Sheriff bans deputies from mixing drinking, guns

By Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — To celebrate his return from a tour of duty in Iraq, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Chris Sullivan did what many young Marines do: He went out with a buddy to have a few drinks.

A few, however, became a few too many.

By the end of the evening, after consuming at least 11 drinks, Sullivan placed his loaded 9-millimeter Beretta into his longtime friend's mouth and pulled the trigger, prosecutors allege. Sullivan insists that they were horsing around and that the gun accidentally went off when the other man grabbed his arm. Regardless of how the gun was fired,

Sullivan's friend was dead and his once promising law enforcement career was over.

As Sheriff Lee Baca looked back on the 2006 shooting, he said the main culprit was alcohol.

"This tragedy could have been prevented," Baca said. "Alcohol and guns don't mix."

As a result of that incident and several others, the sheriff said, he plans to implement one of the nation's toughest policies barring deputies from carrying firearms when they are under the influence of alcohol.

The deputies' union adamantly opposes any restrictions on a deputy's ability to carry a weapon while off-duty. But Baca said he's determined to get his way, noting that there has been a "very disturbing" rise in alcohol-related misconduct among his deputies. This year alone, 61 deputies have been arrested on alcohol-related charges. Of those, 39 were accused of driving under the influence, nearly twice the average of recent years. Many of those arrested were armed.

Since 2004, more than a dozen sheriff's deputies have been involved in incidents in which they were accused of displaying or shooting a gun while under the influence of alcohol.

An off-duty deputy who had been drinking at a party during the early hours of New Year's Day accidentally shot a man in the leg while trying to show off a new holster, law enforcement officials said. The deputy has been placed on leave. Prosecutors are reviewing the case for possible criminal charges.

An off-duty deputy, driving while under the influence in 2004, hit another vehicle and was accused of pointing his gun at men from the other vehicle when they approached him. The deputy pleaded guilty to drunk driving and was suspended from the Sheriff's Department for 15 days.

An off-duty deputy, who was drinking with friends at a bar in 2003, tussled with a security guard and then attempted to intimidate the guard by displaying a firearm in his waistband.

Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on the Sheriff's Department, said Baca's proposed policy would place the department at the forefront of an issue that has long been recognized as a problem for law enforcement.

"It has not received the attention it deserves," said Bobb, who first raised the issue of off-duty shootings and alcohol in the mid-1990s, when he analyzed 28 shootings and found that six involved deputies who had been drinking.

"It is not only alcohol but prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications," Bobb said. "They can all hurt the ability of an officer to make judgments. I've consistently recommended if you have your gun and you're off duty and you know you're going to be drinking, then you need to lock up your weapon before you go in the bar."

Michael Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, which monitors the Sheriff's Department, said common sense dictates that the new policy is a good idea, given the rise in alcohol-related incidents involving deputies. Under Baca's proposed policy, which law enforcement experts say is among the most restrictive in the nation, deputies would be banned from carrying a firearm when they are under the influence of alcohol, medication or controlled substance to the extent that they cannot exercise "reasonable care and control of a weapon."

That means deputies could not touch a gun if they have a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or greater, the state limit for driving a vehicle, the sheriff said.

Union leaders say the sheriff's plan would put deputies in danger.

"What Sheriff Baca wants to do is disarm the deputy and embolden the dangerous individual," said Steve Remige, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. He argued that Baca's policy would leave deputies defenseless. "What should a deputy do when he is with his family and runs into a violent offender he incarcerated?" asks Remige, who recalls once walking down the Las Vegas Strip and hearing a man he knew from his work shouting out his name.

As the policy becomes known to the public, criminals will figure out that some deputies won't be armed when off duty, he said.

Baca dismissed Remige's criticism.

"What the union wants is to convince the public that alcohol use by deputies is of no consequence to public safety," he said.

Most departments limit on-duty alcohol consumption to those who need to drink because of undercover assignments. Few local agencies take a position about off-duty drinking. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, has no policy restricting an officer's consumption of alcohol while carrying a weapon, said Deputy Chief Mark Perez. The Orange County Sheriff's Department does not have a specific policy, but officials said "common sense" would hold that deputies under the influence should not be in possession of firearms.

Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police shootings, said a mishmash of policies exists across departments nationwide.

Occasionally, he said, an agency will toughen its stance on carrying a firearm and drinking after a high-profile incident.

The New York City Police Department, for example, adopted strict rules last year requiring officers to undergo breath testing after a shooting.

The move came after a controversial 2006 shooting outside a club in which officers shot and killed a man on his wedding day.

One of the undercover officers involved had consumed alcohol while trying to blend into the crowd at the bar.

In Sullivan's case, the San Bernardino County district attorney's office filed a voluntary manslaughter charge against the rookie deputy for the April 2006 shooting.

Sullivan and his buddy Cesar Valdez went from California Pizza Kitchen to Dave & Busters to a private party, drinking at each place, according to investigators.

"They were very intoxicated and emotional upon Mr. Sullivan's return from military duty," according to court papers.

At dawn, Valdez and his girlfriend drove Sullivan to his Upland home. As Sullivan walked up his driveway, he drew his department-issued Beretta, authorities said.

Valdez's girlfriend saw Sullivan point the weapon at his fellow Marine, according to her testimony at a preliminary hearing.

"He placed the gun in his friend's mouth and with a round in the chamber pulled the trigger," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Colclough. Valdez, 24, fell to the ground. The bullet had entered his mouth and exited his neck, according to the autopsy. Valdez was pronounced dead less than an hour later.

A three-quarters empty beer lay outside the Upland home, not far from Valdez's body, according to the prosecutor. Sullivan's blood-alcohol level exceeded the legal driving limit.

According to Sullivan's attorney, Valdez tried to wrestle the gun from the deputy and it discharged accidentally.

Colclough said the autopsy contradicts that statement.

Colclough said that as a deputy, Sullivan -- more than most people -- knew the dangers the firearm presented, making him more culpable.

"A nice young man is dead and the county is going to lose a deputy sheriff," he said. "It's a tragedy all the way round."

Baca said deputies have a duty to ensure a colleague who is intoxicated does not have access to a vehicle or a firearm until they've sobered up.

"I am not asking them to do what I wouldn't do myself," he said.

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