Studies show that police officers overwhelmingly oppose stricter gun control laws. Eddie Garcia, San Jose’s police chief, isn’t one of those officers.
Last month, I had a long phone conversation with Chief Garcia while he was driving to a meeting. We talked about issues involving the local department, but most of our discussion veered toward national issues: gun violence, the Black Lives Matter movement and the headlines of the previous weeks, as police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge were ambushed and killed.
Chief Garcia had some strong—and surprising—opinions on gun control, as well as the inability of lawmakers to enact meaningful change. We discussed whether police officers should be among the biggest champions of gun control, especially when so many officer-involved shootings are motivated by a fear that civilians could be armed and dangerous. From there, the conversation turned to race and how law enforcement at large views Black Lives Matter.
Unlike the union that represents San Jose police officers, Garcia sympathized with issues Black Lives Matter protesters have raised.
“I think it’s a very valid movement,” Chief Garcia told me in a follow-up conversation Sunday. “We have to acknowledge as a police department that this badge didn’t always stand for what it stands for today. We’ve got to admit things.”
The badge still stands as a symbol of oppression to some—just see the furor over the stance, or seat, of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick—but going back to our talk in July: on some points, the chief and I agreed. On others, we respectfully disagreed.
Before we got off the phone, though, I realized how rare it is to have a candid conversation like this with law enforcement, especially when the person on the other end of the line is the top cop in the 10th biggest city in the nation.
I asked Chief Garcia if he would be willing to go on the record about his views, and he immediately agreed. It took some time to schedule, but below is an email Q&A with San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia.
Josh Koehn: What are your thoughts on the Second Amendment?
Chief Garcia: It’s a very important amendment, and obviously very polarizing. I agree with the right to bear arms, but I equally believe in the limitations that have been placed by our courts. One aspect that I find interesting is that the Second Amendment was adopted in the late 1700s. I wonder if today’s modern weaponry were available then, if that amendment would look the same. I suspect not.
Do you think there are too many guns on American streets?
Are gun crimes more of an issue in states other than California?
I think gun crimes are an issue for our entire country.
What do you consider an assault rifle?
Simply stated: a compact, long-range capable weapon with high capacity that can be fired very rapidly; originally designed for the military.
Do you think the average non-felon should be able to own an assault rifle?
My belief—and I realize this may not be popular—is that these weapons should be for military and police use only. This is a perfect question to go hand-in-hand with my response to question No. 1.
Do police feel safer knowing that everyday citizens could be carrying a gun? Does the size of the gun matter? (no pun intended)
Again, simply stated: No.
There is so much training that we as officers go through. The technical aspects of the training (i.e. marksmanship and safety) are just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much we want our officers to rely on before using their weapons: de-escalation, CIT (Crisis Intervention Team training), etc.
And as well trained as we are, as seen nationally, there still remain questions on our use of firearms. I certainly would not like to see confrontations between armed citizens and our officers, who understandably would have a difficult time in a split-second decision discerning “good guy with a gun” or “bad guy with a gun.” Their jobs are difficult enough, I don't feel the need to add to that. And, obviously, the higher the caliber the more damage can be caused.
Would you feel safer if we armed our teachers and principals with guns?
Not necessarily. We feel our protocol of “Run, Hide, Defend (Fight)” is the best way to survive campus violence. However, if strict policies and training were in place, I would not object to having a dialogue regarding access to a weapon if all reasonable means have failed and death or serious injury was imminent on a school campus.
What were you doing when you learned about the sniper attack in Dallas?
I was having a meeting, and immediately started following the coverage.
What was your reaction to the events in Dallas and Baton Rouge?
I felt them to be despicable and cowardly. They shook the foundation of our great country.
Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement is dangerous or illegitimate?
I believe the movement to be legitimate, but it needs to be used broadly or better defined. If the issue is the concern over police use of force, which is a valid point, then let's have that conversation.
However, if the issue is strictly that “Black Lives Matter” then we cannot have that conversation without also discussing the homicide rates in certain cities where black lives are lost at the hands of other black lives. I know that this movement isn't trying to say that ONLY Black Lives Matter, but simply that Black Lives Matter ALSO.
Finally, and I don’t believe the responsible individuals looking for reform believe this, especially those who we have been working with in San Jose, but I strongly oppose, as have those in our city looking for reforms, any movement that disgraces the sacrifice of the men and women who wear the uniform and which advocates violence against law enforcement.
What legislation have law enforcement agencies or police chief groups put forward in recent years to curb gun violence?
(Chief Garcia said he did not have information on this question.—Editor)
What legislation have local law enforcement agencies or police chief groups put forward in recent years to address mental illness?
There is recent legislation already on training and how to deal with mental illness that departments have to employ. I just mandated that every member of this department be trained on CIT.
Has the NRA or any other organization impeded these efforts? How so?
My personal belief is that the NRA simply attempts to defend the Second Amendment as it’s written, so if there are any types of proposed restrictions to that, they definitely will step and defend against those. And they have a very strong lobby.
Do you see gun violence and mental illness as related issues?
They are definitely related issues. As first responders, we encounter individuals with firearms and mental issues all too often. Ultimately, it is the families of those lost and my officers—not only physically but also mentally—that suffer most. These encounters can be simply tragic. If we can bridge the gap, between crisis training and gun control, it will make our community safer AND my officers safer.
Is the status quo on gun control in this country acceptable?
Absolutely not. As I've stated, I do believe in the Second Amendment. However, as stated in question one, if it were to be written today, I believe it would be written differently and more strictly defined.