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LA policy vague on armed police drunk off-duty

by Tribune News Service | June 6, 2021 at 3:08 a.m.

LOS ANGELES -- Early one morning last month, off-duty Los Angeles police officer Nicolas Quintanilla-Borja allegedly threatened to kill his cousin and another man with a handgun in Inglewood, Calif., before being arrested by local police, prosecutors said.

Days later, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore told the civilian Police Commission that the incident troubled him "a great deal," in part because Quintanilla-Borja -- a probationary officer with less than 18 months on the force -- was allegedly "significantly" impaired by alcohol at the time.

Moore said he immediately assigned Quintanilla-Borja to his home and removed his police powers, and that the Police Department is "taking additional actions" that he could not discuss. Quintanilla-Borja, who could not be reached for comment, has pleaded innocent to multiple charges, including assault with a semiautomatic weapon.

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon said Quintanilla-Borja would not get special treatment. "Wearing a badge does not give an officer the right to break laws," he said.

The Police Department has been struggling for years with how to deal with alcohol use by armed, off-duty officers, failing to develop clear policies despite a series of problems, the Los Angeles Times found. Other departments across the country have robust rules for carrying firearms while drinking alcohol or when intoxicated, but the department's rules remain vague even as serious cases pile up.

In a 2019 incident that resurfaced in state court in April, a Police Department detective who'd been drinking with subordinates for hours in downtown bars allegedly shot a homeless man on skid row before being badly beaten himself. The officer claimed self-defense.

In a 2020 case reviewed by the Police Commission in April, an officer who'd been drinking whiskey and beer while shooting targets with two fellow officers at a remote Apple Valley campsite imagined they were under attack and allegedly shot one of his friends. He later claimed the shooting was a result of his post-traumatic stress disorder, not the alcohol.

The misuse of alcohol by officers has long been identified as a problem in law enforcement across the country. Police work can be stressful, officers have been found in studies to abuse alcohol at higher rates than the general public, and they are often armed, even when off duty, through special rights afforded them as officers.

In response to questions about the recent cases, the Police Department confirmed it "does not have a specific policy relating to the off-duty consumption of alcohol in conjunction with the carrying of a firearm," but said other policies requiring officers to act appropriately are sufficient for holding them accountable.

Capt. Stacy Spell, a department spokesman, said officers are made aware of policies that preclude their acting in "unbecoming" ways, including with alcohol, during recruit training, during roll call briefings and through "a larger alcohol awareness campaign that occurs each April."

Department leaders "have and will hold our personnel accountable should they misuse alcohol and cannot exercise reasonable care and/or control of a firearm," Spell said.

Still, the Police Department's s lack of an explicit policy -- one that not only punishes armed off-duty officers who get intoxicated and into trouble, but precludes them from carrying their weapons while intoxicated in the first place -- puts it at odds with other law enforcement agencies in the region and country.

It also distinguishes the department's policy from a federal law allowing officers to carry weapons interstate, which says they must not be under the influence of alcohol while doing so, and with California's concealed carry law for civilians, which bars licensees from consuming "any alcoholic beverage" while carrying a firearm.

When asked about police officers carrying concealed weapons, the California attorney general's office said police aren't subject to the restrictions on civilian licensees, but that each of the state's individual law enforcement agencies "likely has a departmental policy that addresses the consumption of alcohol."

That is true for some agencies, but not the Los Angeles Police Department.

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