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Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms addresses gun concerns

Helms discusses accidental gun discharge that injured SWAT officer at Lodi literacy fair

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Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2013 12:00 am

The Lodi Police Department has spent more than two weeks investigating an accidental gun discharge that resulted in a minor injury to a SWAT officer during a community event last month.

On Aug. 24, while Officer Robert Rench displayed SWAT team equipment to several children at Lodi’s Little Buckaroos Reading Roundup, which was held in the Lodi News-Sentinel parking lot, a boy between 6 and 8 years old snuck up behind Rench and pulled the trigger of his handgun.

Rench suffered a minor flesh wound, and the child fled the scene before being identified by police.

As the investigation continues, the Lodi Police Department has taken steps to hopefully prevent such an incident from happening again. From now on, more than one officer will conduct demonstrations with children at community events. The department also intends to issue new holsters, which will limit access to the handgun’s trigger, to members of its SWAT team.

On Wednesday, Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms discussed the accidental discharge and ongoing investigation with Lodi News-Sentinel reporter Kristopher Anderson.

The Lodi Police Department has launched an internal investigation into the accidental discharge. Are you only investigating the developments that led to the incident, or additional aspects such as holsters, procedure, training and more?

All of it. We’re doing an investigation to determine factually what happened that day.

And to follow from that, there is a review component where we assemble a board to review equipment, training, policy, procedure, and to make recommendations that will lead to this not happening again. It’s a very broad-spectrum investigation.

It’s not just limited to the event. It certainly includes the event, but we look at everything, including the equipment.

You’ve looked into whether these accidental discharges have occurred in other departments that use the same holster. What have your findings been?

Since this has occurred, we have found that this is not an incident that’s been isolated to Lodi. This has happened elsewhere all over the country. We have received inquiries, phone calls, emails from other agencies that have experienced similar incidents and have asked us questions so they could avoid it, too, or to let us know the findings of their own reviews. It has happened with agencies that have used the identical model holster and similar model holsters that allow greater access to the trigger.

Why was this holster more accessible than other holsters?

This is a tactical holster that’s used by tactical teams in a tactical environment. And it’s meant to accommodate a lighting system — a flashlight that mounted to the weapon. In order to do that, the holster has to be a little bit larger so the weapon and the flashlight can fit inside. As a result, this particular model, which is a dated model ... gives greater access to the trigger. The trigger is vulnerable with this particular model of holster, not just to a child’s hand but also to an adult.

Was the fact that the trigger was accessible in this model of holster ever a concern when the department first adopted it?

This holster has been on the market for many, many years. It’s been part of our equipment package for many, many years.

As typically any tactical team does, every piece of equipment that they look at, they do a very thorough assessment and review of those items to make sure they’re going to function well and above all, be safe. To my knowledge, we haven’t had an issue with this particular piece of equipment until now.

Is the department considering replacing the current holsters or weapons?

We will almost certainly replace these tactical holsters that the SWAT team uses with an updated model. We’re in the process of getting some new models to examine, and researching with other agencies some of the better models that would help protect this from happening again.

Are you considering replacing the Glocks?

Not at this time.

What steps have already been taken to hopefully prevent another accidental shooting like this from happening again?

Within the entire organization, the message has been delivered that it’s situational awareness to make sure that every one of us is reminded to be cognizant of protecting our weapon.

We’ve made some changes and we’re going to make changes to the way we do these community events with the tactical team, as far as how we display our equipment. There is some real value in doing these events. It helps with our engagement to the community. But we’re taking some steps to make sure it doesn’t reoccur.

Could one of those steps possibly be not arming officers at community events?

No. We will not put uniformed officers in the public, whether it’s a community event or elsewhere, who are not armed. We will always have officers who are armed and ready in the event that something were to occur and (officers) need to take action.

Why does the department issue weapons that don’t have an external safety?

It is a standard in this industry that police departments issue weapons that don’t have external safeties. The intent to having that weapon is so that when that weapon is drawn, you pull the trigger and you shoot it, and it shoots.

External safeties can be very problematic in a combat situation. You can imagine trying to shoot your weapon when the safety is engaged and you’re not able to get the round off. It’s a matter of split seconds whether or not the officer can prevail in a confrontation.

The Glock does have a safety on the trigger. You have to depress the safety on the trigger in order to fire the Glock.

Has the department always issued weapons that don’t have an external safety?

My understanding is the Lodi Police Department has used the Glock, either 9 mm or 40-caliber pistol, for nearly 20 years. In my experience — I’m in my 29th year now — I’ve never been issued or carried a weapon that has an external safety on it.

Could Officer Robert Rench be subject to any discipline?

Based on the facts as I know them today, there would be no basis for discipline. We’re doing a very thorough administrative investigation. He is not the subject of a misconduct investigation. This is an administrative investigation to determine what happened, what went wrong, why, and what remedies we can do to change it.

There is no indication whatsoever that Officer Rench was engaged in any misconduct at all. Officer Rench is a fine police officer. He has a very sound reputation. He’s very well respected within the organization, and it’s unfortunate that he has to go through this situation.

Why not issue any statement about this incident before it was reported by the Lodi News-Sentinel?

We did make the decision in this particular case that we’re not going to issue a press release. But any time we’re asked about an event like this, we’re going to disclose that it occurred and give the details as we can.

While some people may perceive that we’re withholding information or denied access, that’s absolutely not correct. We’ll give out information as we can, but unfortunately we’re not always in the situation where we can divulge information. And the information we do divulge, we need to make sure it’s accurate when it goes out the door.

And early on in the stage of any kind of incident, we often don’t have all the answers, and we don’t want to get caught up in a situation where we’re releasing information that’s inaccurate.

Have you been able to locate the child who pulled the trigger?

No. We would like to speak to the child, or parent, or anybody else who saw this happen.

If the child’s parents or any witnesses would like to speak with police about the incident on Aug. 24, contact the Lodi Police Department, at 209-333-6727.

Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at krisa@lodinews.com.

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