Friday, October 15, 1999

HPD badge

Returning guns
to accused police
officers criticized

Domestic-violence groups decry
exemptions allowing law enforcement
officers accused of abuse to carry
their firearms on duty

By Jaymes K. Song


The courts ordered Honolulu police Lt. Wayne Fergerstrom to give up his gun last year after his girlfriend obtained a restraining order, claiming he had abused her several times.

But the department gave Fergerstrom his gun back.

In a practice begun in 1993, when a law took away firearm privileges from anyone served with a restraining order, the Honolulu Police Department has in several instances granted exemptions to its officers. Exactly how many police officers have been authorized to keep their weapons in the face of court orders is unknown because no one -- not HPD, the prosecutor's office, attorney general's office or the courts -- keeps records. Each law enforcement agency or military organization is responsible for monitoring itself.

The on-duty firearms exemption was created so law enforcement and military personnel could keep their jobs if a restraining order was filed against them. Fergerstrom and other police officers say the exemptions are needed to protect their jobs because anyone can be granted a restraining order, even with unfounded accusations.

But domestic-violence groups say victims are put at risk by the exemptions, and that the state should take a no-tolerance stand and eliminate them.

The Fergerstrom case

In separate incidents from 1997 to 1998, Fergerstrom allegedly struck his girlfriend, pushed her to the ground and threw a mirror at her, according to court statements filed by the woman.

Fergerstrom, who headed the Honolulu Police Department's adult sex crimes detail last year, was arrested for felony assault on Oct. 30, 1998.

The charges were reduced to misdemeanor domestic abuse, and he was found not guilty at a jury trial on Feb. 25.

But before the trial, Family Court judges found enough evidence to grant Fergerstrom's girlfriend at the time, Susan Dills, a temporary restraining order and then a protective order -- which took away his privilege to carry a firearm.

Defendants lose right to bear arms

The firearms ban listed in all restraining and protective orders reads:

"Defendant is prohibited from possessing or controlling any firearm, ammunition, firearm permit or license for the duration of this order or extension thereof. All permits/licenses are hereby revoked. Defendant shall immediately turn over all firearms, ammunition, permits and/or licenses to a police officer or to the Honolulu Police Department for the duration thereof, unless the defendant is granted a police/law enforcement/armed forces/government personnel, on-duty firearms only exemption, pursuant to HRS, sections 134-11(a) and (b) and 18 USC Section 925(a)(1) by (in Fergerstrom's case) Chief of Police."

Because of the exemption granted by the police chief as allowed by state law, Fergerstrom, 53, was permitted to carry a handgun during work hours only.

Nanci Kreidman, executive director of the Domestic Violence Clearinghouse, criticized exemptions and said the law should be repealed.

"Firearms are dangerous in the hands of an abuser," she said. "It doesn't matter what occupation the abuser is."

Fergerstrom, who retired in August as head of the forgery detail, said his former girlfriend's accusations were untrue.

"She attacked me; I didn't attack her," he said from his Kailua home. "When she attacked me, I protected myself and then she got hurt.

"She said the stuff because she was very jealous of certain things," he explained. "When things didn't go right with her, she would make up stories or make them worse than what they were. Like throwing a mirror at her, I never did that."

Dills couldn't be reached for comment.

Others have exemptions

According to HPD officials, three other officers also have on-duty firearm exemptions.

Each exemption was granted by the police chief based on the officer's work history, performance and recommendations. There is also one police officer who was stripped of his badge and gun after he was served with a restraining order.

He was assigned to a civilian desk job because the court didn't allow him the exemption.

The three exempted officers are required to check out their handguns at the beginning of their shift every day from their supervisors. At the end of the day, the officers must give back their weapons before going home.

"The supervisors are aware of the conditions involved, and the weapons are allowed on duty and secured off duty," said Deputy Chief Michael Carvalho. "The restrictions are under close supervision."

No guarantees

Kreidman said limiting an officer to on-duty weapons privileges doesn't offer the abuse victim much assurance.

"The officer could be driving around all day and could go visit the home or the work place," she said.

"Or he could follow you. It doesn't offer me much confidence.

"Nobody knows where he is at all times, even if he's a detective or investigator."

If the department felt an exempted officer posed a threat to a victim by carrying a firearm on duty, the officer never would be allowed to carry a weapon, Carvalho said. Fergerstrom said taking someone's gun doesn't eliminate the danger.

"If a person was going to do something to the person anyway, what do you need a gun for?" he said. "It's kind of ridiculous."

Because Fergerstrom is not allowed to carry or possess a gun until Dec. 2001, it has affected his future career in law enforcement or security, he said.

"I can't get a job where I need a gun," he said.

"They won't even look at me. It really handcuffed me on the kind of jobs I can get."

Fergerstrom decided to retire in August after 30-plus years because he "got sick of the whole thing." He wouldn't comment further.

Kreidman said abusers should think about the consequences before resorting to violence.

"We can't craft a system based on exceptions," she said. "Holding abusers accountable -- it doesn't have anything to do with occupation."

Judge has a say

Some changes have been made to the rule since Police Chief Lee Donohue granted Fergerstrom his exemption.

Exemptions now are authorized by a judge in a hearing, and not by a law enforcement or military chief, said Family Court Judge Darryl Choy.

And the judge has to find that the safety of the plaintiff is not being compromised by the exemption, a requirement the chiefs also had to consider.

Choy said he has denied an exemption because he didn't feel the victim was completely safe with the person carrying a firearm.

He also pointed out that the law allowing exemptions covers all law enforcement and military personnel, not just police officers.

About 3,000 requests for restraining orders are heard by Family Court every year on Oahu. About 1,000 are heard in District Court.

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