Police gun policy reviewed - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 8:00 am / Updated at 8:17 am
Police gun policy reviewed

The Omaha Police Department's policy on officers' off-duty storage of their firearms is common, and it is approved by a national law enforcement accreditation group.

But the Omaha policy is more vague and arguably looser than many agencies' policies. Checks with national experts and other agencies indicated that others are more specific about how officers must secure their weapons while off-duty.

The Omaha Police Department is reviewing its off-duty weapons storage policy along with other policies and procedures after Wednesday's Millard South High School shooting.

Student Robert Butler Jr. shot and killed Assistant Principal Vicki Kaspar. He also shot and wounded Principal Curtis Case before eventually killing himself.

Butler used a service handgun belonging to his father, Detective Robert Butler Sr. Police have said the 17-year-old took the gun from his father's bedroom closet while his father was gone for 40 minutes, running an errand. They have said the officer had a gun safe, but the weapon was not in the safe. Police have not said whether the gun had a trigger lock on it.

The Omaha Police Department policy says: “Officers will not store or leave a firearm in any place within the reach or easy access of a minor or unauthorized individual.”

Police are trained and encouraged to use gun and trigger locks or gun safes to store their weapons, “but that is an individual's responsibility to do so,” Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes said.

That's acceptable to the Commission on Law Enforcement Accreditation Standards. The Omaha Police Department is one of several hundred agencies nationwide to have earned accreditation from the commission, which requires intense review of policies and procedures.

The commission requires that agencies have guidelines for the safe and proper storage of agency-authorized firearms.

“It leaves it up to the agency to draft it,” said Stephen Mitchell, a commission program assistant. “There's a variety of ways that agencies address it.”

Another national organization, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, recommends the following regulation in its model policy on firearms:

“Officers shall be responsible for the safe storage of their duty weapon and any other personally owned firearms when not in their personal possession by using trigger locks, safes, gunlock boxes, or other means approved by the department armorer or range master as designated by this department.

“Firearms shall not be stored in patrol or personally owned vehicles except for temporary storage when at court, when other options for safekeeping are not available, or if authorized by the department.”

Some police agencies have policies like Omaha's. Others require guns to be stored in locked boxes or secured with trigger locks. Some require officers to lock service weapons in their lockers at the police station when their shifts end.

Nationally, there's no typical or standard policy among agencies, said Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science and director of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York.

Although they draw attention when an officer's weapon is misused, such policies are not a hot topic in law enforcement, she said. It might appear to be common sense for officers to keep their weapons locked up while off duty, but it can be tough for departments to mandate that, Haberfeld said.

“You're a police officer 24/7,” she said. “Sometimes you need to be up and going, so it doesn't make sense to have the gun locked behind seven doors.”

Mitchell said detectives particularly desire quick access to their weapons at home.

Many use trigger locks for that reason, he said. “You get home (from your shift), you get 10 minutes sleep, and you get called out again. You gotta grab your gun and run.”

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office has more specific policies than the Omaha Police Department does.

The Sheriff's Office, which also has CALEA accreditation, requires generally that “no member will leave an unsecured weapon, on or off duty, in such a manner that an unauthorized person could gain access.”

The sheriff's policy goes on to define “secured” as “on the member's person using an approved carry method, or in a locked container that only authorized members have access to.”

The Sheriff's Office policy further specifies that officers, when at home, store their department-issued firearms in a locked steel gun safe.

The Sheriff's Office provides officers with gun locks — with a cable that slips down the gun barrel — for free. The Sheriff's Office also offers those locks to the public for free at its west office, 156th Street and West Maple Road, Chief Deputy Martin Bilek said.

A section of Nebraska State Patrol policies and procedures on handguns says, “Officers of the Patrol under no circumstances shall leave their weapons in any place where they may fall into the hands of any prisoner or other unauthorized person.”

Patrol recruits receive a section of training on home storage of weapons, spokeswoman Deb Collins said by e-mail.

“When a handgun is issued by the agency, it is issued inside of a gun case, which contains a locking mechanism,” she said. “The gun can either be locked in the case, or the gun itself can be locked with the mechanism provided.”

The patrol also provides what is known as a Life Jacket, a polycarbonate sleeve that fits over a gun's entire action and is locked with a key, Collins said.

The State Patrol provides firearms to its officers. The Douglas County Sheriff's Office provides a uniform allowance with which officers are expected to buy their entire uniforms, including guns.

The Omaha Police Department requires officers to buy their own weapons. But officers up to the rank of captain may seek reimbursement for up to $533 worth of work-related purchases annually.

Eligible purchases can include weapons, ammunition, handcuffs, uniforms, ties or flashlights. Gun- and trigger-lock purchases have always been eligible for reimbursement.

Gun safes had not been eligible for reimbursement, but Hayes, the Omaha police chief, reversed that policy Thursday.

Also Thursday, State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said he will sponsor legislation to hold gun owners responsible for leaving loaded weapons where minors can get them.

At a press conference Thursday, Hayes said police “are not any different than anybody else in society.”

“When we as police officers leave our houses, we do not expect our children to do these types of crimes,” Hayes said.

Haberfeld, the professor, said people expect police to be held to a higher standard on such matters, but she doesn't believe that's fair. “Why should they be held to a different standard than an average citizen who carries weapons?”

Whatever a person's occupation, there are measures a gun owner can take to prevent a tragedy such as occurred at Millard South, said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health.

One easy thing to do, he said, is to safely store guns, “particularly if there are teenagers around.”

Teenagers who attempt suicide often act impulsively, and “they can get depressed pretty quick,” Hemenway said. “It can happen because their girlfriend's dumping them.”

Research shows that “safe storage matters,” he said.

For example, a recent study by his center looked at firearm suicides among youths ages 17 and under that happened over a two-year period in four states. It found that 82 percent used a firearm belonging to a family member, usually a parent.

When storage status was noted, about two-thirds of the firearms had been unlocked. Among the remaining cases in which the firearms had been locked, the youth knew the combination or where the key was kept, or broke into the cabinet.

World-Herald staff writer Jason Kuiper contributed to this report.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1057, christopher.burbach@owh.com

Contact the writer: Christopher Burbach

christopher.burbach@owh.com    |   402-444-1057    |  

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