The Falls Church police officers union has issued a vote of no confidence in Chief Robert T. Murray after growing increasingly concerned that officers' guns were defective and that criteria for job evaluations have not been established, union officials said.
Falls Church officers began having problems with their guns during training in April, and e-mails between officers and the manufacturer in May discussed difficulties with jams and malfunctions. Murray said he became aware of the problems in May or June, though officers are still using the guns.
The no-confidence vote is the latest clash between Murray and his officers. Last year, the union complained that commanders were requiring officers to meet a high quota for traffic tickets as a key part of their job evaluations and that failure to meet the quota could result in demotions or pay cuts.
Police officials have since relaxed their ticket-writing requirements, but officers haven't been told exactly how their performances will be evaluated, said Officer Scott Rhodes, president of the Falls Church Coalition of Police.
Murray said that he believes that he communicates well with the 31 officers and supervisors who police the 2.2-square-mile city and that he has updated officers on job criteria. Murray said he was not aware of last month's no-confidence vote until he was contacted by a reporter.
The union's vote was sparked by a perceived lack of communication over the department's service weapon, the .45-caliber SigSauer P220 pistol, introduced in January 2004. In April of this year, Rhodes said, officers began reporting that malfunctions had occurred during firearms training: Bullets were getting stuck upright in the chamber (called "stovepiping"); more than one bullet was being fed into the chamber; jams were locking the gun entirely; and the pistol was ejecting the magazine with rounds still in it
Also in April, a member of the Henrico County Police Department, outside Richmond, sent a telex to law enforcement agencies nationwide, asking whether anyone else was having problems with the P220. In July, Henrico dumped the P220.
On May 17, according to e-mails provided by the union, Officer Justin M. Cuomo of the Falls Church firearms training unit wrote to the regional sales manager of SigArms that officers "were forced to use a knife, screwdriver (or something similar) and extreme force to clear the weapon. . . . This poses an enormous safety risk." Cuomo noted that such problems had occurred at least five times.
Some weapons jams were attributed by the manufacturer to inexperienced shooters. "However, some of our SWAT-trained and experienced shooters are experiencing this on a recurring basis also," Cuomo wrote.
Murray said in an interview that he was not aware of problems with the officers' guns until he and a captain went for firearms training in May or June and the captain's gun jammed. Rhodes said that incident occurred after Henrico's telex and Cuomo's contact with SigArms.
"I asked, 'Are we having any other problems?' " Murray recalled. "Then, they thought possibly six other people were having problems. I asked the captain to get our reserve weapons out, and we replaced those."
Rhodes said officers, including himself, were given the same gun as a replacement -- the SigSauer P220. He said he has not had a chance to test-fire it.
Jim Fry, the SigArms regional sales manager, said the P220 "is an outstanding weapon" used by police agencies nationally since 1985. A gun sent to him by Falls Church was examined by engineers and "does not display a problem," Fry said. He said the problem might be the shooters' "lack of experience or knowledge."
Murray said he could not remember when he became aware of the department's internal discussions about the P220. "I don't know the extent of the problems," Murray said. The department had asked three manufacturers, including SigArms, to supply other guns for testing, Murray said. He said his officers had been told of the situation.
Rhodes said he has heard nothing from the department about the guns since May. He noted that the problem has existed since at least April and that Falls Church is sandwiched between hotbeds of gang activity in Arlington and Fairfax counties. "The officers are particularly hot about the weapons issue," he said.
"I think the officers are just fed up with the chief's unwillingness to communicate with us," said Officer Markus Bristol, the union vice president.
In the Falls Church Police Department, 22 officers and corporals are eligible for union membership, and 17 are members, Rhodes said. At a meeting July 6, 13 members showed up, and an officer who was not a union leader suggested the no-confidence vote, Bristol said. Eleven of the 13 members voted in favor of it, he said.
"I haven't seen it to be able to comment one way or the other," Murray said. "I'm kind of in the dark."
Rhodes and Bristol said the chief told them in June that he would not meet with them on a regular basis, so they did not inform him of the vote. Murray said he planned to begin regular meetings with all officers this week.
City officials also said they were unaware of the union vote. Mayor Dan Gardner said that he found Murray was always "very appropriate, professional" and that he has "the utmost confidence and faith" in Murray.
City Council member David Snyder, a former mayor, said he was unaware of the gun issue. "If there's any doubt about the quality of the equipment with our police force, it has to be rectified totally and immediately." He said the chief's plan to test other weapons "sounds like a step in the right direction, but it's pretty late in coming."