Add a gas mask and bulletproof vest to equipment needed to regulate alcohol sales

Published: Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 - 6:47 am

The agency that regulates California's alcohol sales through undercover stings at bars, restaurants and retailers has spent more than $70,000 outfitting its agents with gas masks and bulletproof helmets.

The state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control says the equipment is essential to keeping its sworn agents, who are law enforcement officers with all-encompassing authority, prepared for any circumstances they might encounter.

"We want to make sure that our agents have the protective equipment they need so they can go home at night," said Tim Gorsuch, the department's chief deputy director.

The nature of their work rarely puts the department's 132 officers in the line of fire. When it does, they nearly always call in local police.

"If you think about it, everything they do is in somebody else's jurisdiction," said former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness. "As a matter of protocol and professional courtesy, it's appropriate to call in local authorities. … You want the uniforms (police officers or sheriff's deputies) to go in first."

ABC's $55 million budget relies on licensing fees from about 115,000 California businesses that sell, import or manufacture alcohol. Any fines levied from agents' investigations go to the county government in which the offense occurs.

From July 1, 2010, to March 1, 2012, ABC agents made 3,834 arrests, many through undercover stings at the bars, stores and restaurants that are the focus of the department's efforts, according to ABC statistics.

Alcohol crimes – selling or giving alcoholic beverages to minors or underage customers purchasing alcoholic beverages – accounted for 2,866 of those arrests.

The remainder ran the gamut from narcotics sales, drunken driving and illegal slot machines to illicit firearms sales, prostitution and other crimes in and around businesses that sell alcohol.

ABC agents rarely find themselves in gunfights because, Gorsuch said, "our officers know when to engage and when to disengage."

The department doesn't have data on agent-involved shootings, but Gorsuch recalled five incidents in the last nine years.

"Since we don't track this information in a formal way, I can't tell you exactly how many (incidents) our agents have been associated with while working with allied law enforcement agencies," Gorsuch said in an email.

Purchase records obtained by The Bee through a Public Records Act request show that the department ordered 170 ballistic helmets from Los Angeles-based Botach Tactical in October 2011 for a total $46,693.46 and received them the following month.

On June 26 of this year, the department tapped DirectGov Source, a Chico manufacturer of safety and medical equipment, for 103 gas masks received in early August. Total cost: $25,520.43.

Letters from ABC to the Department of General Services defended the purchases as "vital and mission critical to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control."

Before buying its own helmets and gas masks, ABC used to borrow the equipment from other agencies when working higher-risk assignments as part of drug task forces supplementing local law enforcement crowd-control efforts as a show of force.

Gorsuch said the department doesn't keep track of how many times ABC agents have taken on those duties.

The equipment issued to alcohol investigators in other states varies depending on politics and the scope of their work.

Special agents with Florida's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, for example, are sworn public safety officers. Like their California counterparts, they have statewide law enforcement jurisdiction.

"Our special agents are equipped with standard law enforcement equipment including firearms, bullet-resistant body armor, impact weapons and chemical spray," said spokeswoman Sandi Copes.

Florida doesn't issue headgear for those agents, but they get gas masks as part of a statewide policy enacted after 9/11.

On the other end of the spectrum, alcohol regulators in New York aren't police officers. They don't make arrests, so they don't receive the equipment, pay and benefits that go with the designation.

California confers public safety status on a wide array of state employees, from insurance auditors to dairy inspectors, but equips them differently.

State hospital police officers can't carry firearms on facility grounds by order of the director of state hospitals. Gov. Jerry Brown in September vetoed a bill intended to change that policy. The police union, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, has lobbied State Hospitals Director Cliff Allenby to loosen his gun ban.

Auditors and attorneys working for the state prison system's inspector general used to be sworn peace officers who carried guns and drove law-enforcement vehicles.

A 2010 Senate report blasted the arrangement as a perversion of its original intent to create a small group of skilled investigators and attorneys who would be "the cops' cops" who would ferret out deeply embedded abuses in the prison system, said Inspector General Bob Barton.

Not long after the report, then-Inspector General David Shaw resigned. The Legislature withdrew the peace officer status of the auditors and attorneys, and the department sold off its surplus equipment.

Barton, who replaced Shaw last year, said those changes made sense because the more dangerous aspects of the investigators' job no longer exist.

"We're still able to do all the work we're required to do," Barton said. "And if we do need help, we can always go to outside agencies."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jon Ortiz

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