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State criticizes police firing range in Redondo Beach

Investigators found 800 hazardous lead bullet fragments in the neighborhood and on a nearby schoolyard.

August 06, 2009|Jeff Gottlieb

Portraying law enforcers as lawbreakers, the state toxic substances enforcement agency has found that the Redondo Beach Police Department violated state codes after at least 800 hazardous lead bullet fragments from its outdoor firing range were found in the surrounding neighborhood, including an elementary school across the street.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control report, dated Oct. 30, said the Police Department broke health and safety codes that regulate the storage and disposal of hazardous waste. The report also said that police repeatedly refused to provide range maintenance records to the agency, also a violation.

The report, obtained by The Times through a public records request, showed that department officials were quick to deny that there was a problem. When state investigators told range administrator Lt. Joe Hoffman that they had received complaints from nearby residents of ricochets flying into their neighborhood, he said, "It is ballistically impossible for bullets to leave the range."

In the report, Hoffman said neighbors who complained about the range "could go pound sand."

The state agency gave its report to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office for possible prosecution or filing of a civil suit. It also has notified the city of the violations.

Nine months after the report was completed, the district attorney's office is still reviewing the case, spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control referred questions to the district attorney.

Hoffman and the Police Department's then-lawyer, Carmen Trutanich, who has since been elected Los Angeles city attorney, blamed the widespread lead fragments on the nearby residents, who they allege had broken into the range and planted them in the neighborhood.

When asked why those people weren't being prosecuted, Redondo Beach City Atty. Michael Webb said there wasn't enough evidence to prove that allegation "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Webb said he was limited in his comments because of potential litigation. "We're still working with DTSC and the D.A.'s office to see if we can come to an appropriate resolution of this matter," he said.

He denied that the city had refused to provide documents and said state investigators had misinterpreted the law.

Harry Stuver, founder of Concerned Residents Against Pistol Range Redondo, called the city's explanation "borderline slander. To me it's all ludicrous. There's nobody planting lead."

He also criticized the district attorney. "Why don't they prosecute? What's taking so long?" he asked. After receiving complaints from neighbors, state investigators first visited the range on April 15, 2008, and the Police Department closed it that day. The range reopened about three months later with officers using ammunition that disintegrates when it hits the target. The new bullets, however, present another set of concerns, according to the report. Regulators worried that potentially toxic copper dust could spread from the range.

Sgt. Mike Clifton, the range master, told investigators that a private firm had maintained the range and picked up the lead there within the last two years. But the firm's president told investigators that they "never actually performed any maintenance or service for the range at any time," according to the report.

In addition, John Rives, a former Los Angeles police officer, certified firearms instructor and range master, consulted with investigators and told them that the 62-year-old facility is "the worst designed range I've seen in 20 years . . . totally unacceptable in a residential neighborhood with the close proximity of schools, and parks, and a likely possibility of a round from the range hitting an innocent civilian in the immediate vicinity."

The report did not say whether anyone had ever been injured by a fragment.

The range, built in 1947, before the neighborhood was built out, is located where Redondo Beach and Torrance are divided by Beryl Street. The range is on the north side of the street. Across Beryl is Towers Elementary School and a residential neighborhood in Torrance. A park is on the other side of the range.

Redondo Beach police officials told the state toxic substances control agency that they did not enclose the range because the $100,000 cost was prohibitive.

State investigators found most of the 800 fragments at nearby Towers Elementary, according to the report. "The primary health concern with the lead fragments would be the potential ingestion of the fragments by small children," the e-mail said.

After investigators found elevated levels of lead in the kindergarten sandbox, the school replaced the sand, completing the job the day before classes began in September. Besides cleaning the sandbox, the field was vacuumed and the rooftops and rain gutters were cleaned.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities in children, behavioral problems and, at high levels, seizures, coma and death.

Neighbors had complained to officials in Redondo Beach and Torrance about finding bullet fragments for more than a decade but had received little response until the state stepped in.

Redondo Beach Police Chief Joseph Leonardi said he didn't know of the complaints before April 2008, when the investigators arrived.

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jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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