It was three o’clock in the morning, and San Diego Police Officer Dan Hawkins, a young cop just two months out of the training academy. was working the graveyard shift, alone. Earlier that night, over on Grape Street, two police officers had been killed and a third wounded while making an arrest of minors drinking in Balboa Park. The suspect in that shooting, a young Latino who had a prior arrest record for gun charges, hadn't been found yet, and on his radio Hawkins could hear the search developing.
But where he was, parked at a Mobil station on the corner of West Point Loma and Sunset Cliffs, everything was quiet, and Hawkins was using the time to. fill out an incident report. “Just then,” Hawkins recalls, “this red Mustang GT came around the corner right in front of me, screeching a little tire, doing a little fishtail. I looked up and said to myself, 'Naw, I gotta finish this report. Better let him go.' Well, the guy went down the street about 150 yards, slammed on his brakes, did a U-turn, and came back! Yeah! Like he was trying to bait me or something. I said to myself, ‘He’s gotta be a deuce. Gotta be sick or something. I better check it out.’ ” Hawkins went after the Mustang, expecting a chase, but to his surprise, as soon as he turned on his overhead lights, the car immediately pulled over. “I said, ‘Damn! What’s up?’ ” Hawkins got out of his car and approached the Mustang cautiously, then stopped and watched through the rear window for a while. “There were two guys inside, both of them navy — your typical conservative white guys.
But something about them didn't seem right. Your average person would have been looking around, wondering where’s that damn cop and why doesn’t he just write me a ticket so I can get out of here. But these two guys were just sitting there, stiff as boards, looking straight ahead,” Hawkins says. He turned down his handy-talky so they couldn't hear it, waited maybe another sixty seconds, then crept up on the passenger side, watching carefully through the side windows.
‘‘Finally the driver got nervous and started looking around. As he turned I could see on his lap, in his right hand, he had a gun — a .380 automatic — pointed into the door and covered with his left hand, so if I’d come up on his side all he had to do was lift the gun, pull the trigger, and he’d be popping caps. I drew down on the guy and probably would’ve shot him, except that when I said, ‘Stop! Don’t move!’ he dropped the gun to the floor.”
Hawkins kept the two sailors sitting there at gunpoint while he called for a cover unit to assist with the arrest. There were so many units tied up at the Grape Street shooting that it took a long time for help to arrive.
Back at the substation the two sailors were put in a holding room, and their conversation was monitored from another room. ‘‘Man, I didn’t know what to do with the gun!” the driver said.
‘‘You should have gone ahead and shot him,” the passenger replied.
Hawkins never found out why they were desperate enough to want to kill him. Still, he believes, “If I’d approached them as just two drunk sailors, with maybe a 502 or something. I’d probably be dead now.” Hawkins heard later that the driver plea-bargained to a misdemeanor charge of possession of a loaded firearm, and the passenger got off with no charges whatsoever. ‘‘That just blew me away,” Hawkins says bitterly. His life had been threatened for no apparent reason, and a potential cop-killer was back on the street. Now the young rookie knows what most San Diego police officers know: taking guns away from people who are willing and ready to use them is a routine part of the job, and because of the constitutional protection of the right to bear arms, most of the time the charges against the gun-toters don’t even amount to a felony.
In the back corner of the dilapidated police headquarters on Market Street, across the hall from the abandoned old jail, is a door with a sign on it that reads “Gun Desk.” Sean Donovan, a fortyish cop, sits in that drab, dimly lit room forty hours a week and does just one job: he receives, tags, and stores the 2250 guns San Diego police officers confiscate from the citizens of this city every year. In a nearby property room, where Donovan stores the guns, one entire wall is taken up with neatly tagged rifles and shotguns. They include expensive Italian-made fowling pieces, sawed-off shotguns with crudely filed barrels and hacked-off stocks, and the almost toy like terrorist’s delight — the Uzi submachine gun. There are shelves holding hundreds of wire bins, each bin containing five or six handguns. They include guns nearly identical to the standard police-issue .38 revolvers, cheap Brazilian automatics, ancient single-shot pistols, and .44 Magnums that could stop a grizzly bear. Donovan tries to put some order to this mass of killing tools by putting each handgun in a manila envelope and labeling it according to the category of crime it was used to commit — crimes against persons, crimes against property, victimless crimes, and so on. Then he quietly slashes through all the categories by saying, almost in a whisper, “What it all comes down to is, there are just too many guns out there. There are more guns in this country than people.”
Every gun in that room has a story to go with it, each carefully recorded on an incident report in standard police jargon and filed away in one of the olive-green file cabinets behind Donovan’s desk. Some of the stories made headlines — robberies, suicides, mass killings, cop shootings — but most of them are just stuck away in the file and never thought of again. Since there are so many of them, and since most of them ended without tragedy, they are far too routine for the media or anybody else to notice. They’re just another story of another young cop taking another gun away.
A few weeks after Hawkins’s encounter with the .380 automatic, he picked up two intoxicated sailors on their first liberty. They seemed harmless, so rather than running them in, he decided to drop them off back at the Naval Training Center on Rosecrans. As he was entering the gates to the NTC, he noticed a Cordoba parked on the street out front, with two neatly dressed black guys sitting inside. There had recently been a series of brutal armed robberies of young sailors outside the NTC. The robbers used a woman to lure the sailors into the dark, where the thugs took their newly cashed paychecks at the point of a sawed-off shotgun, then clubbed the sailors into unconsciousness with the barrel of the gun. The description of the robbers. Hawkins recalled, was two clean-cut black guys.
“When I came back out of the NTC,” Hawkins says, “the Cordoba was still parked there. But when they saw me go by, they cranked up and took off. I needed some kind of excuse to stop them — and lo and behold, they had a tail light out.”
The driver of the Cordoba, Hawkins discovered, didn’t have a driver’s license, so Hawkins asked him to step out of the car. “Just then this chick jumped up out of the back seat, like she’d been hiding there! I hadn’t even seen her at first. I flashed my light in the back to check her out and saw a gym bag on the floor with some kind of steel object sticking out of it.”
Hawkins took the driver back to his patrol car, put him inside, and stalled until a cover unit arrived. When they searched the car, they found a sawed-off shotgun in the gym bag.
“After that,” Hawkins says, “nobody in western division wanted to work with me anymore. They said I was a magnet for guns. But I work in Logan Heights now, and confiscating guns and knives is almost a daily thing here.”
San Diego is a cop-killing town. Since 1977 ten police officers have been shot and killed here — three in the last year. By percentage of members on the force, a cop in San Diego is ten times more likely to be killed than a cop in Chicago. Of fifty-one large cities in the U.S., San Diego has the highest police mortality rate. Every time a police officer in San Diego responds to a call, those statistics are in the back of his or her mind.
Jerry Kramer has been a cop for about six years and has spent all of it in the tough Southeast division, an area he has grown fond of for reasons only a cop could understand. “There’s always something going on here,” he says. “I’d go crazy up in Penasquitos writing parking tickets all day.”
One night about six months ago, Kramer was slowly cruising along Thirty-fifth Street near Ocean View Boulevard. It was 1:30 in the morning. dark and quiet. All of a sudden in his headlights he saw a guy standing in the middle of the street holding a machine gun in his hands. “I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I said to myself, ‘Oh, shit! What do I do now?’ ” Like most cops who work the graveyard shift alone. Kramer has a habit of talking to himself.
Kramer stopped his car, called for a cover unit, and then, “out of the corner of my eye I saw another guy walking towards me. and he had a gun! — a .357 Magnum.” Quickly Kramer got out of his car, drew his gun, took cover behind his door, and called out, “Drop the guns!”
Kramer is a big man — six foot four and 220 pounds — with a deep, authoritative voice, which he knows how to use to his advantage. “Too many of these young guys coming out of the academy don't know how to tell somebody, “Put your fucking hands up!’ ” he says. “You can’t tell somebody with a gun, ‘Would you please put your hands up?’ ”
Even so, the guy with the machine gun looked at Kramer as though Kramer were being unreasonable. “No way, man. This is an expensive gun. I’m not gonna drop it on the street.” “Unless you wanna get shot, you're gonna drop it,” Kramer answered.
The guy dropped the machine gun, his buddy dropped the .357 Magnum, and Kramer kept them both standing there until his cover unit arrived. It took a while. “There’s so many rookies in this department, when the dispatcher sends them out on a call, the first thing they have to do is look at their map to find out where they’re at,” Kramer says.
After his cover unit arrived, Kramer listened to the gunmen’s story. “The guy had pulled up to his buddy’s house and ran inside, leaving his engine running and his girlfriend asleep in the back scat,” Kramer says. “While he was inside, a couple of young kids came along and stole the car, with the girl still in back. He was all pissed off about it, so he took his buddy’s machine gun and was going down to the corner of Ocean View and Milbrae, where all the little gangsters hang out, to take care of some business on his own. His buddy was going along to cover him. I guess 1 cut them off before they had a chance.”
Kramer says he’s never surprised anymore by the number of people who carry guns. “My wife is a police officer, too,” he says. “One night up on Market Street she saw this guy lying on the sidewalk, having a heart attack. She called the paramedics and performed CPR. When I showed up, I said, ‘Oh, that’s Reverend So-and-so. He’s got a church not too far from here.’ Anyway, the guy died at the hospital, but when they took his pants off they found the reverend was carrying a loaded .38 in his pocket.”
About a year ago Kramer and his partner got a call on C Street. A woman had pulled a gun on her neighbor and said, “If you don’t get your dog out of my yard. I’m going to shoot it.” Kramer remembers that the woman was about fifty. “She told us she used to have a gun, but somebody had broken into her house and stolen it. Then she copped a real bad attitude and wouldn’t talk to us anymore. But we knew something wasn’t right.”
As they were leaving, Kramer and his partner saw the woman’s husband run around the side of the house and start pulling up some marijuana plants. They arrested him for cultivation of marijuana and used that to try to get a consent warrant to search the house. But the man and woman refused to sign the warrant. “Then we tried to get a telephonic warrant from the judge, but that seemed to be taking forever,” Kramer says. “Finally the lady agreed to sign a consent search form, so we started looking around. First we found a loaded sawed-off shotgun under the sofa. Then, in her purse, right next to where she’d been sitting, we found a loaded .38 revolver. In her thirteen-year-old son’s room we founded a nine-millimeter Beretta. She said, ‘That’s his gun. He bought it himself.
You can’t get me for that one.’ Altogether we found something like twenty guns in that house, almost all of them stolen. She said she’d picked them up at swap meets, which we know isn’t true. She also had an IBM typewriter stolen from the city schools, and a few more stolen goods. We charged them with possession of stolen property, but they never did any time, and I know for a fact they’re still buying stolen goods.”
A lot of the guns confiscated by police officers turn out to be stolen, and as an example of how they find their way onto the street, Kramer tells this story: “There were a bunch of dirt-bag bikers living in a dope house in Encanto. A lady in a neighborhood watch group complained that there was a lot of activity all through the night, she’d heard a few gunshots, and thought there was some dope dealing going on. So we kept an eye on the place and stopped a few people coming out of there. It seemed like everyone we stopped had warrants out for their arrest, was in possession of crystal meth, and had a gun. One night we stopped a guy in a stolen truck who had something like five rifles stolen from Florida. So we took him down to the substation and started putting the screws to him. He said. ‘This ain’t shit. I can come up with a whole lot more guns if you want ’em.’ He gave us some info about a camper that was parked at a hotel out in El Cajon. I called the El Cajon P.D.. and they watched the camper all night. Next morning two people got in the camper and drove off. The El Cajon P.D. stopped them for a bad taillight and found both the driver and passenger had concealed weapons and were convicted felons. In the back they found something like thirty-five rifles and handguns that had been stolen all over the country. They were like traveling salesmen, only they dealt in stolen guns.”
Some officers have a reputation for confiscating weapons. Usually they're a little more experienced, work in bad neighborhoods, and rather than passively waiting for radio calls to direct them to crimes, aggressively seek out informants on the street. One officer like that is Ward Rickman, who works in the Logan Heights area. After only three years on the job, he speaks with the weariness of a combat veteran. “One night me and my partner were patrolling near Twenty-second and K Street — a known heroin dealing area. We saw this guy coming out of an abandoned house where hypes go to buy balloons and get their daily fix. The guy was obviously loaded, so I got out of the car and ran after him. As I came up behind him, he started reaching for his waistband. I caught him, and he looked over his shoulder at me but never turned completely around. Then he extended his arm all the way out, wheeled around, and pressed his hand into my side. I saw something shiny flash in the light, and I thought he was trying to shank [stab] me. so I hit him in the back of the head. I dinged him and he went down. In his hand he had a .32 revolver — a chrome-plated Brazilian thing. I guess he would have shot me. except he was too stoned to do it right.”
The junkie had several felony warrants for burglary, prior arrests for escape, and the gun was stolen. He was charged with, and admitted to, possession of a loaded gun, but as for attempted murder, Rickman says, ‘‘He never pulled the trigger, so we weren’t able to get him on that.” Rickman says his experiences on the street have made him cautious in a way the public sometimes can’t understand. ‘‘I cannot tolerate people approaching me with their hands in their pockets,” he says. ‘‘There are too many small guns out there and too many crazy people willing to use them. So I ask them, ‘Please take your hands out of your pockets.’ If they don’t do it, I get rude. There’s no other way to do it. Getting along with the public is part of my job, but getting shot at shouldn't be. I want people to understand I’m just an ordinary guy from San Diego. I go to work every day, just like they do. The only difference is that I have to wear a bulletproof vest because there’s somebody out there who wants to kill me.”
On the day of the Horton Plaza shopping center opening, Rickman’s occasional partner. Officer Robert Kanaski, was stopped at a light on the corner of First and Broadway, when a Monte Carlo pulled up beside him with a Hispanic male in his early thirties inside. Kanaski could see and smell that the man was smoking a joint. It wasn't the most heinous crime Kanaski had seen in his five years as a cop, but the city was trying to make the downtown area presentable for the opening of Horton Plaza, and if winos were being told not to drink in public, why not a man smoking a joint?
Kanaski pulled the man over, got out of his car, walked up behind the man’s window, and asked him to step out. ‘‘He seemed like a happy-go-lucky guy — not a gang type or anything.” Kanaski says. ‘‘I tried to talk to him, but he didn't speak English, and I don't speak Spanish. As near as I could tell, he was a Mexican national, his family was shopping at Horton Plaza, and he was just cruising around. I always do a pat-down search when I make an arrest, but smoking marijuana is just a ticketable offense — not really something you’d put somebody in handcuffs for. But while I was talking to him, he kept trying to get into his pants pocket. I stopped him from doing that about six times, and when he tried a seventh time, when I could see he wasn’t following directions, I pushed him up against the car, felt the outside of his pocket, and saw there was something hard inside. It turned out to be a .22 derringer.”
Although Kanaski has no way of knowing for sure, he can only assume the man was trying to get the gun out to shoot him. “I arrested him for possession of a gun without a license and possession of a loaded firearm — both misdemeanors in the State of California. We took the guy to jail, but he was probably out that afternoon because the jail usually doesn’t keep misdemeanor offenses.” Otherwise a very personable fellow, on the job Kanaski has learned to become wary of everyone, even kids. ‘‘My first year on duty we got a call about a person in possession of a gun at the church near Nineteenth and Market. There was a dance for teenagers who lived in that area. When we arrived, there was a group of young people standing out front, and one of them fit the description we’d been given of the guy with the gun — a fourteen-year-old. So my partner and I stopped him. When I started doing a pat-down search, he tried to hand a gun off to his girlfriend, but he didn’t get a chance. He took off running, and I went chasing after him. He went around the corner of a house, and when I came around, there he was, standing there facing me with his gun in his hand. I think he was surprised to see how fast I got my gun out and hit the ground. I couldn’t believe it myself. I told him, ‘Drop the gun or you’re dead.’ And he did.”
Like many other cops, Kanaski says his concern for his safety has put some distance between him and the public. “Sometimes the typical law-abiding citizen doesn’t understand — or maybe doesn’t want to understand — why we had to slam somebody against the side of a car, fight with them, or even direct a gun at them. But there’s one thing I promised myself when I took this job, and that’s that I’ll go home at the end of the day. I'll take the complaints, and I'll take the time off if the department wants to give it to me. But at least I’ll be alive.”
Gene Loucks is another officer who seems to be a magnet for guns — he’s confiscated five in the last three months. “It goes in spurts” he says. “I’ll see five or six in three days, then not see another one for a month.”
One day Loucks and his partner got a call of a child abuse case in North Park. A six-year-old boy had shown up at school with burn blisters on his fingers. The boy had tried to hide the burns by keeping his hands in his pockets all day, but eventually the teacher became suspicious, saw the burns, and called the police. Loucks and his partner went to the boy’s home to see what was going on.
“The house was very neat, the boy and his older brother were very polite, the man and woman were very open and honest and acted as though they had been expecting us,” Loucks says. “The man of the house was not the father, in fact the kids didn’t even know his real name, just called him by his nickname. But the woman was very protective of him.”
The boy explained to Loucks that the man kept a loaded handgun on top of the refrigerator and that he and his brother got up there several times a day to make themselves sandwiches and other snacks. Before school that day, the boy and his brother had gotten the gun down and were fighting over it when it went off. The burns on his hands were gunpowder burns.
Naturally, Loucks wondered why the man kept a loaded gun out in the open — and evidence of child abuse was reason enough to justify a search of the house. “We found the handgun [a .38 revolver], plus a loaded Uzi,” Loucks says. “Meanwhile, there were several phone calls from people wanting to buy drugs. I answered the phone and took their orders while we continued searching. In the crawl space under the house we found four pounds of sinsemilla marijuana all packaged into one-ounce bags. As it turned out, the guy was an ex-con — a four-time loser — who had recently been convicted on a drug-dealing charge and was waiting for a bed in prison so he could serve his sentence. The woman had met this guy at a bar, he’d turned her on to coke, one thing led to another, and before long he was running his drug business out of her house. The guns were obviously there to protect the business, and no effort whatsoever was made to keep them away from the kids. I arrested the guy, but he posted $30,000 cash bail — apparently he had his money stashed somewhere else — and now he’s skipped out. I'd sure like to find him.”
One night about eight months ago, Loucks responded to a call of a man carrying a gun near the Lafayette Motel, on El Cajon Boulevard in North Park. He stopped a man in front of the motel who matched the description and found he was carrying a bag full of drugs and wallets he’d stolen from Scripps Hospital — but no gun. Loucks arrested the man and put him in his patrol car. Meanwhile, in back of the motel, another officer who had responded to the same call was questioning three men, and Loucks went to act as his cover officer. “He asked them for identification, and they reached for their wallets,” Loucks says. “One of the guys. I noticed, was keeping his side turned away. He had a sport jacket on. and as he went for his wallet, from my angle I could see him reaching under the jacket higher than where his wallet would be” Loucks had one second to make several decisions: Did the man have a gun? If Loucks drew his own gun but didn’t fire, would that be enough to stop the man? If Loucks drew and fired, would he be killing an unarmed man? Nobody can make those kinds of decisions in a second. Acting on instinct, Loucks tackled the man and controlled his arms, while the other officer restrained the other two men. In the man’s hand Loucks found a .380 automatic.
Loucks has more gun stories than he cares to remember, and the subject seems to make him tired and angry. “The public has to understand the impossible situation we’re in,” he says. “There’s millions of guns out there and plenty of people willing to use them. The laws protect the criminals in such a way that we’re constantly risking our own safety to protect theirs. Besides that, we’re constantly arresting the same guys, and sometimes impounding the same guns, over and over.”
Family disputes and threatened suicides where a gun is present are two of the most common situations police respond to — and they can also be the most dangerous. “A lot of people w ho want to commit suicide will shoot anyone who gets near," Loucks says. “I can think of three like that I've been called to in the last year. I went twice to the same house in Bay Park. A man was despondent, said he wanted to kill himself, and if anybody came near him — especially a police officer — he would kill them. We went to the house, surrounded it, then heard several shots go off. In a suicide. that usually means the individual has given up — has killed himself. In this case, it did not mean that at all. He wanted to die, all right, but he wanted to take someone else with him. We waited two hours and didn't hear anything. When the SWAT team went in, they found the man had barricaded himself so that when anybody came in that front door, he would have a direct shot at him. They were able to take the man without injury, he went to the County Mental Health hospital, and a year later he was putting out the same information about wanting to kill a cop.”
In situations where no arrests are made, as in the case of family disputes, police only have the authority to keep impounded guns for a thirty-day cooling-off period. If charges are filed, the guns are held as evidence, but if there is no conviction, the guns are released back to their owners. Some people never go down to police headquarters to reclaim their guns, deciding they’re better off without them. Other times people not only reclaim their weapons but use them again to jeopardize officers’ lives.
“There was this nutso guy living on Landis Street,” Officer Mike Schaldach says. “He was about sixty years old and a stoned alcoholic. My partner, Ted Kasinak, remembered him from six or eight years ago when he pulled a gun and threatened to kill a kid who'd come to his door asking him if he wanted to subscribe to the Tribune. Kasinak arrested him that time and impounded all his guns. Anyway, he got them all out again, and about seven months ago we were in that neighborhood investigating a burglary, when we saw him drive into his driveway. He was plastered drunk, so we decided we’d go have a talk with him. The whole time we were talking to him he was fidgeting with his waistband, pulling his sweater down, then hiking it back up. Kasinak said to him, ‘What are you doing? You don't have a gun on you right now, do you?’ Just then the guy pulled a gun out of his waistband. We jumped him — Kasinak had hold of his hands, and I had him around the neck in a sleeper hold. In another second he would have tried to shoot us. I'm sure. After the wrestling match was over, we went in his house and took three more handguns.”
Sometimes the police impound guns from citizens who naively believe they are using the weapons to help fight crime. “I was working the graveyard shift, alone,” Schaldach says, “when I pulled this guy over on a traffic stop on El Cajon Boulevard, near Bob’s Big Boy. He was driving an older Dodge, kind of like the cars the Highway Patrol used to have, and he had an amber light in the back, like a cop car. What alerted me to him was that we’d been getting reports from hookers on the boulevard saying two guys had been going around identifying themselves as vice cops and saying they would arrest the hookers if they didn’t get sexual favors. After I stopped this guy, I didn’t feel like he had anything to do with those incidents, but something about him didn't seem right. Besides the amber light, which he said he used to assist motorists, he was carrying handcuffs and had some kind of security officer’s badge. He told me he thought of himself as a modern-day vigilante, and if he sees something illegal happening he tries to do something about it. He was a ‘wanna-be’ cop. So I figured if he was dumb enough to carry all this stuff, maybe he was dumb enough to carry a gun, too. I asked him about it, he said, ‘Sure,’ and pulled a .32 automatic out of his waistband. I took the gun and arrested him. Once he had the handcuffs on, he was as happy as he could be, like he’d been through it all before and really enjoyed it.”
Downtown at the gun impound desk, Sean Donovan watches the guns pile up at the rate of five or six per day. His racks are already filled ceiling-high with weapons, but if Donovan is alarmed by this growing evidence of a world gone mad, he doesn’t show it. His biggest concern, Donovan says, is that “the guns are coming in faster than I can get rid of them. They’re piling up on me.”
Until recently the department had three options for those impounded guns that were not to be returned to their owners. First, the serviceable guns of good quality could be issued to a police officer, thereby saving the city the cost of purchasing new weapons (very few guns fit into this category). A second choice was that the cheap Saturday-night specials, the sawed-off shotguns, the semiautomatic rifles that had been converted into automatics — in short, all the crude and ugly instruments of terror that are so easily available to the lunatics, sadists, and murderers in this society — were destroyed. The third option was that the high-quality hunting rifles and shotguns, the antiques, and the collector’s items (as well as a surprising number of handguns) were sold at auction to licensed gun dealers, netting the city approximately $35,000 per year.
But on September 20 the new city manager, Sylvester Murray, announced that there would be no more auctions of impounded guns. This decision came at the request of Police Chief Bill Kolender, who had become increasingly concerned about the proliferation of weapons on the streets of San Diego and the problems his officers were having in dealing with them. It simply made no sense to confiscate the same guns over and over.
Sean Donovan, like most officers, is pleased with this decision. Now there are only two options for the guns that come across his desk. Any serviceable weapons can still be issued to police officers. “And for the others,” Donovan says, “we have what we call the float test. We take them a couple miles out in the great Pacific Ocean and dump them overboard. All those that float, we bring back.”