DURHAM — Seven Durham Police Department employees, including six sworn officers, have been disciplined for keeping parts of confiscated firearms that had been ordered destroyed, Chief Jose Lopez said Friday.
None of the parts were sold, and police personnel never attempted to keep an entire firearm, Lopez said during a 10-minute press conference.
The employees kept the parts for use on their personal or department-issued guns, he said, and all the parts have been returned and destroyed.
Discipline included suspensions from duty without pay for periods of 24 to 80 hours and one written reprimand, the severity depending on the employees’ “level of involvement or authority.”
It was handed down after an internal investigation that began when Lopez learned employees had been dismantling firearms that had been ordered destroyed by a court and then keeping some of the parts.
The incidents happened over two days in early 2013, according to police spokeswoman Kammie Michael, when employees were carrying out court orders issued Jan. 7 and Feb. 22. A total of 2,101 guns were destroyed as a result of the court orders, she said, with only “a very small number” involved in the investigation.
A state law that took effect last September (S.L 2013-158, bit.ly/1rtizcx) forbids police from destroying usable firearms and requires that they be kept for law-enforcement use, donated to a museum or historical society or sold to holders of federal firearms licensees. Police may destroy firearms only if they are unsafe for use.
Lopez said that, before the law change, firearm destruction was standard procedure when the courts no longer needed the weapons or a legitimate owner could not be found. Court orders customarily allowed components to be retained for police department use, and police employees had presumed the order they were working under made the same provision. It did not, Lopez said.
“While the officers had a genuine belief that their actions were appropriate, that belief was mistaken and I expect better judgment from my officers,” he said.
“If they had looked at the court order they wouldn’t have been in the position they are in,” Lopez said.
Michael said most of the weapons involved were handguns. According to Michael, Durham police confiscated 642 firearms in 2012, the latest year for which she had numbers.