by Dave Waddell
In the last three years alone, the financially strapped city of Chico has paid out nearly $25,000 to buy at least 40 guns of undisclosed types for the personal ownership of its police officers, according to a search of online records by ChicoSol.
Such gun transactions – made possible by a $900 per year “uniform allowance” afforded to all of the Chico Police Department’s more than 90 “sworn personnel” – skyrocketed with the advent of the Down Range Indoor Training Center three years ago.
Down Range, which is outside city limits along Highway 99 on the northern entrance to Chico, is known for boldly advertising the sale of assault rifles, especially around some holidays. The business is co-owned by Chico police officer Steve Dyke and has been gaining a bigger slice of Chico PD’s gun-buying pie each year.
Dani Rogers, deputy city clerk, who issued the city’s official responses to ChicoSol’s requests for public documents and information, said in a letter that Down Range did not open its doors until April 2015. However, the city began purchasing guns for cops from Down Range in 2014, according to city records. (The Chico Enterprise-Record reported the opening of Down Range’s archery, gun and ammunition retail operations in December 2013, with completion of the firearms range still being weeks away.)
The city refuses to say what types of guns have been purchased with taxpayer dollars, including whether any officers have used their publicly provided uniform allowance toward the purchase of an AR-15 or other kind of assault rifle for their personal ownership.
Down Range sold seven of 14 guns bought for officers with the allowance in 2014, then 13 of 16 guns in 2015, and 12 of 13 guns in 2016.
During the three years Down Range has been in full operation – 2014-2016 – Chico officers averaged buying 13 guns per year with their uniform allowances, with an annual average of $8,200 in gun purchases. In contrast, in the three years prior to the advent of Down Range – 2011-2013 – just four guns valued at $3,080 were the yearly purchasing averages. ChicoSol requested information on gun-buying with uniform allowances through June, but city officials declined to provide financial data for the first half of 2017.
In addition, the city’s online financial detail suddenly became less specific in 2016 in relation to the guns purchased at Down Range, identifying by name only three of the 12 officers who bought guns there last year. In previous years’ online data, dating back to 2004, most gun purchases listed the name of the buying officer.
Two of those unnamed officers in 2016 each used all of the $900 allowance toward the purchase of a gun. One of the three officers named in last year’s data, Sgt. Curtis Prosise, has purchased at least four guns valued in total at more than $2,250 since 2008 – more than any other officer during the period –according to the city’s records.
Prosise is listed as vice president of the Chico Police Officers Association on the union’s Facebook page.
CPOA’s longtime president, officer Peter Durfee, has bought at least three guns valued at more than $1,650 since 2009 with his allowance, according to the city. Dyke’s co-owner of Down Range, Chico ex-cop Will Clark, also has a strong CPOA connection, having preceded Durfee as its president.
Andrew Coolidge, who represents the City Council on the Chico Police Community Advisory Board, did not respond to a ChicoSol message seeking comment on the appropriateness of the public buying undisclosed kinds of guns for Chico officers to own.
Randall Stone, the only council member to vote against the last contract with the police union, however, was critical of the practice, although he did not think it was necessarily uncommon statewide.
“I think these extra gimmes are already far too excessive and expensive — particularly when the city is fully aware that the sales tax revenue on these purchases is going outside the city and (the sales) to an organization that actively promotes assault rifle purchases by the community because ‘there aren’t enough police officers’ in Chico,” Stone wrote in an email to ChicoSol. “And the city is the one paying the bill for those personal purchases?!”
When an officer joins the Chico Police Department, he or she is provided with a uniform and equipment, including a service revolver, paid for by the city, which also replaces any items that might subsequently be damaged. That uniform remains the property of the city.
The $900-per-year uniform allowance for each officer can be used to purchase anything on the authorized uniform list, including a firearm. Items bought with the allowance are owned by the officer. The list of authorized items, which must be “required for their regular, special or collateral assignments,” cannot be changed except through negotiations. Officers are prohibited from deviating from using department-authorized firearms and ammunition without written approval from the chief of police.
Chico officers buy more than guns at Down Range with their uniform allowances, including gun magazines, sunglasses, flashlights, holsters, backpacks and “night optics.” All told, the city issued checks totaling more than $29,000 in payments to Down Range from 2014-16.
“The city’s interpretation… violates the (state) constitution”– Jim Ewert
The city denied ChicoSol’s request for details on the specific types of guns purchased with tax dollars for the officers, citing a 33-year-old court decision (Frazier v. City of Richmond). According to the July 17 response letter to ChicoSol from Rogers, the city’s deputy clerk, the judgment held that the details of officers’ uniform allowance purchases are not subject to public disclosure.
“The city has located records related to… your request, but they are exempt from disclosure,“ says Rogers’ letter. “Although salary information may be subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act, this uniform allowance is not. Additionally, the items the city purchases on behalf of the employees become their personal property.”
However, Jim Ewert, longtime counsel for the California News Publishers Association, said the judgment in Frazier v. City of Richmond “does not stand for what the city claims it does.”
“It is a 1984 case in which the court concluded that uniform allowances are not to be considered salary for the purpose of calculating an officer’s pension,” Ewert wrote in an email to ChicoSol. “The case predates Article I, Sec. 3 which gives the public a Constitutional right of access to (government-held) information and which requires an agency (such as the city of Chico) as well as courts to narrowly construe court decisions when they limit the right of access. The city’s interpretation is broad construction which violates the (state) constitution.”
The city additionally cited a state government code section in refusing to disclose details about the weapons, claiming “the public interest served by not making such records public clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.” Ewert said that position would have merit only if the city cited specific reasons for its secrecy – i.e., the public interest being served – which Ewert said the city neglected to do in its initial response letter to ChicoSol.
Made aware of Ewert’s opinion, the city sent a July 31 follow-up letter signed by Rogers but written by Vince Ewing, who provides attorney services to the city on a contractual basis. Ewing elaborated on the public interest the city claims is being served.
“If the public were able to obtain information of the exact weapons or firearms that each police officer had, it may be detrimental to the strategy or schemes in place for such employees’ investigations or day-to-day activities,” Ewing wrote. “The further disclosure of personal property of police officers may not only endanger the public, but also endanger the police officers.”
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol.