Drinking while armed

The number of alcohol-related incidents involving employees of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has shot up this year, increasing 37% over the first five months of 2009, according to a recent report by the county’s Office of Independent Review. This news is all the more disturbing because last year’s report had already called the department’s drinking problem “intractable.”

Just last month, for instance, a deputy who had been drinking at a local restaurant was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon after firing his handgun into the air on the Redondo Beach Pier; his girlfriend and nearby fishermen restrained him until officers arrived. In another incident, an off-duty deputy with two previous alcohol-related offenses, including drunk driving, was arrested on suspicion of firing her gun while under the influence. Many of the incidents, according to the new report, involve younger deputies. But the problem extends further, “ensnaring mature officers, first-line supervisors and females alike.”

Sheriff’s deputies perform difficult and often dangerous jobs, and the department has pursued a policy of helping troubled employees when possible. This is appropriate and should continue, but it’s not enough. Sheriff Lee Baca has acknowledged that stronger measures are in order and has proposed increasing the penalties for alcohol-related incidents. Of those, the most important from a public safety standpoint is a rule that would bar deputies from carrying their guns when they are drinking to the point of intoxication.

Baca tried to impose this rule two years ago, but the deputies union challenged it at the county Employee Relations Commission. The union says it would infringe on officers’ constitutional rights. But that is nonsense. The rule would not stop deputies from drinking. It would simply require them to put down their guns before they reach for the drink that makes them legally drunk. It asks them to plan ahead. It is no different from, say, requiring that an intoxicated person turn over his car keys to a designated driver. Two years have lapsed without a decision by the commission on what is clearly a common-sense rule, and the delay is baffling. What will it take for the commission to act — the death of a civilian at the hands of an intoxicated deputy?