Salt Lake police finally have the firepower they have wanted for years: the 9mm semiautomatic.

Officers wanting to carry the weapons began specialized training this week.Arguing that criminals arm themselves with the latest weaponry, many officers say they need to be similarly protected. Semiautomatic handguns epitomize such protection.

But former Chief Bud Willoughby vigorously opposed any effort to switch from the service revolver to a semiautomatic.

During the early and mid-1970s, police carried a 9mm semiautomatic, but numerous accidental discharges, some resulting in injury to officers, prompted Willoughby in 1977 to ban the weapon, which was replaced by the Smith and Wesson model 64 .38-caliber revolver.

When Mike Chabries took over as chief in July, among the first things his troops wanted to talk about was firearms.

Chabries decided to experiment with the 9mm, which has been improved greatly during the past decade.

Beginning this month, officers who complete the special in-house training program can carry a 9mm semiautomatic. They can choose from one of nine models that have been approved by the department. The models include the Austrian-made Glock, composed of several plastic parts; the popular Italian-made Beretta; and the Smith and Wesson.

Accompanying the 9mm weapon on the police force are a number of restrictions and conditions, not the least of which requires officers to purchase the gun and holsters at their own expense, with no guarantee that the department will reimburse. A 9mm and its "leather" can cost up to $500.

Chabries, who was superintendent of the Utah Highway Patrol when that agency switched to the 9mm last year, said he had to be converted to it.

"I was initially opposed to it. But I found it to be a good gun, much more proficient than the revolver. And there's a sense of security with the 9mm that isn't there without it."

Police departments in major Western cities - including Denver, Los Angeles and Phoenix - have converted to the semiautomatic. So have several Utah agencies, including Ogden Police, state Department of Corrections, and West Valley Police.

The 9mm semiautomatic, depending on the model, holds 13 to 17 rounds. The .38-caliber service revolver currently in use carries only six rounds. And reloading a 9mm takes about half the time as reloading a .38-caliber.

The 9mm round is of similar velocity and size as a .38-caliber round and, therefore, has about the same "stopping power."

A few police agencies use a .45-caliber semiautomatic, and some Salt Lake police officers would like that option, but for now Chabries said he will not allow that large a gun to be used in the city.

The 9mm policy is receiving much support among the officers. In a straw poll last week of about 20 officers, Chabries found all but two are planning on "converting." And the two training classes scheduled this month are full.

"Our training unit says they're getting an overwhelming response to the new policy," Chabries said.

If the pilot program proves the gun to be popular among officers and if no accidents occur, it is conceivable the department will convert to the 9mm. Such a conversion, assuming the gun and leather price at $450, could cost the department close to $150,000.