Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is recommending that the Board of Supervisors grant sheriff’s special officers limited powers of arrest.
It’s the latest development in an ongoing battle between the special officers and department management, largely centered around officers’ ability to carry concealed weapons off duty and also featuring questions about pension implications for taxpayers.
Under Hutchens’ proposal, scheduled for hearing Tuesday before the Board of Supervisors, special officers — or SSOs as they are called — would have the authority to make arrests for misdemeanor crimes they witness.
Despite Tuesday’s outcome, the battle between the two sides is expected to escalate, with the SSOs’ union challenging a recent department decision to strip their powers after a critical state audit.
“We don’t believe that the sheriff can unilaterally take away the power of the SSOs,” said Jennifer Muir, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Association. The union is suing the Sheriff’s Department over the issue.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Gail Krause didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Supervisor John Moorlach said that at Tuesday’s hearing he’ll be seeking more information than is given in the sheriff’s staff report.
“I’m worried if it creates new problems,” said Moorlach, questioning whether granting greater arresting powers will increase the officers’ pension rates.
“I don’t want to be guilty of voting on one thing and then actually starting the ball rolling on something else,” said Moorlach.
OCEA disputed that notion, saying such a move would not boost pensions.
The nearly 300 SSOs patrol mainly John Wayne Airport and Orange County jails, courts and government buildings and for nearly 20 years have been considered peace officers and permitted to carry concealed weapons.
But last May, an audit by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) found that the special officers don’t meet state requirements for peace officers, because they don’t receive the necessary training and fail to report officer assignments.
As far as training, the commission wrote that the officers need to complete POST’s regular basic course before carrying out peace officer duties.
Orange County sheriff’s officials chose not to comply with the POST recommendations, essentially removing their “peace officer” designation and forbidding the officers from carrying concealed weapons off duty.
That sparked a forceful response earlier this year from OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino, who pointed to the Christopher Dorner cop-killing rampage and argued that SSOs’ lives were in danger without concealed firearms.
After negotiations with the union, county staff say Hutchens now considers the SSOs to be “public officers,” also known as “sheriff’s security officers,” under Penal Code Section 831.4, which reads in part:
The duties of a sheriff’s or police security officer shall be limited to the physical security and protection [of government buildings] or necessary duties with respect to the patrons, employees, and properties of the employing county, city, or contracting entities. …
These persons may not exercise the powers of arrest of a peace officer, but may issue citations for infractions if authorized by the sheriff or police chief. …
The department’s staff report states Hutchens made the decision “based on all the information she has received, and after consulting with all interested stakeholders.”
OCEA, meanwhile, insisted that SSOs should have full peace officer status.
“We disagree that she could take away the peace officer power of SSOs in the first place,” said Muir.