The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating whether members of its elite SWAT unit took advantage of their assignments to purchase large numbers of specially-made handguns and resell the weapons for steep profits, according to a report released Friday by the independent watchdog overseeing the department.
The allegations, if true, could be a violation of federal firearm laws and city ethics regulations.
The ongoing inquiry is the LAPD’s second attempt to understand what happened with the handguns. Police officials opened the investigation only after Inspector General Alex Bustamante raised concerns that a previous attempt to look into the gun dealings had been badly “deficient,” according to Bustamante’s report.
Because the initial investigation was so lacking, little is known about the gun sales. Bustamante’s report, which will be presented to the L.A. Police Commission on Tuesday, was based on the initial, substandard inquiry and so could not answer basic questions about the allegations, including how many officers were involved, the number of guns sold and when the sales were carried out. The LAPD’s current investigation is expected to be completed in about a month, Bustamante wrote in his report.
Suspicion about the guns first arose in 2010, when the commanding officer of the LAPD’s Metropolitan Division, which includes SWAT, ordered an inventory of the division’s firearms, the report said. The officer responsible for conducting the count discovered that SWAT members had purchased between 51 and 324 pistols from the gun manufacturer Kimber and were “possibly reselling them to third parties for large profits,” according to the report.
There would probably have been no problem if the officers had purchased the guns for personal use. However, with only about 60 officers in the unit, the possibility that a few hundred guns were purchased has raised concerns.
Kimber sold the guns, which bore a special “LAPD SWAT” insignia, to members of the unit for about $600 each — a steep discount from their resale value of between $1,600 and $3,500, the report said. The unique SWAT gun branding was first made several years earlier, when the department contracted with Kimber for a one-time purchase of 144 of the pistols.
During the inventory, the officer also discovered that two companies not affiliated with the LAPD — Cinema Weaponry and Lucas Ranch Gun Sales — were involved in the transactions with Kimber. Unbeknownst to the gun manufacturer, Cinema Weaponry was involved in the purchase of the handguns, while Lucas Ranch Gun Sales was charging fees “for facilitating the transfer of the pistols from Kimber to officers,” according to the report.
Jim Manhire, who owns Lucas Ranch, said in an interview that the SWAT officers relied on him, as a registered gun dealer, to complete the state and federal registration process that must be done for all weapons. The .45-caliber guns, he said, were purchased by the officers directly from Kimber and shipped from the manufacturer to Manhire. After he had registered the weapons, the officers picked them up, Manhire said.
Manhire could not recall how many officers had him register guns and was unaware whether the officers then resold the weapons. He denied that he was paid to register the guns, saying that he only received reimbursement from the officers for registration fees charged by authorities.
Cinema Weaponry is owned by Michael Papac, according to the state’s business registry. Papac’s name does not appear on LAPD employee rosters. He did not return calls seeking comment.
The officer conducting the inventory identified several SWAT members whom he suspected of being involved in the gun dealings, Bustamante’s report said. He reported his findings to the division’s commanding officer, who, in turn, relieved one officer of duty and notified the department’s Internal Affairs office.
Neither the officer relieved of duty, the others suspected of being involved, nor the person who conducted the inventory were interviewed for the investigation, and no attempt was made to determine how many guns had been purchased from Kimber, Bustamante wrote. In the end, the department concluded that it had no policy governing such activity, and so closed its investigation, according to the inspector general report.
Regardless of whether the LAPD has a policy governing gun sales by officers, Bustamante noted that “the purchase of firearms with the intent to immediately transfer the weapon to a third party may violate city ethics regulations and federal firearm laws.” The report did not specify which regulations and laws may have been violated.
Police officials declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing investigation. Deputy Chief Mark Perez, head of the department’s Internal Affairs Group, acknowledged that the initial investigation had been “hastily and not very well done,” but could not explain why. The person looking into the matter was not available, he said.
The SWAT-branded gun is not the first that Kimber has produced specifically for the LAPD. In 2008, the company made the same model 1911 pistol for another LAPD unit, the Special Investigations Section. Those guns were embossed with the unit’s initials. While there was no indication that SIS officers were reselling the weapons, the arrangement was nonetheless controversial as some city officials and community leaders decried Kimber’s decision to market a slightly modified version of the weapon to the public as the “hot new SIS pistols.”
The department’s poor job investigating the alleged SWAT gun sales was all the more notable, Bustamante wrote, because of the way it treated the officer who uncovered the gun purchases during the inventory. When one of the SWAT team members under suspicion accused him of improperly discussing the investigation with others, the department opened a separate inquiry into the claim, producing a 257-page report that dwarfed the 39-page file on the gun sales. The officer was suspended for five days.
The controversy marks the second time in recent years that the SWAT unit has come under scrutiny for its handling of firearms. Last year, a cache of submachine guns and handguns was stolen after SWAT officers left the weapons overnight in an unguarded training facility. Police had altered the guns to fire only blanks, but they could be converted back to lethal use and only a few of the roughly 30 firearms were recovered.
After Bustamante brought attention to the LAPD’s failure to adequately investigate the gun dealings, top department officials conceded to changes that would give the inspector general’s office a significantly larger role in internal investigations of serious misconduct. If the proposed changes are approved by the Police Commission, Bustamante’s office will be alerted immediately whenever the LAPD’s internal affairs office opens an investigation into a potentially high-risk matter, the report said. The department has also agreed to brief the inspector general’s office regularly on the progress of these inquiries.
Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.