Art by Hannah Rouland @hannah.tor.art
AR-15 Stolen from Santa Cruz Police Department Four Years Ago Still Missing
By John Malkin
In 2017 an AR-15 assault rifle was stolen from the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) and the theft was never made public. The gun remains missing today. In February, 2021 local journalist John Malkin broke this story in a three-part series in the Santa Cruz Sentinel and on his weekly radio program “Transformation Highway” on KZSC 88.1 FM / kzsc.org.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel story was published in three parts on the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel on February 5,6 & 7, 2021 (see article and link below).
Six interviews regarding the stolen SCPD AR-15 assault rifle were broadcast on KZSC in February and March, 2021 and are accessible below. The interviews include SCPD Chief of Police Andy Mills, SCPD Lt. Arnold Vasquez, U.C. Davis Violence Prevention Research Program Professor Shani Buggs, SCPD Police Auditor Mike Gennaco, U.C. Santa Cruz NAACP president Ayo Banjo and journalist Thomas Peele, whose 2016 San Jose Mercury article revealed that between 2010 and 2016, 944 guns were lost or stolen from law enforcement agents in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. One of those 944 guns was an SCPD Glock handgun stolen in 2011, also never made public.
“Transformation Highway” with John Malkin is broadcast Thursdays from 12:00 noon to 1:00 PM PST on KZSC 88.1 FM, kzsc.org
Audio Podcast Interviews – Stolen SCPD AR-15:
SANTA CRUZ — During the spring of 2017 an AR-15 rifle belonging to the Santa Cruz Police Department disappeared. And the semi-automatic, military-style firearm remains missing today.
Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills told the Sentinel, “A couple years ago a firearm was stolen from one of our vehicles and has not been recovered. This unfortunately does happen when people leave firearms in vehicles. And it shouldn’t.”
“The stolen firearm was full investigated and appropriate discipline was given,” Mills added.
Mills declined to elaborate on the discipline and noted that the Santa Cruz Police Department still doesn’t know exactly when or where the gun theft occurred.
“But discipline was handed out,” Mills said. “And it was a complete internal investigation that took an incredible amount of effort on the part of the people who were here at the time. That happened before I got here. It was an assault rifle. And we don’t know where it was stolen.”
AR-15 rifles taken by a Salinas task force. Orville Myers/ Special to the Herald file.
Lt. Arnold Vasquez was assigned to investigate the theft of the AR-15.
“I was unable to verify or have any evidence proving that it was stolen,” Vasquez told the Sentinel. “However, it appeared as though it was potentially stolen and likely misappropriated. So that’s how we entered it into our database system. Primarily because we didn’t have any solid evidence that the firearm was stolen. When we initially began the investigation, we entered it into the system as ‘lost’ just to make sure we had it in there in the event that it surfaced, either with another agency or out in the field. And we later modified it to ‘misappropriated,’ which is, I guess, a version of being stolen.”
According to Vasquez, on Feb. 9, 2017, an AR-15 rifle was taken to San Benito County by a Santa Cruz police officer. The rifle was discovered missing three months later, on May 9, when a routine annual inventory at the department turned up an AR-15 short.
Vasquez pointed out that the AR-15 was a “backup weapon” and not assigned for use by a specific officer.
“The firearm was being used for a project in which a sergeant was mocking up the ability to have these rifles affixed to a motorcycle. It was taken to an outside vendor to fabricate a locking mechanism,” Vasquez said. “the rifle either was lost or stolen, from the time it left the police department to the vendor site, back to the police department. And then, if it made it back to the police department. We have not been able to verify for certain if it did and was just not logged back in.”
According to city expense reports obtained by the Sentinel, on Sept. 30, 2017 the police department paid $4,418.83 to have “five police motorcycles outfitted.” Mills and Vasquez declined to confirm if this expense related to the AR-15 motorcycle project that resulted in a stolen AR-15.
Colt Caliber 223
“I’d rather not give out the serial number, but I can tell you it’s a Colt Caliber 223, which is an AR-15. It’s a 10-and-a-half-inch barrel with a collapsible stock. And it had an Aimpoint sight, which has a red dot so you can focus on your target,” Vasquez said. “It was discovered to have been unaccounted for during an inventory search. Unfortunately, there was a three-month window of time in which we were unaware that the rifle wasn’t accounted for. So, it was uncertain if it was lost or stolen or removed after it had returned from that particular project.”
Mills told the Sentinel that the theft occurred, “months or years before I was here.” The AR-15 was discovered was discovered missing 83 days before Andy Mills’ first day on the job as chief, on July 31, 2017.
The Santa Cruz police chief at the time of the theft was Kevin Vogel, who retired June 2, 2017, after seven years in command and 30 years on the force.
“I wish I knew where this thing was,” Vasquez said. “I wish I had more leads to determine where it was at. Or where it is today. But unfortunately, that’s the nuts and bolts of it.”
City Councilwoman Sandy Brown offered, “The investigation finding was not necessarily surprising, given that there had been this lapse of time, and that there was no accountability in the moment. Three months later, it could be anywhere.”
Thousands of guns have been lost, stolen or “misappropriated” from law enforcement agencies in the United States. Nearly 333 million people own 393 million guns (Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey). The United States is No. 1 in firearms-per-capita and during the pandemic, gun sales have increased, according to research by the Washington, D.C.-based The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization.
Journalist Thomas Peele wrote a comprehensive article for the San Jose Mercury on June 26, 2016, revealing that from 2010 to 2016, 944 guns were lost or stolen by law enforcement agents in the greater San Francisco Bay Area alone.
“There were guns stolen from cops all over the region, most of them from vehicles. A number of police departments simply reported that guns had disappeared,” Peel told the Sentinel. “Oakland Police lost track of 370 weapons since 2011.”
The list of stolen items included handcuffs, shotguns, grenade launchers and a submachine gun.
“Stockton police told me they were closing a police substation and there were double-digit AR-15s or similar weapons there. They found that 10 or more were simply gone. And they didn’t know how,” Peele said. “Oakland and San Jose had a lot of guns that had simply become unaccounted for. It’s pretty frightening.”
“A police chief in Piedmont left his gun in his car when he took it home in Danville and went out one day; his car window was broken and the gun’s gone. And turns out that gun was later used in a shooting,” Peele recalled. “that (lackadaisical) attitude turns up again and again.”
Peele stopped collecting data at 944 weapons only because he needed to complete his story for the one-year anniversary of the 2015 murder in San Francisco of Kate Steinle, killed in an incident involving a stolen Bureau of Land Management gun. “I don’t consider that number (944) to be complete,” Peel said. “I’m sure that there are a lot more guns.”
Peele told the Sentinel that one of those 944 lost/stolen guns was a Santa Cruz Police Department Glock handgun stolen from a vehicle in 2011 in the City of Campbell.
While Vasquez led a three-week investigation with two Santa Cruz police sergeants into the AR-15 theft, he told the Sentinel he did not know how many total guns are missing from the department. When the Sentinel asked Mills if he was aware of a handgun stolen in 2011, Mills declined to discuss the Glock.
“The AR-15 is your standard-issue long rifle for law enforcement,” Vasquez said, and is primarily used by the department’s emergency services unit. However, the AR-15 assault rifle was originally manufactured by ArmaLite and is the civilian version of the U.S. military’s M-16, the standard issue rifle for troops during the Vietnam War.
Vasquez said he recalled that the AR-15 was introduced to his department about 20 years ago. And just as armored personnel carriers – Santa Cruz has the BearCat – chemical and other weapons such as flashbang grenades, grenade launchers, silencers/suppressors, projectiles with pepper spray, armored shields and sniper rifles – Santa Cruz has them – the AR-15 rifle was first used by the military and later introduced to police departments.
Firearms manufacturer Colt now produces AR-15s and in September 2019 the company announced it would no longer make civilian AR-15s. In a Sept. 19 2019 press release, Colt said there is an “…adequate supply (of AR-15s) for the foreseeable future.” Colt added, “On the other hand, our warfighters and law enforcement personnel continue to demand Colt rifles and we are fortunate to have been awarded significant police and military contracts.”
Ayo Banjo is president of the NAACP chapter at UC Santa Cruz and former UCSC study body president. Banjo said he was alarmed to hear of the theft.
“The AR-15 being stolen, in general, reignites the conversation around; Do police need access to guns like that? Should they have access to the point where there are guns like this sitting around being stolen? Why are they even armed in the first place?” Banjo said. “How successful is their model currently when you have such military-style weapons and you don’t have a good accountability program to ensure that folks aren’t stealing those weapons? And they also don’t have a good communication system to ensure that the community is notified if those weapons are stolen.”
Councilwoman Brown shared similar sentiments.
“There should be a system for ensuring that militarized weapons – scratch that; all weapons – are secured, and they have a way of being traced,” Brown said. “It should never have ended up in a place where it couldn’t be found. That to me is really the problem. And, how will we ensure it doesn’t happen again?”
In 2018 local activist and director of the county’s Harm Reduction Coalition, Denise Elerick, led a campaign to discontinue the shooting of AR-15s at the SCPD Citizens Police Academy.
“I asked (retired SCPD Deputy Chief) Rick Martinez, ‘Why are you taking police academy volunteers that sign up to learn about law enforcement, why are you offering to take them shooting AR-15s? What about community safety? And Rick’s answer was, ‘It’s transparency,’ ” Elerick explained.
The Santa Cruz Good Times reported this in an April 25, 2018 story by Mat Weir titled “Where Locals Are Shooting AR-15s.” (goodtimes.sc/santa-cruz-news)
“I have deep concerns when any law enforcement agency seems to promote guns in any way. It’s not safe for them, either. I’m sure they would rather respond to a call where they knew somebody didn’t have a cache of weapons in their house,” Elerick said. “I think they totally scrapped that citizens police academy.” According to Santa Cruz Police Department Spokeswoman Joyce Blaschke, the last academy ended on May 1, 218 and the program is currently not offered.
Mike Gennaco became the interim independent police auditor for Santa Cruz in January 2020 and also is the auditor for Anaheim, Palo Alto and Davis.
“Unfortunately, it is still not unusual to reward officers with medals of valor, who shoot and kill people. To the degree that law enforcement is getting away from that kind of recognition, I think that’s really important,” Gennaco said. “In Madison (Wisconson) we wrote about how officers had been given medals of valor for getting involved in deadly force incidents. I’m not sure you want to reward or acknowledge an officer for that kind of conduct, necessarily.”
Unfortunately, lost and stolen police guns often end up being used in acts of violence. Many mass shootings have featured AR-15s including some of the worst; 2017 in La Vegas and 2018 in Parkland, Florida. AR-15s were also visible during media coverage of the strange and deadly Washington, D.C. white-supremacist insurrection attempt on Jan. 6. And in Watsonville, 15-year-old Luke Smith was killed on Nov. 19, 2016 by one shot at close range from an AR-15 by Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Vigil.
“It’s extremely concerning,” offered Vasquez. “This is something that we take very serious and there’s always that possibility that it might surface. And in a situation where we would pay for it, to be involved in some type of shooting – that would be devastating. We’d hate for that to happen.” Vasquez paused and added, “So it’s extremely frustrating and fearful. But hopefully, it did en dup in some sort of neighboring jurisdiction, either picked up in the field or through some sort of transfer that just wasn’t logged appropriately. And we haven’t been able to find it. It’s a really unfortunate set of circumstances.”
“Any weapon that is stolen out of a vehicle, regardless if it’s a police weapon or a private weapon, I’m very concerned about. Because that is going to go into the hands of someone who is committing a crime,” Mills said. “When weapons get taken, regardless of the origin of that weapon, it’s a huge concern. Particularly a police weapon. That just is distasteful, it’s wrong, and that’s why we take strong internal action against those things when they take place.”
Shani Buggs is an assistant professor with the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program said the rifle could be out of the county or state.
“The fact that the AR-15 was stolen in one county does not mean that it is still there. It doesn’t mean that it’s still in California,” Buggs said. “There’s no way to tell that unless the police are actively doing ballistics matching and firearms tracing. And we can’t answer those questions without knowing what the police have been doing as it relates to this stolen firearm. So, we’re not able to even alleviate any concerns around safety when we don’t even have a conversation around this stolen firearm.”
At least one stolen police gun has ended up in Santa Cruz.
According to a Sept. 3, 2019 report by NBC Bay Area, “An assault rifle stolen from the parked vehicle of an FBI agent in Oakland was sold to a 20-year-old buyer in Santa Cruz for $1,600.”
According to the article, other items stolen during the sam “smash and grab” were a .45 caliber Glock handgun magazine, a combat medic kit, a set of handcuffs and an FBI raid jacket. The FBI agent later “dodged fines” for leaving the items unattended and unlocked, according to a Sept. 4, 2019 San Jose Mercury report by Peele.
The Sentinel obtained city expense reports that show the SCPD purchased “replacement sniper rifles” on Jan. 21, 2020 for $11,996.53.
Mills said, “No, that was not a replacement for that (stolen) weapon.” When asked if the stolen AR-15 had been replaced he said, “I would assume that it has, yes. But that would’ve been years ago.”
“This was an incident that occurred almost four years ago and has been reported to City Council and Public Safety Committee and appropriate actions have been put in place,” Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers told the Sentinel.”
The first records request to City of Santa Cruz on Aug. 3, 2020 seeking information about stolen or lost SCPD property from 2015 to 2020 resulted in an emphatic, yet inaccurate, response.
“There was no SCPD property stolen, missing or removed during the requested timeframe…” A second response on Sept. 24, 2020 corrected, “Upon further search, the City has located record(s) responsive to your request. We apologize that this was no disclosed in the City’s Aug. 3, 2020 response to your request.” Despite finding the documents, they were not provided, but instead “Withheld pursuant to government code 6254 F.”
“State privacy statutes provide special protection to peace officers,” Gennaco explained. “Most ‘personnel records’ are exempt from disclosure, including most internal affairs investigations. I support increased access to information regarding internal affairs investigations similar to the statutory scheme in the state of Floria, which have been again introduced in the current California legislative session.
“In my view, the interest in learning how a police agency is ensuring accountability through internal investigations and discipline – or not – is paramount over the privacy interests of a public employee,” Gennaco said.
“Frankly, it’s draconian,” Peele said. “California has got the most stringent police privacy records laws in the country. It’s crazy how tough it is to get any information about the conduct of police officers. We have an incredibly weak law in terms of access.”
Council members Renee Golder and Martine Watkins both said they’d been briefed about the AR-15 by MIlls. Both declined to comment on this issue because, they said, it involved an on-going investigation.
“I have been fully briefed by the chief of police and am satisfied that all the proper investigative steps have been taken over the past four years to recover the weapon,” Golder said.
Former City Councilwoman Katherine Beiers was a member of the Public Safety Committee until her term ended in January and she told the Sentinel that she first heard about the stolen AR-15 from the Sentinel. The PSC serves a police oversight function and also includes Council members Golder and Watkins. “I knew nothing about it until you told me about it,” Beiers said.
This situation is not unique to Santa Cruz.
“In Palo Alto we reported on a very similar case in which an officer off-duty had her gun stolen. Her gun had not been secured,” Gennaco recalled. “The officer was retired but at the time of the theft she was a reserve officer. One of the consequences of that was that she was taken off reserve officer status and is no longer affiliated with the department. That’s the kind of transparency that we can provide in other jurisdictions and we’d be hopeful that we could provide if we are name the police auditor for your city.” Gennaco became the permanent Police Auditor for Santa Cruz last month.
Gennaco also first heard of the AR-15 theft from the Sentinel and said he wasn’t surprised he wasn’t in the loop.
“If this incident happened well before Mills was chief, that explains to me why I don’t know about it,” he said. Gennaco replaced the city’s previous Police Auditor – Bob Aaronson – when Aaronson’s contract was not renewed in 2020. Aaronson didn’t respond to multiple emails and phone calls from the Sentinel.
When asked why the AR-15 theft was not made public, Mills told the Sentinel, “That was well before I got here. I don’t know why they chose not to make it public. I have chosen not to make it public because it was thoroughly investigated. It was handled.”
“That’s lie by omission,” Buggs said. “The police chief, politically, could say, ‘This didn’t happen on my watch, but this is what I did when I found out about it. And this is how it won’t happen again. This is how we’ve ensured that firearms are safely stored.’ ”
The Sentinel asked Vasquez if he agreed that keeping the theft a secret was a lie of omission. “Well, what I’ll agree to is the fact that it could be perceived or interpreted as not being fully transparent. And that it would damage credibility, in terms of trust, that the community has in law enforcement,” Vasquez said. “I think that’s no different than any other circumstance where, whether or not we are fully transparent on a particular issue, that can involve a number of things such as a decision not to release body worn cam, if there’s a particular case that it is a hot topic at the time.”
Buggs said more can be done.
“The fact that it is not public knowledge does raise questions,” Buggs said. “There is the issue of transparency and the issue of accountability. Not sharing information that may be embarrassing, in the hopes that it will never come to light, only makes it that much more harmful to the community’s trust when it does come to light. Research shows that when incidents of police violence or distrust occur, they further breakdown the relationship between police and the communities they serve. Covering up the information does more harm. It begs the questions, “What else is being covered up? What else is not being shared?”
“My first concern is the lack of transparency and communication from the police department to the citizens and community of Santa Cruz,” opines Banjo. “It’s quite self-evident that when you have a program that calls itself a community safety program – but it doesn’t alert its community when their safety might be in jeopardy from a stolen AR-15 – it just defeats the purpose of why we even have such a program in the first place. This just goes to show how much we need a community safety model that really is treatment specialized and that’s able to have transparency, open communication and access to files.”
“I was dismayed to learn about it. I heard about it from you. And it’s just hard to imagine how it could have happened,” Brown said. “I’m also concerned that because the issue has not come to light- it hasn’t been made public – it makes it hard to know what, if anything, is changing in protocol within the SCPD.
“I have talked with Chief Mills and I do understand that because there has been an investigation that involves members of the police department, it’s a personnel matter and those are legally, closely guarded,” Brown continued. “But I do think that more generally the issue ought to be addressed. And given that it happened, it would be helpful to hear something from the department publicly.”
“As a citizen, a taxpayer, I expect my government to uphold the law in the same way that I’m expected to uphold it,” Buggs said. “And we rightly place more responsibility on the individuals who have arrest powers and the legal ability to take lives; they have to be held to higher standards. They have to demonstrate how they are working to protect the public trust to earn and maintain credibility. In any relationship there is the expectation that the person you were trusting will say, “Here’s how I messed up and here’s how I won’t do it again.”
Following the publication of Peele’s “944 guns” article, then State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) sponsored a bill that added a minor penalty if a California police officer is found negligent in a gun being lost or stolen from a vehicle.
“It’s kind of like a traffic ticket; a citation with a fine up to $1,000,” Peele explained. “It’s not a misdemeanor or a felony. But it’s what (Senator) Hill could get passed. You know how tough it is to get anything passed in California that provides any ability to scrutinize police?
“The public expects a police officer would understand that a weapon getting out on the street is dangerous and they’d do everything they could to make sure that it would be very hard to steal those weapons. Any police chief could just say, ‘This stops now,’ ” Peele added.
“What are you putting in place to ensure that it never happens again?” asked Elerick. “Because we can all agree that a missing AR-15 is not good, lost or stolen. Whether it’s a private citizen or law enforcement. Actually, it’s worse if a cop does it. But what is in place so that it never happens again? Do we know if there’s been any policy or procedural changes?”
Those difficult conversations are needed, according to Buggs.
“It gives police an opportunity to say; ‘This happened. It was a tragedy, a failure on our part. And here’s how we are fixing it and how we will ensure that this never happens again.’ It’s a difficult conversation but it’s a far better outcome to come forward with the information then to let it slip through media reporting.” Buggs adds, “At a time when we are having really difficult conversations around transparency and accountability for law enforcement, and truly making communities safer, we cannot continue to have this barrier between law enforcement and the communities they serve with a patriarchal, paternalistic viewpoint that, “The community just isn’t informed enough, and cannot make rational decisions about the information that we (police) have. Therefore, we will withhold information from the community.” That will continue to be harmful and erode any relationship between the police and the community.”
“If they are professional law enforcement who are trying to remove guns out of the hands of people that shouldn’t have them on the street, if you can’t trust them to properly secure, monitor and store their weapons, then what?” Elerick said. “It’s very strange and disturbing to me that it happened and that it has been so secret. And with the scrutiny on law enforcement right now, the sense that we need law enforcement to keep us safe is really in question.”
Trust or credibility
“I heard about this weapon being stolen from you!” Banjo said. “The fact that we didn’t hear about this incident from the police, hurts. Whatever trust or credibility the police department had, this injures that. It just goes to show that we need a new model that is much more effective in how it goes about communicating with our communities.”
“Any of those times where the public feels we’re not providing them with information, it certainly damages our credibility,” observes Vasquez. “I can assure you that Chief Mills’ intention is to be fully transparent and provide as much information as possible. We don’t have anything to hide. But I do understand your point. And the fact that by not providing information, that loses credibility and trust with the community.”
Listen to “Transformation Highway” with John Malkin at noon Thursday on KZSC 88.1 FM, kzsc.org.