Santana: Has Orange County Created America’s Most Vulnerable Cops?

Orange County Sheriff's Department Academy class. (Photo credit: OCSD)

They might be the most vulnerable cops in America.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department's special officers (SSOs) have spent the last few years locked in a heated battle with Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, vying to get back their peace officer status so they can carry concealed weapons in public when off duty.

Without that, they are an American rarity -- cops who can’t carry a concealed weapon while off duty.

With public attacks on police officers mounting, that’s making them nervous and even more vocal.

I first wrote about this issue back in 2013 when the rampage by former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner – targeting law enforcement personnel - put officers’ off-duty risks front and center.

It’s stunning to see that three years later, with all the public safety supportive rhetoric from our county supervisors and more public attacks, these 200 or so officers remain in an unsafe position every night they leave their jobs.

That should be an unacceptable situation for anyone we are asking to protect us, especially during tough times when they are being targeted personally because of the nature of their job.

Note that SSOs work at virtually every public counter across the county government protecting taxpayers when they arrive at the airport, go to courts, go to pay their taxes or attend public meetings.

That means they deal with large crowds, often unhappy people and probably very difficult people on a regular basis -- all at public buildings where they can be easily identified, maybe even followed out.

Yet the front door is apparently as far as Hutchens and county supervisors are willing to stick with these officers.

One you hit the parking lot, you're on your own as an SSO.

That's why they've headed into court arguing against Hutchens that their ability to carry concealed weapons shouldn’t just be taken away after a 2008 state audit – by the California Commission on Peace Office Standards and Training – concluded training for these officers should be stepped up to keep their peace officer status.

POST officials declined a request for comment.

While county supervisors say they support the SSO's need to carry concealed weapons, none of them, nor Hutchens, have supported extra training for these officers to restore their peace officer status.

I’m not sure how much money this really saves but their action likely saves the county some money on training as well as any premium salaries that may potentially kick in with more training; along with potential pension impacts for the 300 or so officers in this class.

The SSO class is part of a growing movement where civilian workers or other classes of officers are used in different types of scenarios – like jail operations and public buildings - given the rising costs of using sworn law enforcement personnel.

Keep in mind there are several types of peace officers, connected to a special range of skills, training and jobs. The state's penal code on peace officers includes many categories, including the ones that SSOs were under for decades (830.33 and 830.36) that covered jobs like airport officers or court services officers.

Now, these officers are classified as the equivalent of security guards (831.4) even though they note that their jobs require much more expertise and training than a standard security guard.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he understands the threat toward these men and women.

“It's a philosophy,” Spitzer said. “I don't believe the safety risk is eliminated simply by not having the uniform on.”

Spitzer said he believes that the special service class should be issued concealed carry firearms permits, noting the officers “have valid concerns.”

Yet Supervisor Shawn Nelson argues that the SSOs could already have their concealed weapons because county supervisors eliminated local concealed weapon (CCW) application fees years ago to help them out.

“If you want a CCW and you are an SSO, you got one,” Nelson said. “If you don’t have one, I assume you don’t want one. That’s a you thing not a me thing.”

Nelson describes the SSO job as part of team of players who do different functions. If those officers want full peace officer status, then they need to become deputy sheriffs, Nelson argues.

“It’s not like you were promised something and somebody took it way,” he notes. “They knew what they were signing up for, it’s not the full peace officer job…it doesn’t come with the same amount of perks…that’s the nature of the beast…if you apply for a prison guard, you don’t have the same benefits as the FBI,” Nelson noted.

“We have different tiers of jobs,” Nelson added. “All of them are welcome to be peace officers…if they want to, they should.”

Nelson’s comments drew immediate fire from Orange County Employees Association General Manager Jennifer Muir Beuthin, who represents the SSO's, and argues the county has left them vulnerable.

“The [SSOs] applied and were hired and trained for peace officer jobs, performed those peace officer duties and continue to do so today while being told they’re no longer peace officers,” Beuthin said. “It’s the Sheriff and county’s responsibility to protect the safety of these brave men and women both on and off duty. Still, after more than four years, the Sheriff has failed to develop a solution that will protect her SSOs and meanwhile, every day their safety is in jeopardy.”

There’s also a deep-seated respect issue among the SSOs – who won’t talk on the record for fear of retaliation – because the county has changed the terms of the job they were hired to do without ensuring they and their families are protected.

Given that many SSOs can’t afford to live in Orange County, those who want a CCW would have to seek the permit from other counties – like Riverside. Using a CCW outside of the jurisdiction where you live can be much more restrictive in terms of when you are allowed to carry the weapon.

There are also other fees, they point out, such as from the U.S. Department of Justice, and many of the SSOs are worried about the personal liability that comes with a CCW. They would prefer to be issued one by their employer.

It’s unclear how many SSOs have applied for a CCW in Orange County.

Union leaders argue that they are unlikely to apply as they are waiting to see what happens with the lawsuit.

Their main point is that for the last 20 years, they all thought they were properly trained and entitled to wear a gun off-duty.

That was their deal.

Now, as many approach 50 years of age, they are being told the only way they can protect themselves and their families off duty is to go through the Sheriff’s academy and get a new job.

That’s not the deal they signed up for.

It’s likely a cheap budgetary trick that saves the county money by leaving them and their families feeling unsafe.

Yet that’s not the deal we as taxpayers signed up for either.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Jennifer Muir Beuthin's name. We regret the error.