Blue Lake's gun arsenal called shocking
Until recently, the Blue Lake Police Department had a chief, a sergeant, two officers and 27 submachine guns.
It's the last part that is raising some eyebrows and some concerns.
The Feb. 8 arrest of Blue Lake Police Chief David Gundersen on charges of spousal rape, and the subsequent investigation, has shed a new light on one of Humboldt County's smallest police forces. And some information coming out of Gundersen's case file has some wondering what was going on in the department.
The Blue Lake mayor called the news “troublesome,” and the City Council is reviewing whether it needs a police department.
An investigation report by the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office in Gundersen's case file includes a list of firearms reportedly taken from the Blue Lake Police Department and, law enforcement experts say, the numbers are staggering.
Among the 46 weapons listed, 27 were submachine guns, according to the report.
Eureka Police Chief Garr Nielsen said EPD's SWAT team, which was disbanded last year, didn't have a single fully automatic weapon.
Nielsen also worked on a regional SWAT team in Oregon, which he said had five submachine guns for a team of 18 officers. The SWAT team for Portland -- a city roughly 500 times the size of Blue Lake -- had six submachine guns for its 20 officers, Nielsen said.
”They are specifically used for entry work, the guys going through the door,” Nielsen said of the weapons' use in tactical operations. “It's a close-quarter, when-you-have-to-throw-down-a-bunch-of-bullets-in-a-hurry kind of a weapon.”
Gregory Lee, a retired supervisory special agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and a former FBI Academy instructor, who now works as an expert witness on police procedures, said the numbers coming out of Blue Lake are shocking.
”You sure as hell don't need 27 machine guns for a department of four officers,” he said.
Reached Tuesday, Blue Lake City Manager Wiley Buck said the department acquired the submachine guns about a year ago, but had no intent to use them and didn't pay for them.
”We didn't purchase any of them,” Buck said. “They were free from other departments or free from companies. ... They were just sitting in boxes; we never used them.”
Buck said Gundersen acquired the guns with the intent of loaning them out to other local agencies. Buck said the department loaned two of the submachine guns to the Rio Dell Police Department in exchange for traffic monitoring devices.
Rio Dell Police Chief Graham Hill confirmed that his department did have two of Blue Lake's Colt AR-15s for a while, but returned them after Gundersen's arrest.
”Initially, we though we might have some kind of practical application for them, but we just determined they really wouldn't be useful for us,” Hill said, adding that the liability associated with the fully automatic weapons and the small size of his force prevented the department from ever using them.
Buck said nearly all of the submachine guns sat in a locker at the Blue Lake Police Department, but one was kept in Gundersen's patrol car.
Buck said the automatic weapons were acquired without the knowledge of the City Council.
”We didn't do a report on it or anything, the main reason being we didn't want to advertise we had all these in the office,” Buck said.
News that his police department had 27 submachine guns came as a shock to Blue Lake Mayor Sherman Schapiro.
”I'm surprised, and yeah, it's troublesome,” Schapiro said Tuesday. “I guess what I would tell you is everything I read in the paper (about this case) is pretty much new to me. It's the first I've seen of most of this, or actually pretty much all of this. ... We don't have SWAT out here. I don't know why they would have automatic weapons.”
Asked how the guns could be compiled without the City Council's knowledge, Schapiro said it is not the council's place to oversee the day-to-day operations of the police department.
”I doubt there are any city councils or governments that go down to see what police lockers contain,” Schapiro said. “You trust your chief to do the right thing.”
As to the practice of law enforcement agencies giving away automatic weapons to other agencies, as Buck said was the case with Blue Lake's arsenal, Lee said it's not that unusual.
”For them to be the recipient of these guns is not unusual,” Lee said, adding that departments will often give away old guns to make way for newer ones. “Again, the question is why would you need 27 of them?”
Lee said that question is all the more pressing in a four officer department in “Podunk” California.
Schapiro said the question of the 27 submachine guns, and a host of others that have appeared in the wake of Gundersen's arrest, have caused the city to rethink the future of its police force.
”We're in the process of reevaluating our police force,” Schapiro said, adding that the city is talking to its insurance carrier and weighing options, which may include permanently disbanding the force. The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office is currently responding to emergency law enforcement calls for the city.
Pressed about the department's idea of getting free automatic weapons and loaning them out to other agencies, Schapiro said he really didn't know much about it.
”Again, you hire your (city) manager and you hire your police chief, and you trust them to do their jobs,” he said.
Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard
Article Launched: 03/05/2008 01:30:40 AM PST