Police officials in Maryland and throughout the country are feverishly searching personnel files to comply with a new -- and little-known -- federal requirement that retroactively bars any officer convicted of a domestic-violence offense from carrying a gun.
Law enforcement officials say it is too soon to tell how many police officers will be affected by the last-minute amendment to the main federal spending bill that went into effect Oct. 1.
Because there is no specific "domestic violence" charge in Maryland, police departments must search the personnel records of thousands of officers throughout the state for assault and battery convictions and whether the victim was a relative of the officer.
"You can't be a police officer if you can't carry a gun," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of Lodge 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which represents Baltimore police officers.
"What concerns us is that it's retroactive and can cause an officer who may have been convicted 20 years ago and who otherwise has an exemplary record to lose his job."
McLhinney said he will talk with officials at the national FOP office about ways to protect officers' jobs.
Debbie Richardson, director of public affairs at the national FOP, said yesterday that she knows of three Denver police officers who have turned in their guns and been placed on administrative duties because of the law.
"We are trying to figure out if this is going to be a monumental problem for police departments," she said. "We don't have a specific plan to fight this. We want to work with Congress and see what our options are."
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, added the language on domestic violence and gun control to the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act. A congressional source said Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, added the language that law enforcement officers would not be exempt.
In an open letter from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sent to local police departments last week, agencies were advised to review their internal personnel records to
determine whether any officer has been convicted of domestic violence.
An officer with a conviction must immediately turn in his or her gun, according to the new law. It is unclear, though, whether an officer will automatically be fired or placed in a permanent administrative job, law enforcement officials said.
The letter emphasizes that the law applies to all domestic-violence convictions, even those before the law went into effect. If the officer refuses to turn in the gun, police officials are to contact the local ATF office, the letter said.
Officers who were not convicted but received probation before judgment or had charges placed on an inactive docket are not affected.
ATF has not yet worked out an enforcement mechanism.
The law also applies to the public, but police officers, security personnel who carry guns and some members of the military are among those most likely to have their jobs at risk.
"Anyone else who gets a conviction will probably not lose their jobs," said state police spokesman Michael J. McKelvin.
As of yesterday, neither the state police nor most Baltimore-area police departments contacted by The Sun had found anyone affected by the law.
But Lt. L. Timothy Caslin, president of the FOP's Lodge 4, which represents Baltimore County officers, said he plans to talk with union lawyers to determine whether a county officer can appeal the law.
"If one of our officers falls into this category, we will take it to court," he said. "Even though we are held to a higher standard, laws should work forward and not backwards."
Determining who has a domestic-violence conviction is a time-consuming task, local police officials say, especially in large departments such as Baltimore's, which has about 3,000 officers.
In most cases, a department's internal affairs unit will be aware of someone with a misdemeanor conviction that occurred after the officer was hired. A conviction before an officer was hired would have turned up during a routine background check, police said.
But because Maryland has no specific domestic-violence charge and offenders usually were charged with assault, enforcing the law requires a hand search of personnel records.
Police union officials also are angry that because of time constraints, the amendment passed with no public hearing.
"This was just pushed through," McLhinney said. "We agree that domestic violence is a serious problem, and we work with counselors and the House of Ruth to help officers deal with these situations."
Pub Date: 12/05/96