Santa Clara Co. Sheriff's Office to reintroduce ‘riot guns' in jail

Years after banning the use of riot guns in the Santa Clara County Jail, the sheriff has decided to re-introduce them as part of their revised "Use of Force" policy. Deputies say they can be used to break up large fights, without having to use lethal force.

Sgt. Reggie Cooks with the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office says, "If there's another inmate who is being stabbed or possibly attacked or it is a really volatile situation where there are a lot of inmates in this fight, we need to be able to rectify that in a really quick manner."

But in recent years, there had been problems with the use of force here. Mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree was beaten to death by three guards, who were convicted of the crime. And another man, Walter Roches, died after being extracted from his cell.

In that case, guards had used something called an FN 303, otherwise known as a riot gun. It shoots plastic bullets that break apart on impact and can also have a chemical agent added to the mix.

After the incident, Sheriff Laurie Smith banned the use of riot guns in the jail. She has now decided to bring them back.

Sgt. Cooks says, "It will be used in a very limited scope. In addition to that, in order for it to be approved, it will has to go through a captain or higher. Unless the situation is so dire or so volatile that time does not allow for you to make those calls."

The change of heart, comes following a change in the use of force policy. Santa Clara County rewrote theirs from scratch. And expert Jeffrey Schwartz, who was brought in to consult, says it is among the most progressive he's seen.

Schwartz, a criminal justice consultant says, "There are more checks and balances. There's more accountability. There's much more emphasis on de-escalation, on avoiding force where possible."

Still Sarah Marinho, the lawyer representing the Roches family says she absolutely opposes reintroducing the riot gun, because she says the department has proven untrustworthy already.

Still Schwartz thinks the key will be, how well the officers are trained in how and when to use it.

He says, "The idea is people should have some tools, and be well-trained. It's also true you can abuse any of those things."

The sheriff's department says they will have 23 of the riot guns. But those who carry them will need extensive training, so they don't expect to deploy them until later in the year.