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Some state lawyers, accountants get peace officers' benefits [Updated]

November 30, 2010 |  3:29 pm

More than 100 lawyers and accountants working for California’s prison oversight office are being classified as peace officers -- carrying guns, driving state vehicles and becoming eligible for the generous pensions offered to people who risk their lives in the name of public safety.

None of the 105 sworn peace officers in the California Office of Inspector General has fired a gun in the line of duty or responded to an emergency in a state car in the last five years, according to a report issued Tuesday by the state Senate. One accidentally shot himself at the pistol practice range.

The police perks, in particular the car and the pension that begins at age 50, are used as recruiting tools, apparently providing inducement for professionals to devote their work lives to California’s beleaguered prison system.

The benefits come with a cost to taxpayers. The auditors and lawyers logged about a million miles in their state cars last year; more than 700,000 of those were for the commute from home to the office and back.  At 50 cents per mile, which is what the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes estimates it costs to run a state car, that’s $350,000.

In addition, the agency’s accountants and lawyers would normally have to pay federal income tax for using company cars, but public employees whose jobs require them to carry guns are exempt under IRS rules.

Laura Hill, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Inspector General, had no comment on the report.

[Updated at 4:35 p.m.: Chief Deputy Inspector Donald Currier, second in command at the agency, said the office is willing to give up the guns and cars, but not the most costly part of the package, the pensions.  The job still has risky assignments, he said.

“They’re not typical police duties, like CHP officers pulling people over all the time who they don’t know,” Currier said, “but their job is to ferret out criminal wrongdoing in prisons, including abuse of force by correctional officers.”

Other auditors who investigate criminal wrongdoing at public agencies, such as those in the state attorney general's office and the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, which investigates the Sheriff’s Department, do so without peace officer status, Tuesday’s report states.]

The Senate researchers who issued the report are urging legislators to review the reasoning, and the costs, associated with the perks.

“To justify this peace officer status, state law and administrative rules offer an elaborate rationale that presumes gun-toting auditors and lawyers will engage in police functions such as hand-to-hand combat and high-speed pursuits,” the report states. 

None of that has happened. In fact, the auditors and lawyers must surrender their guns before entering a prison, the report states.

The biggest benefit of peace officer status is the pension. Most public employees are eligible to collect 2% of their annual salary, multiplied by the number of years they worked, starting at age 55.  As an acknowledgement of the risks inherent in their jobs, police and firefighters can start collecting 3% of their annual salary, multiplied by the number of years worked, at age 50.

-- Jack Dolan in Sacramento

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