10:38 PM PST on Monday, November 24, 2008
Common sense dictates that guns and booze don't mix.
Yet, law enforcement officials in the Inland region and across the U.S. can't seem to agree whether that rule should apply to off-duty officers.
Some agencies have enacted policies that explicitly forbid off-duty officers from carrying their weapons while consuming alcohol. Others use more flexible language, saying officers should use "good judgment."
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced recently he has drafted a policy that forbids deputies from carrying firearms while under the influence.
The draft policy states that deputies who carry a firearm while on or off duty cannot consume any intoxicating substance, such as alcohol or drugs, to the point where they are "unable to exercise reasonable care and control of the firearm."
The policy further states that someone with a .08 percent or more alcohol reading is presumed to be "unable to exercise reasonable care."
Steve Whitmore, a department spokesman, said the sheriff was disturbed by a growing trend of alcohol-related misconduct involving deputies in the department.
Sixty-one deputies have been arrested on suspicion of alcohol-related charges this year alone, Whitmore said.
"(Baca) wants to implement the policy to stem that tide if possible," he said, adding that the sheriff hopes to have the new policy in place by year's end or early next year.
In one case in 2006, Chris Sullivan, an off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy and Marine reservist who had just returned from Iraq, shot and killed his friend outside Sullivan's Upland home in San Bernardino County, authorities said.
Sullivan, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter, had consumed at least 11 drinks before shooting Cesar Valdez, 24, of Chino, prosecutors say. His trial is set for next year.
Valdez' brother, Enrique Valdez, said Baca's proposed policy is overdue.
"If you're going to drink alcohol, why would you carry a weapon?" he said in a phone interview. "It's common sense."
Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff said in an interview that he plans to wait and see how Baca's policy is implemented before deciding whether to revisit his own department's policy.
The department's current policy states that when deputies are armed, "the Department demands the exercise of good judgment."
"Department members shall not drink intoxicating liquor to such an extent that may result in the commission of an obnoxious or offensive act that may bring discredit or disgrace upon themselves or the Department."
In the past five years, 16 Riverside County deputies have been disciplined for alcohol-related offenses, said Sgt. Dennis Gutierrez, a department spokesman. One case involved the discharge of a firearm.
Allowing deputies to remain armed while off duty is important for public safety, said Jim Cunningham, executive director of the Riverside Sheriff's Association.
"When they're off duty, they're never really off duty," he said. "They can be pressed back into duty at a moment's notice."
It is also important to allow deputies to remain armed while off duty for personal protection, Cunningham added.
"They're amongst the citizens they've arrested. That's a great safety issue."
San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod declined to comment on the Baca proposal through a spokesman.
Penrod's department, like Riverside County's, has a policy that forbids deputies from consuming alcohol to an extent that results in an act that discredits the department.
The policy goes further to say, "No off-duty deputy is authorized to carry a weapon or to engage in any law enforcement activity when he is impaired by or under the influence of any alcoholic, narcotic or other controlled substances."
Ten San Bernardino County deputies have been involved in alcohol-related incidents since February 2006, said Sgt. Dave Phelps, a department spokesman.
He said he was unable to say how many of those cases resulted in disciplinary action because it would be too time consuming to go through individual files. He said he was unable to pull records earlier than February 2006 because it was too labor-intensive.
Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center, which advocates strengthening police oversight and accountability, said Baca's proposed policy is a "good step forward."
Such policies are necessary, he said, "because if you read the papers, there are any number of incidents where officers are off duty and consume alcohol and get into a gunfight, sometimes with serious results."
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina and use-of-force expert, said many department policies, including the one Baca is proposing, are too vague because they still rely on officer discretion.
An officer might go to a bar and not plan to get drunk, but it can happen, Alpert said. That's why officers should be required to store weapons before taking their first drink, he said.
"You have to have a hard and fast rule about firearms and alcohol," he said.
Some agencies have adopted other measures.
The New York Police Department last year introduced a policy that requires officers to submit to breathalyzer tests if they fire their gun and it results in injury or death.
Alpert and Bobb said they support the policy because it adds another level of transparency.
Riverside County sheriff's officials said they require deputies to submit a blood sample anytime they fire their weapon.
San Bernardino County sheriff's officials said they will ask for a blood sample only if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the deputy is under the influence.
Reach Douglas Quan at 951-368-9479 or dquan@PE.com