Crime & Justice

San Bernardino cops see job differently after terrorist attack

San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan speaks with the media regarding the shooting that left 14 dead at the Inland Regional Center on December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California.
San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan speaks with the media regarding the shooting that left 14 dead at the Inland Regional Center on December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Before last year’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino, detective Don Sawyer carried two extra magazines of bullets on his belt.

That was 30 backup bullets to go with the 15 loaded into his Glock .45 pistol in the holster.

Today, he packs four extra magazines on his thick leather Sam Browne belt – the standard belt used by cops across America.

“If I could carry 20 magazines, I would,” Sawyer told KPCC during an interview at police headquarters this week.

Then he chuckles.

“I have no room left on my belt.”

Backup is usually pretty close in this city of 213,000 people. But you never know when you might be pinned down somewhere or your radio might die, said Sawyer, who is 33 years old and has been with the department for eight years.

“You never know what position you are going to be in or how long you’re going to be there,” he said. “The more advantage we can have, the more tools we can have, the better.”

Sawyer also carries in his police car more medical supplies. Medical personnel were not allowed near the attack site initial for fear the attackers had not left.

Sawyer was one of the first police officers to enter the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and seriously injured 22 others in one of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. The noontime mass shooting occurred during an holiday party at the center, which provides social services. Farook and Malik, who professed to be Muslims carrying out their religious duty, were killed in a gun battle later that day.

Today marks the grim, one-year anniversary of that attack, an event that changed policing in San Bernardino.

For the police officers first on the scene, the images remain hard to shake. Sgt. Brian Lentz recalled the body he came upon at a lunch table just outside the building where the shooting took place. It lay slumped over a bowl of soup. Steam was still rising from the bowl.

Before attack, Lentz only occasionally carried his gun while on duty. Now he almost always does.

“Even when I go to church, I have my weapon,” said Lentz.

In fact, he recently reached out to his pastor to find out if there are any other police officers in the congregation.

“So that if something does happen, and I see him with a gun, I know that he’s not a bad guy,” said Lentz, a 24 year veteran of the department.

The sergeant also bought himself an AR15 rifle. Lentz, 50, a former SWAT sniper who now works in internal affairs, keeps it in the office. It cost him about $1,500 after he added a scope, light, and other gear.

On their own, some officers at the cash-strapped San Bernardino Police Department have bought more bullets, bigger guns, better bullet proof vests and bigger medical kits in the wake of the terrorist attack. Its unclear how many have done this - the agency could not provide exact numbers.

The department has added to its armory too. Thanks to donations from local businesses, its purchased 100 Colt AR15 rifles at $1,040 a piece, said Police Chief Jarrod Burguan. 

He also plans to buy heavier body armor that can protect against rifle rounds, not just pistol fire. During the attack a year ago, Farook and Malik were armed with two .223-caliber semi-automatic rifles, along with two 9 mm caliber pistols and an explosive device that never detonated.

Burguan, who was heralded for his steady hand during the incident, reflected on how that day changed his department.

"It becomes part of the identity of your career, and the identity of this city, and the identity of this police department," he said.  "None of us chose it. It just happened to us."

The attack propelled Burguan into the national spotlight and resulted in more than 150 requests from agencies around the country asking him and others in the department to share what they experienced first hand.

Burguan spoke to KPCC at an airport in Toronto as he waited for a flight back to California this week. He had just given a presentation to officials in Niagra Falls.

"I will stay the single biggest thing that gets underscored is the need for training," he said. 

"When these incidents happen, you aren’t necessarily going to have the guys that are real tactical," he said. "You’re not going to have your SWAT team that are the first to respond." 

"These events are managed by average cops."

That's why he plans to begin a new round of active shooter training sessions for his officers early next year.

​In the wake of the shooting, Burguan created an intelligence unit. It's just a handful of civilian employees and a few sworn officers, but Burguan wants to grow the unit, using data, crime analysis, social media and undercover cops to fight terrorism better than they do now.

Burguan also wants more officers. He is authorized to have a team of 258, but his current force is at 225. It's a challenge, he said, to find qualified applicants – a common problem in many law enforcement agencies today.  

"We know once we can boost our numbers back up...we can be better prepared in the future," Burguan said.

As Burguan seeks to expand intelligence gathering, the only criminal prosecution directly related to the shooting continues. Enrique Marguez, Jr. has pleaded not guilty to charges he illegally purchased two of the guns used in the attack.

Marquez was a friend of Farook, according to federal investigators. He allegedly purchased the guns for he and Farook to launch attacks on an L.A. freeway and community college. Those attacks were never carried out. 

Trial is set for September 26, 2017.

A civil trial to prevent beneficiaries of a life insurance policy owned by Farook from receiving $250,000 remains on hold, pending the resolution of the criminal case, according to U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles Eileen Decker. 

The government argues Farook’s family should not receive $250,000 from two insurance policies because the money amounts to proceeds from a terrorist attack. U.S. law allows the government to seize such proceeds.

“To our knowledge it’s the first time this statute has been used,” said Decker.

For San Bernardino cops, it's been back to the beat. But even off the beat, they are more on guard.

Sgt. Lentz recently had a talk with his wife and two children about what they should do if they end up at a movie house or restaurant or ball game with an active shooter.

"This is what I’m going to expect you to do. Try to get cover or run," he recounted for KPCC.

"But don’t grab onto me, because I got to go to work."