Ventura County supervisors voted this week to allow the county's welfare investigators to carry guns on a job that they say has grown increasingly dangerous.
The Public Social Services Agency hopes to have the welfare officers armed in July, said agency Director James Isom after the board unanimously voted Tuesday to equip the county's 14 investigators with guns if they meet the agency's safety and proficiency requirements.
Supervisor Jim Dougherty said he supported the agency's request because of a public perception that welfare investigators are law-enforcement officials and because of the investigators' past experience as police officers.
Isom, who has supervised the county's welfare investigators for 14 years, said the request for side arms is nothing new, but several recent incidents involving investigators finally spurred his push for guns.
"I thought rather than wait until someone gets hurt or killed to give them a last-ditch chance for protection," Isom said.
The investigators, who try to track down suspected welfare cheats, say they have had some close scrapes. They have reported threats and assaults. One complained that he was nearly run down by a four-wheel-drive truck. Others report seeing weapons in the houses they enter for investigations.
"I don't want to categorize all welfare recipients as criminals," Isom said. "I don't know why, but there seems to be more criminal behavior than there was before. We're not talking necessarily about the recipients themselves, but some of the people who may associate with them."
Isom said the welfare investigators, 12 of whom are retired police officers, must pass rigid proficiency and safety tests and attend a course on the legal aspects of using deadly force before the agency will issue the weapons. The investigators will then be required to attend regular follow-up sessions, he said.
Pleased by Decision
Mike Skaggs, president of the Union of Peace Officer of Ventura County, which represents the welfare investigators, was elated by the decision. Skaggs, a welfare investigator himself, said that with only a radio for protection, investigators often feel unsafe on the job.
"We spend about seven hours a day in the field and contact a lot of people. A radio may not always be enough," he said.
Los Angeles welfare-fraud investigators working with the Department of Public Social Services do not carry guns, according to a department spokesman. But, he said, welfare investigators in the district attorney's office do carry guns and handle potentially more dangerous situations, such as serving search warrants to suspected violators.