New questions arise after Gallegos' answers about rifles
Asset forfeiture operations, investigations and gang and probation sweeps are among the explanations provided by Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos for his proposed purchase of eight AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, currently waylaid by county administrators over liability and conflict-of-interest concerns.
But some of these explanations have raised more questions than they’ve answered, including why DA investigators would need heavier firepower than other law enforcement officers participating in the same operations.
Officials said Humboldt County Gang Task Force members conduct gang sweeps armed with standard-issue sidearms, and probation officers participating in the same sweeps carry no firearms at all.
In his initial Feb. 14 request for supplemental funds from the asset forfeiture trust fund managed by the California Attorney General’s Office, Gallegos said the purchase of unspecified clothing, safety equipment, portable radios, bullet-proof vests, rifles, a gun safe and other miscellaneous equipment would “directly contribute to further seizures and forfeitures by enhancing the district attorney’s current and future forfeiture operations and investigations.”
On May 15, when he was asked by The Eureka Reporter in what capacity investigators would use the gear, Gallegos did not mention asset forfeiture and said instead, “For investigations.”
He was asked the same question in various forms by Arcata Eye Editor Kevin Hoover during a radio interview Thursday, broadcast live on KHUM-FM, and Gallegos responded that the items would be used in a number of contexts, including in sweeps conducted by the Humboldt County Gang Task Force.
“They wouldn’t be wearing this stuff … on their everyday duties,” Hoover said. “You don’t go out in the world with assault rifles and vests on, the full regalia.”
“They would wear it whenever they are out doing things like gang task force sweeps,” Gallegos said, “all those sorts of things that they have to do. So absolutely they would.”
In the course of the KHUM interview, Gallegos twice mentioned the gang task force, a multi-agency group that conducts an average of two sweeps each year, according to Eureka Police Capt. Murl Harpham.
The task force had not conducted a sweep since September, Harpham said, until Friday, the day after the interview took place.
A news release issued Saturday by the Eureka Police Department reported the participation of the DA’s Office, and Harpham confirmed Monday that one DA investigator was present.
But during the sweep, rifles, semiautomatic or otherwise, were reportedly not in use by anyone.
“EPD officers just used standard sidearms,” said EPD Public Information Officer Suzie Owsley, who went out with one of three teams during the sweep Friday. “I didn’t see anyone with a big gun.”
Brenda Godsey, public information officer for the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, said the deputies who participated in the gang sweep also used standard sidearms, in this case .40-caliber Glocks.
“Gang task force sweeps are just knock-and-talks,” Harpham said. “That’s usually how they go. We don’t do the high-profile arrests. If we had someone that was highly dangerous, we wouldn’t use the gang task force to go after them. We’d use SWAT or the (Humboldt County) Drug Task Force.”
HCDTF Commander Jack Nelsen confirmed Monday that the DA’s Office also participates on the more active and heavily armed drug task force, but Nelsen said only one DA investigator was involved.
In the KHUM interview, Gallegos also mentioned probation sweeps, but Humboldt County Probation Division Director Bill Damiano said his officers, who participate in both gang and probation sweeps, do not carry firearms.
“We have an arming policy,” Damiano said Tuesday, “but we currently do not have any officers who have applied and qualified to carry firearms.”
Gallegos has maintained that the purpose of the equipment is to ensure the safety of his investigators.
“Our officers have to be adequately armed,” he told Hoover. “The hope is that they would never have to use them, but that doesn’t mean you don’t arm them.”
All five members of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors were questioned in an e-mail sent Thursday by The Eureka Reporter about whether they clearly understood from Gallegos’ original budget request that he planned to purchase semiautomatic rifles for each of his investigators and whether, knowing that now, they would support the expenditure of funds for this purpose.
Only 5th District Supervisor Jill Geist responded to the e-mail.
“The item on [the] consent calendar prepared and submitted by the district attorney and approved by the board was to authorize a supplemental transfer of funds for the purchase of safety-related equipment,” Geist wrote.
“The DA hired three investigators who needed supplies and safety gear, including firearms. The DA has sufficient funds to transfer from the Fixed Asset Account, and that action requires board approval. Our staff is responsible for processing requisitions, purchasing and ensuring that items authorized for purchase do not expose the county to unnecessary liability.
“While processing the requisition, a concern was raised due to the expansion of firearm (rifle) to include assault rifles. County staff is exercising due diligence in raising the question. The [County Administrative Officer] is scheduled to meet with the DA on the 30th of May to review the request and receive necessary clarifications.”
The second question Geist did not answer, stating that it presented a potential violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, possibly because a response to it by all five supervisors could be construed as an informal, undisclosed meeting held by elected officials.
But there was little danger of that.
E-mail receipts indicate Supervisor John Woolley opened the e-mail Thursday morning, and Roger Rodoni opened it Monday afternoon. Jimmy Smith deleted it Monday morning without having opened it, and as of press time Tuesday, Board Chairperson Bonnie Neely has taken no action on the e-mail at all.
None of the four has responded to the questions.
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