Ac­ci­den­tal gun­shots by deputies rise

The in­crease has co­in­cided with L.A. County agency’s move to a new pis­tol.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Cindy Chang

One sher­iff’s deputy shot him­self in the leg while pulling out his gun to con­front a sus­pect.

An­other accidentally fired a bul­let in a re­stroom stall. A third deputy stum­bled over a stroller in a closet a she was search­ing for a sus­pect, squeez­ing off a round that went through a wall and lodged in a piece of fur­ni­ture in the next room.

Ac­ci­den­tal gun­shots by Los An­ge­les County sher­iff’s deputies have more than dou­bled in two years, en­dan­ger­ing by­standers and oc­ca­sion­ally in­jur­ing deputies. The jump co­in­cides with the depart­ment’s move to a new hand­gun that lacks a safety lever and re­quires less pres­sure to pull the trig­ger.

Sher­iff’s of­fi­cials say that the in­crease in ac­ci­den­tal dis­charges— from12 in 2012 to30 la st year— oc­curred be­cause deputies were ad­just­ing to the new gun. They ex­pect the num­bers to fall in the years ahead. So far this year, the depart­ment has recorded seven ac­ci­den­tal dis­charges, five of which in­volved the new weapon.

But the prob­lems may not be over, as more deputies switch to the Smith & Wesson M&P9. In re­sponse, depart­ment of­fi­cials have im­posed ex­tra train­ing re­quire­ments.

The M&P has ob­vi­ous benefits. It is eas­ier to shoot ac­cu­rately, can be fired more re­li­ably un­der stress and is a bet­ter fit for peo­ple with small hands. The switch was prompted in part by the threat of a law­suit by women who had failed the Sher­iff’s Academy. More re­cruits — in­clud­ing more women — are now pass­ing the firearms test, and vet­eran deputies are also log­ging bet­ter scores at the fir­ing range.

But the sharp in­crease in ac­ci­den­tal dis­charges has prompted an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment’s new in­spec­tor gen­eral. Crit­ics say this type of semi­au­to­matic, which is wide­spread in law en­force­ment and in­cludes the Glock used by many agen­cies, is too easy to mis­fire.

At the New York Po­lice Depart­ment, a rookie of­fi­cer is fac­ing crim­i­nal charges, in­clud­ing neg­li­gent homi­cide, in a fa­tal shoot­ing in a hous­ing project stair­well. An at­tor­ney for the of­fi­cer says he accidentally fired his depart­ment-is­sued Glock.

Aformer Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment of­fi­cer who was par­a­lyzed when his 3year-old son shot him with a Glock has sued the gun man­u­fac­turer and oth­ers, al­leg­ing that the light trig­ger pull and lack of a safety mech­a­nism con­trib­uted to the ac­ci­dent.

Bob Owens, edi­tor of Bear­, says the de­sign of the Glock and the M&P makes such tragedies more likely. “I don’t think,

with the amount of train­ing most agen­cies have, that a gun that has so few tol­er­ances for mis­takes is the best choice,” he said.

An ad­just­ment

For two decades, L.A. County sher­iff ’s deputies car­ried the Beretta 92F, a heavy metal gun with a large grip.

Peo­ple with small hands of­ten have trou­ble flip­ping up the Beretta’s safety as they pre­pare to fire. The­first shot re­quires12 to15 pounds of pres­sure on the trig­ger, forc­ing some to use two fin­gers and re­duc­ing shoot­ing ac­cu­racy for many. Sub­se­quent shots take about 4 pounds of pres­sure.

The M&P is made of light­weight poly­mer, with a hand grip that comes in three sizes. Fir­ing a round is as sim­ple as pulling the trig­ger with a con­sis­tent 6 to 8 pounds of pres­sure.

Sher­iff’s deputies have the op­tion of stick­ing with the Beretta, and some have, say­ing they are used to it. But many who have switched to the M&P say their shoot­ing has im­proved.

“At first, I thought, ‘No way, I’m keep­ing my Beretta for­ever,’ ” said Sgt. Mike Rafter, a fire arms in­struc­tor. “Then I started shoot­ing, and it’s a lot nicer. I can shoot bet­ter, and I’m more con­fi­dent.”

Academy trainees be­gan re­ceiv­ing M&Ps in 2011 and the rest of the depart­ment be­gan grad­u­ally switch­ing to the new gun soon af­ter. About half of sworn per­son­nel are now us­ing the M&P and more are chang­ing over. As more deputies con­verted to the M&P, ac­ci­den­tal dis­charges rose.

In 2012, therewere12 ac­ci­den­tal dis­charges, none in­volv­ing the M&P. In 2013, there were 18, eight of which were M&Ps. Of the 30 in­ci­dents in 2014, 22 in­volved M&Ps.

As­sis­tant Sher­iff Todd Rogers at­trib­uted the in­crease to deputies still ad­just­ing to the lack of a safety on the new­gun.

“The vast ma­jor­ity were peo­ple trained on the Beretta,” Rogers said. “There is a cor­re­la­tion, no doubt about it.”

A Beretta spokesper­son did not re­turn a phone call seek­ing com­ment. A spokesper­son for Smith & Wesson said the com­pany does not speak pub­licly about the weapons it sup­plies to law en­force­ment.

Ac­ci­dents on duty

Many of the ac­ci­den­tal M&P dis­charges in 2014 oc­curred while deputies were on duty, of­ten on the street or in homes dur­ing searches. In one De­cem­ber in­ci­dent, a sher­iff’s deputy in Comp­ton ap­proached a car he thought might have been stolen. The oc­cu­pants had al­ready run off. As hewalked up with his M&P drawn to make sure there was no one else in­side, he accidentally pulled the trig­ger.

The bul­let hit the driver’s side door. There were by­standers nearby, but no one was in­jured.

A month ear­lier, a Lan­caster deputy was fol­low­ing a driver he sus­pected of hav­ing a gun. When the man got out and walked to­ward the pa­trol car, the deputy took off his seat belt and­was pulling out his M&P when he fired it into his own thigh. He was the only per­son in­jured that year, but in other cases, civil­ians or other deputies were nearby and could have been hit.

In a Wal­nut-area house in Jan­uary 2014, a deputy accidentally fired a round into the ceil­ing when a golf bag fell on his hand. An­other deputy was in the room at the time.

When a deputy tripped over a stroller and fired a round through a wall in Oc­to­ber2014, there was an­other deputy nearby, with more deputies and a civil­ian else­where in the Hunt­ing­ton Park house.

The NYPD cus­tom-rigs its hand­guns with a heav­ier trig­ger pull to re­duce the risk of ac­ci­dents. Pros­e­cu­tors ar­gue that rookie Of­fi­cer Peter Liang broke a key safety rule by rest­ing his fin­ger on the trig­ger of his Glock while pa­trolling a Brook­lyn hous­ing project on Nov. 20. As Liang pushed open a stair­well door, he fired a bul­let that fa­tally struck Akai Gur­ley, 28, who was walk­ing down the stairs. Liang’s at­tor­ney has said that his client shot the gun accidentally.

Shortly af­ter the LAPD switched from Berettas to Glocks a decade ago, Of­fi­cer Enrique Her­rera Chavez was shot in the back by his 3-year-old son. Chavez was driv­ing on July 10, 2006, when the boy found his fa­ther’s Glock un­der the ve­hi­cle’s cen­ter con­sole and dis­charged a round, ren­der­ing Chavez a para­plegic.

Chavez’s law­suit was dis­missed in 2010, but an ap­peals court ruled that a jury should hear many of the for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer’s argu- ments that the de­sign of the Glock made it too easy for a small child to fire. A trial is sched­uled for Oc­to­ber.

‘Train­ing scars’

L.A. County sher­iff’s deputies learn­ing to shoot the Beretta were taught to rest a fin­ger on the trig­ger as soon as they took aim. The mantra was “on tar­get, on trig­ger.”

With M&Ps and Glocks, the trig­ger fin­ger should stay on the side of the gun un­til the last mo­ment.

To com­bat the rise in ac­ci­den­tal dis­charges, deputies are now re­quired to pass a marks­man­ship test four times a year in­stead of three and to take a course de­signed to break old Beretta habits. Those­who­have accidentally dis­charged their weapons are typ­i­cally re­quired to re­peat train­ing.

“We call them train­ing scars,” Rogers said. “It’s mus­cle mem­ory. And es­pe­cially in stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, peo­ple revert to their train­ing.”

Richard Fair­burn, a firearms ex­pert who works for a law en­force­ment agency in Illi­nois, called the M&P a “more mod­ern weapon” that en­ables more of­fi­cers to shoot well. But, he said, the lighter trig­ger pull and lack of a safety could re­sult in more ac­ci­den­tal dis­charges if the new habits aren’t drummed into deputies through rig­or­ous train­ing.

“If you still have your fin­ger on the trig­ger when you put it in your hol­ster, you’ll end up with a stripe on your leg,” Fair­burn said.

The LAPD re­cently be­gan is­su­ing M&Ps af­ter us­ing Glocks since 2005, said Lt. Dana Berns, who heads the firearms and tac­tics sec­tion. The depart­ment did not pro­vide ac­ci­den­tal dis­charge statis­tics in re­sponse to re­quests by The Times. But Berns said he did not be­lieve the depart­ment had a prob­lem when of­fi­cers made the tran­si­tion to the Glock, and none is ex­pected with the M&P be­cause it is sim­i­lar to the Glock.

Un­like sher­iff’s deputies, LAPD of­fi­cers were trained to carry the Beretta with the safety off be­cause flip­ping it was cum­ber­some and could re­sult in the gun fir­ing too late, or not fir­ing at all, in danger­ous sit­u­a­tions.

The key to pre­vent­ing ac­ci­den­tal dis­charges is train­ing, Berns said. The LAPD re­quires of­fi­cers to pass six firearms tests a year, in­clud­ing one with a shot­gun and one that sim­u­lates real-life sce­nar­ios.

“It seems as if the sher­iffs are hav­ing a prob­lem with train­ing,” Berns said. “What you do sub­con­sciously is a mat­ter of train­ing.”

Bet­ter test re­sults

The M&P ap­pears to have ful­filled its prom­ise on one front: More women are mak­ing it into the depart­ment. The per­cent­age of fe­male re­cruits who failed the firearms test has plunged from 6.4% to less than1%.

Pass rates are up across the board, not just for women. With the Beretta, more than 60% of trainees in one academy class needed ex­tra firearms train­ing. Ten out of 80 or so trainees in an­other class flunked be­cause of the shoot­ing test.

With the M&P, the class with the worst shoot­ing re­sults sent only 17% of trainees to re­me­di­a­tion, and only three failed.

Su­san Paolino, whose 1980 gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suit against the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment re­sulted in a land­mark con­sent de­cree, said fe­male deputies should be held to the same stan­dards as men. But she sup­ports new equip­ment that can help them meet those stan­dards.

About 18% of sher­iff ’s deputies are women.

“If it’s some­thing that’s not go­ing to let them lower the stan­dards, where they still have to have the skill but shoot bet­ter with a gun that fits their hand, that’s great,” Paolino said.

Pho­to­graphs by Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

SGT. MARK BRANDRIFF, a firearms in­struc­tor for the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment, fires a Smith & Wesson M&P9. For two decades, deputies used the Beretta 92F. The depart­ment be­gan con­vert­ing to the M&P in 2011.

THE TRAIN­ING ver­sion of the M&P in red. Un­like the Beretta, the M&P has no safety lever.

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