L.A. County sheriff's deputies are told to unwind unarmed

Off-duty sheriff's deputies can carry concealed weapons to protect themselves and their families, and that's fine. They can go into bars and unwind with a few drinks, and that's fine too. But too many of them do both at the same time, frightening and endangering the people they are sworn to protect.

In a masterpiece of understatement, an annual report on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department calls for employees to get the message that "gun-carrying and significant indulgence in alcohol must be separated." In other words, drunk off-duty deputies shouldn't follow bar hostesses into dark garages, display their semiautomatic handguns and say things like, "I'd really like to molest you, but I'm too nice," before planting kisses on their necks.

That's one of several incidents discussed in the annual report of the Office of Independent Review. It was no doubt scary for the hostess, but it ended better than several other incidents around Southern California over the last few years in which armed and intoxicated off-duty officers got into bar fights and brandished, and in some cases fired, their weapons.

The report noted that alcohol-related arrests of department employees, sworn and civilian, more than doubled last year to 70. It concluded that the Sheriff's Department's alcohol problem is "intractable."

Law enforcement is stressful work, so the situation is both long-standing and well-understood. The Sheriff's Department owes it to deputies and other employees to provide help when needed, but it also must protect the public from dangerous conduct by armed off-duty deputies who don't know their limits and may believe they're just winding down -- or that the rules of conduct that apply to everyone else don't apply to them.

Intractable or not, the department has begun to confront its drinking problem and has proposed a common-sense rule that requires off-duty personnel who go out for a drink to leave the gun at home.

The deputies' union has resisted it, but it's soon to take effect anyway. That's a good thing for all concerned, including the deputies, who still get to choose.