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O.C. Deputy's Death a Costly Lesson on Safety

March 13, 1994|JODI WILGOREN and ANNA CEKOLA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

One Orange County sheriff's deputy was carrying an unauthorized weapon. A second used a loaded pistol during a training exercise. The officers pointed their guns at each other, in violation of the golden rule of safety that most children can recite. And the loaded pistol did not have its safety catch engaged.

The result was the police community's worst nightmare: one officer killed at the hands of another.

Even though the surviving officer, Deputy Brian P. Scanlan, was effectively cleared this week of criminal wrongdoing, dispelling a cloud that had hovered menacingly over the killing, the death of Deputy Darryn Leroy Robins will long linger in the collective memory of the county's police departments.

"This will be a topic of discussion at a lot of briefings, a lot of coffee stops and a lot of training sessions," Orange Police Chief John R. Robertson said the day after the Orange County Grand Jury rejected the recommendation of county prosecutors, and declined to indict Scanlan for involuntary manslaughter. "There are a lot of lessons to be learned here."

In the 2 1/2 months that have transpired since the fatal shooting--the first accidental death of a deputy during a training exercise in the 105-year history of the Sheriff's Department--several police agencies around the county have re-examined and re-emphasized their policies regarding firearms and field training.

And now, the Sheriff's Department itself is considering changing a rule that forbids deputies to carry backup weapons.

Sheriff Brad Gates said in an interview at week's end that the Scanlan-Robins shooting has brought tension to the department--and emotional upheaval to him personally--that is probably unparalleled in his 33-year career on the force.

"It's not been an easy roller-coaster ride for us here. We get somewhat healed, and then something else happens," said Gates, explaining that it has been especially difficult to cope with the shooting because he has received scant information on the district attorney's investigation.

"Questions are going to be there for the rest of our lives," Gates said.

"It's easier to be shot by a bad guy," the sheriff mused. In that situation, "you've given your life trying to accomplish something good, and you're shot in the line of that duty.

"This is a good person/good person tragedy. There is no bad guy," he said.

According to the first detailed account of the shooting, released by the Sheriff's Department on Thursday, Robins and Scanlan--longtime colleagues and buddies outside working hours--were re-enacting a traffic stop in a Lake Forest movie theater parking lot when Robins, mimicking a maneuver he had seen on the street, reached for a .25-caliber automatic he had concealed behind the sun visor of his car, and pointed it at Scanlan.

Startled, Scanlan--who was holding his loaded pistol and was resting his right arm on the patrol car's roof--stepped back reflexively and accidentally shot Robins in the face.

As Scanlan scurried forward to help his wounded colleague, Robins uttered his last word: "Hospital." Scanlan rushed him there, but Robins died.

In most Orange County police departments, officers are allowed to carry second or backup weapons. But they must be certified to handle them, have the approval of their supervisor to carry them and, generally, keep the weapons on them.

More and more officers have taken to carrying two weapons in recent years, police leaders around the county said.

"You go to a cocktail party and you listen to the people talk about carrying guns," said Ronald E. Lowenberg, Huntington Beach's police chief. "Unfortunately, I think, instead of moving away from the Old West, we're going back to a situation where people feel it's necessary to arm themselves. Maybe the police officers just feel it's necessary to carry additional firepower."

Irvine Detective Henry Boggs, president of that city's police union, agreed, calling a second weapon "mandatory in today's environment."

But backup weapons are against the rules in the Sheriff's Department, and carrying an unauthorized weapon in any department can be cause for serious discipline, various chiefs said.

Sheriff Gates said he was unsure whether Robins' second weapon was even loaded, and whether he was actually carrying the handgun as a backup, or had it in the car for some other reason.

Still, it appears to have cost him his life.

"I think (Scanlan) was just surprised and 'Boom!' I'm sure that (Scanlan) was shocked, and I'm sure that led to pulling the trigger," Robertson said. "We train our officers to react in a split second. If they don't, it may cost them their lives. Unfortunately, in this case, it cost somebody (else) a life."

Every veteran officer has haunting memories of close calls or tragic accidents.

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