Huntington Beach police have stopped hiding guns in cars of people they pull over -- a way to test how rookie officers search a suspect's vehicle -- because "it's probably not the way we should be operating," a department spokesman said Tuesday.
The training practice was revealed when a driver who was stopped Jan. 3 on suspicion of hit and run complained that an officer had tossed a loaded handgun into the trunk of his car. The pistol was discovered by a rookie officer who searched the car while the driver, Tom Cox, watched.
Cox, a construction superintendent, said he was standing about eight feet away when Officer Brian Knorr walked up, opened the trunk and tossed in a snub-nosed revolver with a rubber grip.
"It bounced off the bottom, hit the back of the trunk, then the left side and came to rest toward the back," said Cox, 45. "Knorr then closed the trunk, and this young kid comes along later and searches the trunk and finds the gun."
Cox said he was terrified that the officers had planted the weapon.
"I knew that wasn't proper procedure," he said. "They later said it was a training exercise, but I believe they were playing a prank on the young kid or me."
In November, he was convicted of reckless driving, DUI and hit and run. He will be sentenced next week.
Cox said his father was a San Diego reserve officer for 17 years, and he considered himself "pro-law enforcement."
Police spokesman Lt. Craig Junginger said that in August, Cox filed a complaint with the department against Knorr and another officer. Using a loaded handgun in the exercise is against department policy. Knorr, a senior officer, was cleared because "training officers didn't fully understand the policy against using loaded weapons," Junginger said.
The OC Weekly first reported the incident last month.
Junginger said that although he had been a Huntington Beach officer for 20 years, he was unaware of that type of training exercise.
He said he learned that trainers typically used unloaded guns and that this was the only time a loaded pistol was used. Chief Ken Small put a stop to the practice last week, the spokesman said.
"It might just be a few officers doing this type of thing," Junginger said. "How long it's been going on, we don't know. Obviously, it was brought to our attention by the complaint filed by Cox. We conducted an investigation and found it's probably not the way we should be operating."
Retired Los Angeles Police Officer Bob Stresak, now spokesman for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, said hiding firearms, especially loaded ones, in civilian cars was not included among the training courses offered by the group, which sets the training standards for more than 600 law enforcement agencies and 90,000 officers.