After being contacted by The Trace’s reporters, the Atlanta Police Department clamped down on officers whose behavior contributed to the loss or theft of a department-issued firearm. Under a new policy adopted this month, officers who violate the department’s rules for storing guns in unattended cars can be hit with a $500 fine and a three-day suspension.
“When a police officer fails to secure his or her firearm, it bothers me greatly,” said Police Chief Erika Shields in a written statement. “We should know better, and I expect more of our personnel.”
Law Enforcement’s Lost and Stolen Gun Problem
The change came after The Trace made inquiries regarding the Atlanta Police Department’s gun storage policy and its treatment of officers found to have broken those rules. Atlanta was one of more than 100 law enforcement agencies that reporters surveyed for an investigation into missing police guns. We found that those 100 agencies had collectively recorded the loss or theft of 1,781 firearms between 2008 and 2017. Many of the weapons had been left unattended and unsecured in vehicles.
The Atlanta Police Department’s previous policy on gun storage was actually one of the clearest and most comprehensive of those we examined. The storage of department-issued firearms in unattended vehicles is forbidden unless no other option is available. If an officer has to leave a gun in a vehicle, the weapon must be locked in a safe, a gun rack, or trunk.
But the department was not effectively enforcing the written rules. Records provided to The Trace show that in 55 cases in which officers reported lost or stolen firearms between 2010 and 2018, the vast majority resulted in an oral admonishment, a written reprimand, or no action at all. Three investigations were still pending when the records were released, but only six incidents led to an officer being suspended.
In early November, we reached out to the department for comment on our findings and said we wanted to discuss specifically how the department determined which punishment to mete out for violations of the gun storage policy.
Within a few days, Chief Shields provided the following statement vowing to increase penalties for violating the storage policy:
One of the issues I am most passionate about is careless gun ownership and the impact it has on crime on our streets. Too often, the department sees firearms irresponsibly left unsecured in cars – tucked under a seat, left in a glove box and so on. In many cases, these guns get stolen and end up in the hands of criminals. Ultimately, those armed criminals pose a threat not only to the residents of our city, but also to our police officers who must confront them on the street. When a police officer fails to secure his or her firearm, it bothers me greatly. We should know better, and I expect more of our personnel. As a result, I have made the decision to increase the penalties for failing to secure a firearm. We will soon be updating our Standard Operating Procedure to increase the penalties for these infractions. We simply have to do better and set the example we expect others to follow.