New distinction honors officers for gun arrests
SAN JOSE >> Officer Anthony Baza, an 11-year San Jose Police Department veteran, pursues the city’s most dangerous criminals and suspects as a member of the Violent Crimes Enforcement Team.
A regular shift will often entail high-risk arrests of shooting and assault suspects and gang members, many of them presumed to be armed. To Baza, both getting a suspect into custody and taking a gun out of circulation on the street can have a pronounced effect.
“The largest impact is you could prevent a shooting from happening, or at the very least stop someone from intimidating somebody because they’re carrying a gun,” he said.
Baza is one of the inaugural recipients of the department’s newly instituted Gun Seizure Award, a distinction given to officers whose enterprising and alert police work
leads to firearms being recovered, typically from felons barred from having guns, or from people suspected of violent crimes.
The gun-specific award, which comes in the form of a uniform insignia, is relatively rare in state law enforcement, and SJPD wanted to be one of the select agencies to do it, Police Chief Eddie Garcia said.
“We have awards for the amazing work officers do when they take multiple stolen vehicles off the street, and for taking intoxicated drivers off the street. What we didn’t have is recognition for doing the investigative work of taking guns off the street,” Garcia said. “For years, that has gone on without proper recognition. What more dangerous job is there than an investigative stop to take a loaded firearm off a criminal?”
At a ceremony Thursday, Baza was among 30 officers who received the distinctions. Officers who conduct three self-initiated arrests that involve the seizing of firearms in a 12-month period — either
through street patrol or through detective work — are eligible for a rectangular uniform bar pin with one silver star. Six arrests in that period yields two silver stars — the distinction Baza earned — and nine such arrests earns three silver stars, which will be known as the Master Gun Seizure Award.
On street patrol alone, SJPD officers seized 175 guns during arrests in 2018, according to department figures. Dozens more were recovered by specialized teams like VCET and the department’s Metro special-enforcement unit.
“These officers are not just finding guns, they’re taking multiple armed criminals off the street,” Garcia said. “If you look at our homicides this year, if many of those individuals had been stopped before, they wouldn’t have occurred.”
Four of the city’s five homicides to date involved street shootings, one involving a grandmother who police and witnesses say was shot and killed by a stray bullet in an East San Jose neighborhood last month, and eventually led to the arrest of a 17-year-old boy. That resonated with threestar awardee Officer Francisco
Vallejo, a VCET member who has worked for the department for 13 years.
“In the past couple of years, I’ve seen unintended victims get shot and killed because of these guns,” Vallejo said. “I’m willing to take the risk to not have to see another innocent person become a victim of gun violence.”
The distinction tracks with a broader emphasis on gun crimes by county law enforcement, amid a national backdrop of increasingly frequent mass shootings.
The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office has increased its use of Gun Violence Restraining Orders, emergency gunbased protective orders that can be filed to seize guns from someone who has firearms and has exhibited threatening behavior, but has avoided arrest. The restraining orders have elicited notable opposition, especially from gun-rights groups.
Garcia acknowledged the political context of addressing gun issues, but said the work honored Thursday shouldn’t court any controversy.
“The state of California talks a lot about gun control. Why don’t we start by
enforcing gun laws we have on the books?” he said. “It starts with us.”
Detective Mike White, a member of the department’s revived Burglary Prevention Unit and a seasoned robbery investigator, said his experience has shown that when a gun is
seized from a violent crime suspect, it can be a missing link to solving other crimes, and can have an effect beyond that of an individual arrest.
“A lot of these violent robbery crews, they are armed with weapons they share among the group,” White said. “When you’re able to get guns out of their hands, you’re getting not just the individual, but you’re taking away their means of committing these crimes.”