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Packing Heat: Why you should be able to carry off-duty

For many years, correctional officers with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) were able to carry firearms off duty. Then in the late 1970s, along came DOC director Ruth Rushen.

Rushen ran one of those touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy correctional administrations. She saw no need for correctional officers to carry firearms off duty and, by administrative action, removed that authority.

However, Rushen must have been underestimating the power and voice of 30,000 certified COs who — under the union of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) — changed a specific section of the penal code to specify that correctional peace officers were entitled to carry weapons both off duty and after their retirement. In addition, the contract between CCPOA and the state specified that staff were to be allowed reasonable access to department shooting ranges for the purpose of qualification.

Here’s where things get murky
Although the department places no limits on the sort of weapons staff can carry while off duty, it fails to allow qualification with some weapons and calibers on department ranges.

For staff, this can create problems, or at least misunderstanding:

The last time I heard, the department was adamant about giving no training whatsoever in off-duty encounters, off-duty authority, protocol for off-duty carry or anything else related to the subject. Yet most of the staff, it seems, are not gun people and were not previously in law enforcement. They are unsure of their status, rights, and responsibilities in off duty encounters.

So should we change our status?
Some staff lobby to be classified — and trained — as 24/7 peace officers. I confess I am not a big fan of this idea, for several reasons.

A lot of the things a street cop needs to know, we don’t. For instance, search and seizure is a biggie in the real world. But in prison, we can search pretty much whoever we want, whenever we want.

Need to search a prisoner’s “house” and property? No problem — no warrant, no notice, no permission necessary. Search a prisoner’s person? No problem. We can search work areas, common areas, non-custody employees (though we seldom do so), cars in the parking lot, and commercial vehicles making deliveries.

We can, and are expect to, poke our nose in. However, on the other side of the coin, most of our peace officers go a full career and never arrest anybody. Our service population is already in custody.

If we were to change status a lot of things would change, and it would get expensive to the taxpayers.

For one thing, in California the employer of “regular” peace officers must supply all safety equipment, including firearms. I don’t know what it would cost the state to buy 30,000 side arms and ancillary equipment, but it would be significant. The initial additional training would be expensive, as would ongoing yearly training. My beef with this is that, to do our job, it isn’t necessary. Why pay for it?

I do think, however, that the department’s head-in-the-sand attitude about off-duty training is ridiculous and I am fairly certain it will turn into a lawsuit eventually, either by the family of a dead officer who wasn’t trained in dealing with things on the street, or by somebody else who was shot and injured 0r the family of somebody who was killed) by an off duty officer.

Our department has gotten by so far simply because so few of us carry weapons into the community and we seldom shoot people at the institutions. The past, however, is no guarantee of the future.

It’s something that should be dealt with before we are forced to deal with by a court order, which will certainly cost much more money and result in a greater loss of departmental autonomy than is the case right now.

In this day and age, I think it is prudent to carry a weapon if you can legally do so. I also think it would be prudent — both for the department and the taxpayer — to provide some reasonable training in off duty firearms use and protocol. I am convinced that it is a lawsuit, not to mention a judgment, waiting to happen.

Bob Walsh worked for 24 years with the California Department of Corrections at Deuel Vocational Institution located near Tracy, California. He retired in early 2005. Since then he has been taking classes, exercising his obsolete camera equipment, rusticating and writing for the PacoVilla web site which focuses on issues within what is now called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCr) and within the union representing CDCr employees, the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association (CCPOA).