Policy changes are coming to Columbus Police Department after weapons, ammunition and gear were stolen earlier this week from an unmarked police car parked outside an officer’s private residence.
Between Sunday night and Monday morning, an assault rifle, a handgun, 500 rounds of ammunition and two bulletproof vests were taken from the trunk of the police vehicle. Four arrests have been made in the case but the department has yet to recover the assault rifle and handgun.
“We’re gonna make some changes in our policy,” Police Chief Fred Shelton said Wednesday. “And we’re going to find a better way of securing weapons in the car.”
Shelton told The Dispatch he wants to equip police cars with security systems, but he also plans to seek guidance from other area departments on how to tweak CPD’s policies.
Of the area law enforcement agencies The Dispatch interviewed this week, all have policies allowing officers to take their police vehicles home. However, agencies vary on how they expect weapons to be stored in those cases.
Officers at West Point Police Department are allowed to take their assigned vehicles home as long as they live in the county. This is the case for investigators and patrol officers, driving unmarked or marked vehicles.
Kennedy Meaders, assistant chief for the West Point Police Department, explained that while it is not a violation of policy to keep weapons and equipment inside the trunk of a police vehicle, there are alternatives he prefers.
He acknowledged that keeping weapons inside of the trunk as opposed to elsewhere inside the vehicle adds some measure of safety, but ultimately prefers that officers secure weapons within their homes.
“I would prefer that officers take their weapons inside their homes to secure those weapons,” Meaders said. “Any type of equipment that we use, I would prefer that officers take them inside their homes.”
He explained, though, that when officers keep equipment in their vehicles at home, it’s to make sure they have access to what they need when they need it.
“With all the active shooter stuff that’s going on, we practice it to where, if you’re going to an active shooter, you need to stop, put your equipment on, and by the time you get there, you should have everything you need in order to deal with that situation,” he said.
Likewise, Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office deputies take their vehicles home and have full “custody” of their firearms from the moment they are assigned.
“The vehicle is assigned to the officer. So if we need him in the middle of the night, that officer can respond from wherever he’s at to get to where we need him to go,” Hawkins said. “All officers take home weapons. They’re assigned to the officer. An officer’s duty is to carry a weapon with them at all times,” he said. “Once a weapon is issued to an officer it is in their custody. It’s in their possession. They can take it home, they can take it to church, wherever they need to take it.”
In Clay County, Sheriff Eddie Scott said deputies — who can also take their vehicles home — are expected to use “good common sense” in storing weapons and gear while off duty. If they are off for a few days, he said officers unload their weapons.
“It’s locked up tight,” he said. “So we try to use caution because there’s not only the weapons and there’s other stuff they’ve got laptops, computers, bulletproof vests. You know, just law enforcement equipment. We try to be real mindful of it, and try to do our best.”
When it comes to certain equipment like assault weapons, those remain at headquarters, Scott said.
“Any of what I would call heavy artillery, the fully automatics that our SRT (special response team) members use, they keep all that stored in the vault at the sheriff’s office,” he said. “If they have an incident where they’re deployed, they deploy their equipment from there.”
While it is within policy across all departments The Dispatch contacted to keep some weapons and equipment inside of the vehicle, Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Office does things slightly differently.
“We’re a little different. We have a gun lock in all of our vehicles that is mounted to the cage,” Chief Deputy Chadd Garnett said.
Officers are issued three guns: a patrol rifle, a shotgun and a handgun that remains on the officer. The two longer guns are stored on a rack that locks electronically. Garnett said that he feels OCSO probably has the safest system one can have for storing weapons inside of vehicles.
“They (officers) have the ability to immediately unlock it and when they pull, it comes out. And after so many seconds it locks back,” Garnett said. “So our guns are always locked, even if they’re in the vehicle.”
Similarly, the Starkville Police Department requires that when officers are away from their vehicles for an extended period, such as overnight, shotguns and rifles are secured with a lock provided to officers, according to General Order 121 of the Starkville Police Department. The locks vary according to the type of weapon, officials said.