LOS ANGELES – The nation's largest sheriff's department plans to ban deputies from carrying guns if they've been drinking, saying there have been too many arrests of tipsy deputies for drunken driving, brandishing weapons, shooting people and other crimes.
At least 61 Los Angeles County deputies have been arrested this year on alcohol-related charges while off duty, including 39 for driving under the influence. In April 2006, a rookie deputy who had at least 11 drinks while celebrating his return from Marine duty in Iraq shot and killed a friend.
An increase in arrests prompted Sheriff Lee Baca to consider the ban about a year ago, sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Tuesday.
It was unclear what caused that increase, although Whitmore noted that the number of sworn deputies in the department has increased to more than 10,000. It also may be that other police agencies are making more arrests of intoxicated deputies instead of covering for them as in decades past.
"Thirty, 40 years ago, perhaps they would drive [deputies] home," Whitmore said.
He said the policy could be in place as early as January.
"It's been revised, finalized, the union has been conferred with and the sheriff is prepared to move forward," Whitmore said.
The union is arguing, however, that the policy could put deputies at risk by emboldening people who know they would be unarmed at certain times.
"What should a deputy do when he is with his family and runs into a violent offender he incarcerated?" asked Steve Remige, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Baca dismissed the criticism.
"What the union wants is to convince the public that alcohol use by deputies is of no consequence to public safety," Baca said, adding he was not asking his deputies to take any action he wouldn't take himself.
The policy would be among the more restrictive among law enforcement agencies. The Los Angeles Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff's Department do not have specific policies about drinking and carrying weapons.
Baca's policy would bar Sheriff's Department employees from carrying or handling weapons if they have used alcohol, medications or controlled substances to the point where they are "unable to exercise reasonable care and control of the firearm."
Since 2004, more than a dozen deputies have been accused of brandishing or shooting guns while under the influence. One deputy was placed on leave after he accidentally shot a man in the leg after drinking at a New Year's party.
Another deputy, Chris Sullivan of Upland, has been charged with voluntary manslaughter in the death of his friend in April 2006.
San Bernardino County prosecutors contend that after a night of drinking to celebrate his return from Iraq, the U.S. Marine reservist pulled his service-issued Beretta, put it in Cesar Valdez's mouth and pulled the trigger.
Sullivan's attorney argued that the gun went off by accident as Valdez tried to wrestle it away from Sullivan.
"This tragedy could have been prevented," Baca said. "Alcohol and guns don't mix."