Local law enforcement gun policies depend on department

Former Arroyo Grande police Chief Steve Annibali speaks during a news conference in 2011. Annibali left a gun in his car in 2013, which was stolen.
Former Arroyo Grande police Chief Steve Annibali speaks during a news conference in 2011. Annibali left a gun in his car in 2013, which was stolen.

A police chief whose gun was stolen is starting a countywide conversation about best practices for off-duty handling of firearms.

“I’d like to feel like I’ve done something to improve this situation instead of just moving on,” said Steve Annibali, chief of the Arroyo Grande Police Department. “We’ve got to make a positive out of this negative.”

On the evening of July 7, a burglar smashed the window of Annibali’s locked, unmarked police vehicle, which was parked on the street in front of his home, and took his pistol from a bag stored under a seat without triggering the car’s alarm.

Arroyo Grande’s written policies require off-duty police vehicles to be parked in the driveway or garage, rather than on the street, and for guns to be stored in a vehicle’s trunk, not the interior.

But even if Annibali had followed the policy — and exceeded it by leaving the gun in the trunk in a locked safe — security is never guaranteed.

“A crowbar for getting into the trunk and the safe is possible,” San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said.

Polices are vague

The Tribune recently asked all local police departments for their off-duty gun storage and vehicle use policies. Some documents were provided voluntarily, and others were obtained through public records requests. The Atascadero Police Department redacted the specifics of its policies in the document it provided The Tribune, citing security reasons, so it is not included in this story.

Police officers prefer not to say on the record how they store their guns while off duty, saying it’s a security risk for them, their colleagues and their families.

But another reason is that official gun storage policies are vague, and training on exactly how to handle firearms while off duty is lacking — leaving it up to personal judgment when unanticipated scenarios arise in which an officer has to ask: “What do I do with my gun?”

Representatives from all local law enforcement agencies, as well as educators and policymakers, have accepted Annibali’s invitation to a series of discussions on the topic; the first will take place in September. Annibali has vowed to implement the determined best practices in his department, and other police agencies are using it as an opportunity to review their own policies.

Two other times in the past five years, weapons have gone missing from vehicles belonging to local law enforcement officers.

In 2008, a loaded handgun was stolen from the center console of the unlocked, unmarked police vehicle driven by then-Paso Robles police Chief Lisa Solomon while it was parked at her Paso Robles home.

Paul Brown, a former San Luis Obispo city councilman, was a police officer in training with the Morro Bay Police Department in 2011 when two guns were stolen from his personal car parked outside his San Luis Obispo home.

Statistics show that vehicles of ordinary citizens are broken into at a much higher rate than those of police officers.

From January through July of this year, for example, there were 113 incidents of vehicle thefts or burglaries in the area patrolled by the Arroyo Grande Police Department. In that same time period, there was only one theft from an officer’s vehicle — Annibali’s.

“It’s not a public safety issue because it doesn’t happen very often,” Annibali told The Tribune. But there is a need for clarification of best practices when off duty, he said.

“Your gun should be with you every time it can be when you need it, but if there are times where it’s not practical or not needed, how do you secure it?”

Policy vs. practice

“Officers shall ensure that all firearms and ammunition are locked or secured while in their homes, vehicles or any other area under their control in a manner that will keep them inaccessible to children and irresponsible adults.”

That’s the “Golden Rule” of gun storage listed in nearly all local law enforcement policies, which derive from the Lexipol Policy Manual used by many California law enforcement agencies.

The policy is vague enough to allow for differing interpretations of what “secure” could mean.

Police academies do not teach proper handling of guns in off-duty situations, Annibali said, so officers can find themselves in everyday situations in which best practices are not as black and white as the police cars they drive, such as:

The written policies of the Sheriff’s Office and the Arroyo Grande, Paso Robles and Morro Bay police departments suggest that guns can be left in the trunk, even overnight, or home:

“All firearms and kinetic impact weapons shall be removed from the interior of the vehicle and placed in the trunk or properly secured in the residence when the vehicle is not attended,” the manuals dictate.

CHP guidelines, on the other hand, allow guns in trunks only temporarily (not overnight) if the trunk release button has been deactivated. Guns can stay in the car indefinitely if the vehicle is equipped with a gun safe.

Annibali recently ordered the officers in his department to refrain from storing guns in trunks.

Parkinson said his officers have been instructed to leave guns in trunks only temporarily, such as during quick errands or meal breaks, and all officers who bring home unmarked cars must secure their guns in their homes overnight.

“We will put it in writing,” Parkinson said. “A gun should stay with you, or you shouldn’t be taking it.”

The Sheriff’s Office has also discussed putting safes in its vehicles’ trunks but has decided against it.

“We don’t want to encourage that as a place to keep a weapon. We want (officers) to bring them inside the residence,” Parkinson said.

Annibali said a colleague at the FBI has recommended securing guns in Kevlar gun bags before leaving them in the trunk of a vehicle. Even if a burglar were to get the bag, it would be nearly impossible to open, Annibali said.

That will be a topic of discussion at meetings.

“Quite frankly, it might be easier to steal a gun from a home than a locked trunk of a car,” Annibali said.

“Personally, if I go downtown, I’m not gonna leave my gun in a locked car,” Sgt. Chad Pfarr of the San Luis Obispo Police Department told The Tribune. “I may leave it in a locked car in my locked garage at night, where I know my kids can’t get to it.”

Above all else, officers must act with common sense, Parkinson advises.

“It’s a great big responsibility to have a weapon. You can choose to leave your cellphone in your car if you are wearing shorts or a swimsuit. … I evaluate where I am going when I take my gun. If I can’t keep it with me, I keep it home and locked up,” he said.

And sometimes, it’s just not needed.

“I don’t have a lot of fear of being jumped at Vons,” he said.

Agencies participating in gun storage talks:

  • FBI Santa Maria
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • California Highway Patrol
  • Atascadero State Hospital
  • State Parks
  • California Men’s Colony
  • Cal Poly University Police
  • San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office
  • San Luis Obispo County Probation Department
  • San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office
  • Allan Hancock College Law Enforcement Academy
  • All seven local city police departments: Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo
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