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Missing Police Guns May Alter Tax Talk

Long Beach police say 50 of the 85 weapons have been found. But the flap may hurt efforts to raise the sales levy to expand the force, some say.

January 21, 2006|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

The news that Long Beach police were missing more than one-fourth of their shotguns broke at a particularly awkward time for the city. Long Beach is currently considering a half-cent sales tax increase to support public safety, and the department's admittedly weak oversight may, some said, give voters pause.

This week, the department said that it had found 50 of its 85 missing shotguns and that all had been discovered on police property. But that didn't stop people from questioning how the guns could have been lost in the first place.

"A month ago, I wasn't hearing anything but resignation that we probably need to tax ourselves to pay for more police officers," said Norm Ryan, a former member of the city's police advisory commission, who is running for City Council.

But in his door-to-door campaigning last weekend, he said, "I heard a lot of people saying they weren't going to pass a tax when the police can't keep track of what they have."

Steve James, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Assn., said the timing of the shotgun story was unfortunate, coming right as the city prepared to poll residents on whether they would support a sales-tax increase. But he said any money from such an increase would be used to pay for more officers, not for more equipment.

Police Chief Anthony Batts has said the department needs 300 more officers.

The proposed tax would raise about $23.75 million, the bulk of which would go to police hiring. The funds would allow the department to hire 100 new police officers, 30 more detectives and 20 people for its support staff, officials have said. The Fire Department would probably also benefit.

"There is absolutely zero correlation between needing more police officers and having 30 shotguns unaccounted for," James said.

Sgt. David Cannan, a police spokesman, also stressed that a tax increase would go toward added manpower for the department, which has 900 officers serving a city of 472,000. He said missing guns constituted a different story altogether.

"Not to be flip, but we haven't lost any people lately," Cannan said.

Councilman Val Lerch, who is chairman of the council's public safety committee, sent a memo to City Manager Jerry Miller on Thursday, asking for a report on the missing shotguns within 30 days.

Last week, The Times reported that an internal Police Department audit completed in December had been unable to account for 85 of the 272 department shotguns. The audit had been prompted by patrol officers' complaints that they couldn't find shotguns when they needed them. Most of the missing shotguns were more than 20 years old.

In announcing Thursday that 50 of the shotguns had been found, the department stressed that the firearms had always remained in safe hands.

They were, said spokeswoman Karen Owens, "exactly where we thought they'd be" -- within the department.

In one instance, she said, a shotgun had been inventoried with two digits in its serial number transposed. She said some other missing shotguns had been assigned to an honor guard unit, where they were locked up safely but overlooked during the count.

Other shotguns were in patrol cars that were out on the streets, and not searched, during various counts.

Around town, buzz about the department's lax housekeeping was beginning to die down after a week. In Belmont Shore on Friday morning, some residents said they hadn't heard about it. Others said it didn't bother them much. But some said they still couldn't quite get over it.

"I found it shocking they could lose so many weapons," said Beth Epstein, a freelance animated film coordinator from Long Beach, sitting on a stool at a 2nd Street coffeehouse.

Down the street at an espresso and gelato shop, barrista Jamal Delaney topped a latte with foamy milk and shook his head.

"It's insane.... I've heard a lot of talk around town about it. Mostly embarrassment," said Delaney, 23, as some customers nodded. "No other police department this big would lose track of that many weapons. They're probably not on the street, but how would they know?"

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