Starting in February, New Haven police officers will carry in their cars guns larger and more accurate than the Glock 40 pistol on their hips.

Bringing to a close a four-year-long rearmament process, the New Haven Police Department will soon outfit 30 specially trained officers with the long-awaited Colt M4 rifles, a 5.56 mm carbine which is heavily used by the U.S. Armed Forces. The new assault rifles with AR back up iron sights — which far exceed the department’s current weaponry in accuracy, firepower and velocity — were purchased two years ago but remained unused until now due to a lack of updated regulations and proper equipment, NHPD spokesman David Hartman said.

Hartman said that this is the first time patrol cops will be allowed to carry assault weapons, which until now have been used only by the Police Department’s Special Weapons And Tactics team. The guns will be kept in the police cars through a locking mechanism and will only be deployed in case of “a threat of extreme violence,” Hartman said.

“This isn’t Tel Aviv — you won’t see cops walking a beat with rifles,” he added. “But if these weapons or similar weapons are in the hands of criminals, then these weapons or similar weapons need to be in the hands of police officers, too.”

Strict policies and regulations have been drafted to supervise the use of the new assault weapons. Specifically, Hartman said, the NHPD agreed on the precise conditions under which officers can directly pull out a rifle to address, for example, an active shooter situation.

“In this case, you don’t have to start with the least amount of force — showing your presence, or a verbal command, for instance — and then work your way up,” Hartman said.

With the new regulations in place, the NHPD has ended a long delay surrounding the deployment of police assault rifles. Plans to purchase more powerful firearms for police departments nationwide began over 10 years ago, in the wake of a 1997 shootout in the North Hollywood district of Los Angeles, Calif., Hartman said. An attempt to rob a local Bank of America branch turned into an armed confrontation between two heavily armed robbers and officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. Though the gunfight ended with the death of the two robbers, the LAPD patrol officers’ bullets proved ineffective, as the police handguns could not penetrate the robbers’ armor and only the intervention of the SWAT team brought the shootout to a conclusion.

“That was the catalyst for police departments to better arm their patrol officers,” Hartman said.

Some police departments across the nation have been employing larger rifles for years. Hartman said that in New Haven, former NHPD Chief James Lewis initiated the rifles’ implementation when he took office in August 2008. Lewis determined that the city’s police department was underarmed and called for new patrol rifles to supplement regular handguns, handcuffs, pepper spray, batons and Tasers, Hartman said.

The new Colt M4s present more powerful features than the regular Glock 40 handguns used by officers, including an effective range of 600 meters and a more potent firepower capability, according to the firearm manufacturer’s website. Because of the specific characteristics of the assault rifles, patrol officers under Lewis underwent an extensive in-service training program in order to familiarize themselves with the weapon, Hartman said.

About two years ago, a total of 60 assault rifles were purchased under then-NHPD Chief Frank Limon, Hartman said. When current NHPD Chief Dean Esserman took the helm of the department in November 2011, he worked to implement a protocol that finally regulates the use of the assault weapons by patrol officers.

“You’ve got to finish it. I finished it,” Esserman said at a meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee last Tuesday.

Before the Colt M4s hit the street of New Haven next month, 30 of the officers who were trained under Lewis will go through another two-day retraining to refresh their memory on the assault rifles and acquaint themselves with the new regulations.

Each Colt M4 rifle cost the NHPD approximately $1,000. The model is currently only available to the military and police departments.