers who have feared that they are increasingly outgunned by street criminals against civilian officials and some commanders who have warned that increased firepower would be dangerous to bystanders.

But Mr. Kelly said yesterday that with 2,800 recruits entering the police academy on Aug. 30, and with the pilot program easing fears over the weapon, the time was right to make a move. There are 1,200 New York City officers using the 9-millimeter gun, including about 500 in specialized units, including narcotics squads and the Major Case Squad.

“It doesn’t make sense to train 2,800 new officers with the .38 only to have to retrain them when it’s looking like the 9-millimeter is the way,” Mr. Kelly said. He said that 200 participants in the pilot program who were surveyed supported the change.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which is campaigning against Mayor David N. Dinkins’s re-election, has long sought the weapons and nearly succeeded in persuading the State Legislature to force the Police Department to accept them.

Mr. Kelly said he had notified the Mayor of his decision but did not consult him in advance. Mr. Dinkins had supported Mr. Kelly and former Commissioner Lee P. Brown in their opposition to the 9-millimeter gun when members of the State Senate sought to force the department to make the change. The pilot program, which would ultimately have given 1,000 9-millimeter guns to patrol officers, was adopted as a compromise to hold off the Senate.

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The Mayor had said in the past that he was troubled that the semiautomatic gun could be too dangerous, but City Hall officials said yesterday that the Mayor has never held a position on what kind of gun police officers should carry, only a stance against micromanagement by officials outside the city.

“I have always believed that the choice of which sort of weapon our women and men in blue should carry as a sidearm was a matter solely within the domain of police experts and professionals,” the Mayor said in a statement. “In this city, that expert is the Police Commissioner.”

But when the New York City transit police won permission from the independent Metropolitan Transportation Authority board to make semiautomatic pistols standard in 1990, Albert Scardino, Mayor Dinkins’s spokesman at the time, said: “We thought it was a bad idea when it was first proposed, and we think it’s a bad idea now. We believe it will jeopardize the safety not only of the people in the subway but the officers themselves.”

Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican-Liberal candidate for mayor, accused Mr. Dinkins yesterday of changing his position on the use of the guns to curry favor with police officers.

“For once I’m glad about the Mayor’s flip-flopping,” Mr. Giuliani said. “David Dinkins has abandoned what for him was a position of principle for the sake of political expediency.” Mr. Kelly said that he had not discussed the change with Phil Caruso, president of the P.B.A., who in a statement yesterday commended the decision.

The entire police force, which will number about 30,500 in the fall, will be able to change over to the 9-millimeter weapon, Mr. Kelly said. Many officers will probably switch, he said, but others will be reluctant to spend roughly $400 for the new weapon, and many veterans of the force will resist the change. Mr. Kelly said that he expects it to be more than a decade before the entire force carries the 9-millimeter gun. He said he would continue to carry a .38 inside his sock.

In adopting the 9-millimeter weapon, Mr. Kelly is moving the country’s largest police force into step with hundreds of other cities, including Houston, Miami and Washington, and also with the New York State police and the transit police. The Miami force uses ammunition clips that hold 15 rounds.

Mr. Kelly said the change should not be seen as a sign that the department is determined to keep pace in a kind of urban arms race, although many officers have complained about the proliferation of semiautomatic weapons on the streets.

Even so, Mr. Kelly said his decision had been influenced by his own experiences accompanying officers on patrol. Recently, he said, he responded to a radio call with officers at a candy store, where he heard a young man remark that the officer was carrying a 9-millimeter gun.

“In certain neighborhoods they’re aware what is going on,” Mr. Kelly said.

Standing behind a conference table at One Police Plaza yesterday, Mr. Kelly displayed the new weapons and struck an unlikely pose for a Police Commissioner, cocking a variety of guns in combat position. The .38 revolver with its wood handle looked like a relic next to the sleek metal 9-millimeter models, the American-made Smith & Wesson, the German Sig Sauer and the Austrian-made Glock 19.

Source: Craig Wolff,