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O.C. special officers sue sheriff to get back guns off-duty

July 17, 2012 | 12:41 pm

An Orange County sheriff's special officer extends his hand to stop a motorist as a John Wayne Airport operations worker makes random vehicle inspections in 2003.

A union representing 200 Orange County special officers stripped of their authority to carry guns while off duty and make arrests has sued Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and asked a judge to restore their right to pack a weapon at all times.

Hutchens recently told the security officers -- who patrol John Wayne Airport, secure county buildings and protect the courthouses -- that they will no longer have arrest powers, won’t be able to issue misdemeanor citations and cannot carry their weapons off-duty without a concealed weapons permit.

Hutchens made the decision after the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training sent a notice to the department in May saying the 200 special safety officers may not meet the minimum standard for sworn police officers with arrest powers.

The Orange County Employees Assn. in a lawsuit filed July 5 seeking a restraining order against Hutchens' directive argues that an existing appeals case prevents a public agency from restricting a peace officer from carrying a weapon off-duty. It also argues the former policy is consistent with more than 20 years of practice in the county.

In the suit, attorney Richard Levine argues "special officers will be jeopardized by their inability to protect themselves and their families against the threat of death or great bodily harm off-duty by suspects and defendants they encountered during the course of their peace officer employment."

The union says making officers apply for concealed weapons permits -- which Hutchens suggested in a recent memo to officers -- is not a solution.

Hutchens is already being sued by her deputies' union over changes she made to internal affairs and has come under fire for reducing the number of concealed weapons permits she is willing to issue across the county.

The state commission sets the standards for police officers and their training. The commission also requires a department to notify the state oversight agency any time a law enforcement officer is hired or fired. The commission says that did not occur with the special officers in Orange County.

In a recent interview, Orange County Assistant Sheriff Tim Board said safety officers receive four months of academy training compared with six months in the academy for sheriff’s deputies. Board said the officers have long patrolled the airport, protected court buildings and assisted in the jails, but the commission has decided to take issue with the amount of training they receive.

Two years ago, Hutchens began allowing the safety officers to make misdemeanor arrests without a deputy present, Board said. The move occurred at a time when the department was facing annual budget cuts and was battling to maintain the number of deputies on patrol.

Board said the officers will continue to be paid the same amount and do the same work.

“It is not going to truly impact their work.... They'll still be able to issue traffic citations at the airport and supervise people entering the courthouse or other county buildings,” he said.


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Photo: An Orange County sheriff's special officer extends his hand to stop a motorist as a John Wayne Airport operations worker makes random vehicle inspections in 2003. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times