Schools’ police chief OK’d department’s AR-15 rifles, deployed in 7 incidents

By Maureen Magee12:01 a.m.Feb. 1, 2013Updated9 p.m.Jan. 31, 2013

The president of the San Diego school board is questioning why the district’s Police Department authorized the use of assault weapons by its officers — and deployed them in at least seven campus incidents — without informing the board.

The district Police Department’s former chief, Don Braun, approved the use of AR-15 platform rifles for officers in July 2010.

School board President John Lee Evans was surprised to learn about the arsenal by reading it in the Los Angeles Times, which quoted San Diego school police officials in a Jan. 23 article about another school district arming its security forces.

“I did not know these rifles existed in the district,” Evans said. “I don’t know if policies have to be changed, but the school board and the public need to be informed as to why these are needed and how they will be used.”

Five of the assault weapons were deployed on Tuesday when five schools were put on lockdown with a murder suspect on the loose in Tierrasanta. According to police officials, the incident was the seventh time assault weapons have been deployed.

Like other law enforcement agencies, San Diego Unified over the years has reviewed its tactics and weaponry as school shootings became more frequent nationwide. Braun, who retired last year, researched how departments regulated the use and storage of rifles before he decided to arm officers with semi-automatic weapons.

Deputy Superintendent Phil Stover said Braun was not required to alert the board or the public of his decision to authorize the weapons.

“The police have the ability to issue the equipment and the methodology necessary to do their job. I think it was a proper decision at the time,”
Stover said. “To put it in context, those kind of decisions did not carry the same scrutiny they would carry today.”

To prepare officers to use the powerful rifles, Braun approved 16-hour government-funded trainings and proficiency tests required of officers who carry semi-automatic weapons on duty. Grappling with budget cuts, Braun backed off plans to bill the district for the rifles and instead told officers they would have to make the $1,000 purchase if they wanted to carry the weapons.

So far, 17 members of the 43-person police force have purchased the weapons.

Among them is Rueben Littlejohn, who succeeded Braun as district police chief.

“I believe them to be a necessary tool for law enforcement in this era, and I believe that all officers should receive the same level of training in the use of all weapons available to law enforcement,” he said.

Littlejohn praised Braun for keeping the district prepared to protect San Diego students. He understands why Braun did not feel compelled to alert the board.

“If no other police departments at the time had rifles, I might say yes. But by 2010, rifles had been a standard tool for law enforcement for the last decade. Therefore, I support how Chief Braun handled it,” Littlejohn said.

The deaths of 20 children and six educators in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by a gunman armed with an assault rifle has heightened the issues of campus safety and gun access.