As L.A. County sheriff’s deputies evacuated residents during last year’s Station fire, a training officer with the department noticed a deputy acting strangely. He was stumbling, then he fell over.
The deputy later admitted he was drinking vodka concealed in a Gatorade bottle during the deadly blaze.
The incidents, and others, are detailed in an oversight report released Tuesday that highlighted the department’s struggles with employees who drink on the job or whose drunkenness results in problems off the job.
Alcohol-related incidents involving department employees have increased this year, according to findings released by the county Office of Independent Review. There were 33 incidents from January through May, more than in the same period last year, including several cases in which deputies were found to be drunk on duty.
Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged Tuesday that the report shows the ineffectiveness of recent department efforts to crack down on drinking. In 2008, he announced plans to bar deputies from carrying firearms while intoxicated. But the deputies’ union is fighting the rule, with critics saying it infringes on the rights of deputies. Meanwhile the department has taken a softer approach, mandating that all employees involved in alcohol-related incidents meet personally with the department’s second-in-command.
The number of incidents dropped in 2009, only to pick up again this year. On Tuesday, Baca vowed to come down harder on the issue.
The sheriff said he was preparing provisions that would lead to dismissals for off-duty deputies who shoot their weapons or respond belligerently to law enforcement officers while intoxicated. He called on the deputies union “to do what’s right,” particularly to not hold up his restriction on firearms possession while drinking.
Among other incidents mentioned in the report:
• An off-duty deputy was arrested on suspicion of drinking and driving with her children in the car, and then arrested months later on another DUI charge. She was arrested a third time for allegedly shooting her gun negligently while off duty and under the influence of alcohol.
• An on-duty deputy was driving a county vehicle to an assignment while allegedly under the influence of alcohol. He ran a red light, hitting another vehicle and injuring two passengers.
• A deputy called in sick but was later found to be out of state. During the trip, she was kicked out of a casino while intoxicated for engaging in overly vulgar behavior during a “booty shaking contest.” The deputy was arrested on a trespassing charge after resisting removal.
• Last month, Deputy Randy Barragan, 25, was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon after he allegedly fired a handgun in the air on the Redondo Beach Pier after drinking at nearby restaurants. Redondo Beach Police Sgt. Shawn Freeman said Barragan, an off-duty deputy, got out a revolver and fired the gun May 24 while hanging on the pier railing. The girlfriend of the deputy knocked the gun out of his hand, and nearby fishermen tackled him. They held him until officers who had already responded to reports of a man with a gun took him into custody, Freeman said.
• An off-duty deputy was arrested for allegedly driving with a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit. When officers stopped her, she asked to be let off “since she was one of them.”
Baca’s plan to restrict deputies from carrying firearms while drinking is before the county Employee Relations Commission because of a challenge from the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said Michael Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review.
Brian Moriguchi, president of the Professional Peace Officers Assn., said the ban would infringe on employees’ constitutional rights by keeping them from drinking in their homes.
“We don’t promote deputies drinking and carrying their guns around and being reckless,” said Moriguchi, whose union represents sergeants and lieutenants. “Our objection is to an ill-conceived policy that is not going to accomplish what it’s intended to.”
But sheriff’s officials said the department plans to move forward regardless of union complaints.
“We cannot afford to have drunk deputy sheriffs thinking their weapon is in their full control,” Baca said.
He went on to connect the department’s drinking issues to a wider societal problem.
“Our entire nation … is socially tied to alcohol,” he said. “I don’t think anyone intends to start off as a drunk, unless you’re an alcoholic.”