When a gunman opened fire in Fresno County Jail’s lobby eight months ago, the perils of unarmed corrections officers became all too real for Sheriff Margaret Mims.
Within days, she was pushing a plan to more quickly arm lobby officers, but that plan has stalled. Mims also wants “peace officer” status for corrections officers through a state legislative process.
The new status would allow corrections officers to carry firearms in parts of the jail where they are currently banned. It would also offer corrections officers access to benefits that would help their families should they get killed or injured on the job – benefits available now to only patrol deputies.
But patrol deputies oppose the idea, saying it could jeopardize some of their positions and cost the county more.
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On Sept. 3, 2016, Juanita Davila and Toamalama Scanlan were shot in the head and neck when they tried to calm an agitated man in the jail lobby. Scanlan is in a rehabilitation hospital in Texas. Davila is home and continues her recovery. Neither has returned to work, and it is doubtful they will ever return. Neither was armed the day of the attack. The suspect, Thong Vang, 37, remains in Fresno County Jail awaiting trial.
Mims said Vang wouldn’t have fired as many shots at the corrections officers if they had been armed. The shooting also presented a danger to people in the lobby at the time, some of them children.
Had we been able to arm our lobby officers, they would have more readily been able to return fire.
Margaret Mims, Fresno County sheriff
“Had we been able to arm our lobby officers, they would have more readily been able to return fire,” Mims said. “You can’t predict that it wouldn’t have happened, but it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did.”
To respond to the shooter last year, jail staff had to scramble to a gun safe, unlock it and retrieve a firearm to match Vang’s firepower. By then, deputies and Fresno police had arrived to help gain control of the scene.
Jail officials have since upgraded security and correctional officers get more training. Gun lockers were added in lobbies and throughout the jail so correctional officers can get firearms more quickly during emergencies. Hours for the public to enter the jail lobby were cut, too.
Corrections officers in about 30 of California’s 58 counties have “peace officer” status, Mims said. Nearby counties with that status for corrections officers include Kings, Tulare, Mariposa, Tuolumne and Kern.
“Peace officer” status requires approval of county supervisors and state legislators. Other legislation that has passed locally on behalf of correctional officers was crafted to avoid interference with patrol deputies. But without the support of Fresno County’s patrol deputies, the change won’t occur, Mims said.
“If they (correctional staff) were peace officers, I could decide which positions could be armed and which aren’t,” Mims said.
Families of peace officers are eligible for benefits through state and federal programs if they are killed in the line of duty. They have a value of about $350,000. The benefits, Mims said, could extend to those who are seriously disabled on the job.
“These benefits cost law enforcement agencies nothing, and families receive vital monetary relief should …tragedy occur,” Mims wrote in a letter to the Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association.
Mims said she has supported arming corrections officers for years, but she isn’t going to push the plan without support of the deputy sheriff’s union and county supervisors.
In the letter, Mims said she knows patrol deputies are worried about being replaced by lower cost corrections officers, but that isn’t envisioned.
The county budget has 375 positions for patrol deputies with an average salary of just over $70,760. There are 475 corrections officers . Their average salaries are of $53,771.
“I wanted to put it in writing, that the correctional officers wouldn’t work in the courts as bailiffs or as patrol deputies,” Mims said. “I have no intention of replacing deputies with corrections officers.”
Eric Schmidt, Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association president, said he believes Mims.
“But she’s not going to be sheriff forever,” he said. “The next person may not feel the same way.”
She’s not going to be sheriff forever. The next person may not feel the same way.
Eric Schmidt, Fresno Deputy Sheriffs’ Association president
That distinction between patrol deputies and corrections officers first dates back to 1973 in Fresno County, the year the Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association was born, said Tom Gattie, the assistant sheriff overseeing jail operations.
To save money, the change ended up with patrol deputies and correctional officers having distinctive duties and salaries.
“I wish I could find a way for the Deputy Sheriff’s Association to support the correctional officers get peace officer benefits,” Gattie said. “I don’t think it will cost the department money and I think it could save money… but if (FDSA) doesn’t support it, it won’t go anywhere.”
Gattie said the language will speak only to jail operations. “They can’t drive a patrol car, they can’t go to a murder scene; the nexus has to be to jail operations. In this case, they would have very limited capabilities.”
Because Scanlan and Davila aren’t “peace officers,” their status for benefits through the same fund that helps peace officers and their families is unclear, Gattie said.
“We’ve never had this happen on a non-peace officer basis,” Gattie said. “It’s not clear they would qualify. If they were peace officers, I don’t think there would be any doubt.”
Besides money, families qualify for other benefits, such as free education at state universities and Hastings College of Law, Gattie said.
Getting correctional officers peace officer status “is the right thing to do,” he said. “After the circumstances that occurred in September, I don’t know why you couldn’t support them.”
County officials say costs are a concern, but they are neutral until they learn more.
“We are willing to listen,” Fresno County Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Brian Pacheco. “I would have to see what the cost would be for the county.”
Paul Nerland, county human resources director, said at least one other county made the status change for corrections officers, but later reversed its decision.
Fresno County officials “realized there was much more to it and took a step back with the potential that it could come back, but it hasn’t yet,” he said. “We want to make sure we fully understand it before we do anything.”
In 2006, Kings and Tulare counties got approval for correctional officers to become peace officers.
The legislation was backed by Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, the two boards of supervisors and patrol deputies.
Tulare and Kings aimed to start a “new group of correctional deputies to run the facilities. The legislation didn’t require attendance at the (Police Officers Standards and Training) academy; instead they would complete a six-week training series tailored specifically to detention issues and including firearms training.”
Kings County now has a SWAT equivalent for the jail. It includes trained corrections officers, said Sheriff David Robinson, so if a jail emergency occurs, corrections officers with intimate jail knowledge and firearms training can respond.
Since 2011’s passage of Assembly Bill 109, designed to reduce state prison overcrowding, more inmates get longer county jail sentences, which puts more dangerous criminals in local jails than in the past, Robinson said.
Under the California Penal Code, the differences between patrol deputies with “peace officer” status and correctional officers with similar status is clarified. The status for a “custodial deputy sheriff is a peace officer who is employed to perform duties exclusively or initially relating to custodial assignments.”
It’s allowed us to expand some responsibilities and it hasn’t overlapped into taking anything away from our patrol functions.
David Robinson, Kings County sheriff
“It’s allowed us to expand some responsibilities,” Robinson said, “and it hasn’t overlapped into taking anything away from our patrol functions.”
In Tulare County, the intention also was to get more recruits, said Assistant Sheriff Keith Douglass.
The county started a career track for correctional officers that was similar to patrol deputies. The result was a state-approved corrections academy that has bolstered recruitment, keeps deputies in the streets and corrections officers in jail and transport positions.
“Working the streets was never part of our consideration,” Douglass said. “We had a hiring challenge and we had to think of a new plan of attack.”
Eulalio Gomez, Fresno County Public Safety Association president, which represents corrections officers, said similar legislation is what his organization wants.
But Schmidt said the Fresno County Jail doesn’t have similar issues as Tulare and Kings: “Their issues were staffing and retention… we have no problem hiring correctional officers to staff the jail.”
Injuries in the jail are fairly common, says Gomez, president of the Fresno County Public Safety Association.
“We’ve had officers stabbed, gassed, assaulted and other injuries,” he said. “There are many things people don’t hear about that can cause a disability.”
I would have to see what the cost would be to the county.
Brian Pacheco, Fresno County Board of Supervisors’ chairman
There were 198 corrections officers injured in Fresno County Jail over the past three years ending in March, nearly identical to the 211 patrol deputies’ injuries reported.
Davila filed a claim against the county in March. She said the county failed to protect her from the gunman. Mims, Fresno County and the Board of Supervisors are named in the claim. Fresno County supervisors have rejected it, which allows Davila to file a lawsuit.
She said her injuries include “speech, mobility, psychiatric, physical and mental impacts. Past and future medical expenses, lost wages and benefits, physical and emotional distress, general damages and punitive damages.”
In the claim, filed by Bay Area lawyer Carol Hunt Cottrell, Davila contends that the jail had inadequate safety precautions to prevent workplace violence, limited safety features and security to guard against gunfire.
The claim also said the jail had inadequate policies, security, training and procedures to investigate or guard against workplace violence. A similar claim on Scanlan’s behalf was filed, but the family isn’t represented.
In a statement, county Human Resources Manager Tracy Meador said the county’s position is that worker’s compensation should cover the employees and it’s their only recourse.
The line-of-duty death benefit value goes well into the six figures and would offer peace of mind for those working in the jail, Gomez said.
But job security and financial unknowns remain a problem for Schmidt, Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association president.
If the death benefit is important to corrections officers, they could acquire an insurance death benefit by bargaining with the county instead of changing their status, he said.
Schmidt said he was initially told about the correctional officers’ death benefit and arming plan shortly after the shooting. He was told county supervisors would consider it in October. The item was stalled, he said, after he began asking questions.
Schmidt said armed deputies cover portions of the jail now and can cover the lobby for about $250,000 to $300,000 annually. That would be easier and cheaper than turning corrections officers into peace officers.
It’s politics versus our safety.
Eulalio Gomez, Fresno County Public Safety Association president
Deputies, he said, have a different “mindset, mentality and training” than corrections officers.
“A key point of giving correctional officers peace-officer power is to arm the jail lobbies,” said Schmidt. “The Fresno County Jail is a no-firearm facility – seems like a stretch for a few positions to turn over the entire house.”
But Gomez is disturbed about needing another association’s support.
“Why do I need to go to another association for approval?” he asked. “It’s inappropriate for me to make policy decisions on their behalf.”
Gomez said patrol deputies just got a 5 percent raise in each of the next three years, a price tag of $11.3 million with a cost to the county of about $7.4 million through June 2020.
Gomez wants the same deal for his members.
“They think they are going to lose at the bargaining table, but they didn’t lose out, they were taken care of,” he said. “Now, it’s time to give back to us, but it’s politics versus our safety. It’s just very disappointing.”