LITTLE ROCK — If the Pulaski County coroner’s recent request is approved, then uniformed law enforcement won’t be the only ones openly carrying guns at some death scenes.
Citing safety concerns, Gerone Hobbs, the chief death investigator of the state’s most populous county, said he’s interested in getting approval for himself and his six deputy coroners to carry weapons on and off the scene of a death investigation.
“It’s something I threw in for our safety,” Hobbs said. “It’s something that I felt has become pretty much a need ... we’re by ourselves a lot.”
Hobbs and his deputies already have state concealed carry licenses and have their own weapons, but there are restrictions on where, when and how they can carry.
To overcome those, Hobbs and his deputies want to be certified as auxiliary law enforcement officers, which would require them to go through at least 100 hours of law-enforcement training. They will also be required to undergo firearms training through a certified law-enforcement agency that will sponsor or “appoint” them, according to state statutes.
Hobbs said he’s been working with the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training and Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay to figure out what his office will have to do to carry weapons openly.
“I haven’t worked out the bugs yet to see what we have to do,” Hobbs said. “This is just scratching the surface.”
Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines said Hobbs approached him with the idea about a month ago and that in principle, he’s behind it.
“I think there are times when they need a weapon, more for prevention and protection than anything else,” Villines said.
Villines said the initiative is in development and he still has reservations about putting more guns out in the open and looks forward to hearing opinions from the heads of local law enforcement before he allows Hobbs to move forward.
“I’m willing to look at [the proposal], like I said [to Hobbs], if you think it’s good, that’s good but I don’t want a bunch of cowboys. They need solid training,” Villines said. “I don’t want [coroners] to get into a situation where a gun makes things worse ... but there are times where they get into situations where there is no police backup.”
That often happens, according to Hobbs, who said that with more than 3,000 death calls a year, he and his deputies often find themselves in odd locations dealing with grieving families and friends whose emotions can range from depressed to angry.
Holladay and Hobbs said that the training to be certified as auxiliary officers would go through the sheriff’s training program for reserve deputies and that any training would be thorough.
But Holladay said his office wouldn’t use Hobbs or his deputy coroners for law enforcement needs.
“It’s more than just giving somebody the authority ... or the training to carry a gun,” Holladay said. “We want to ensure that they understandthe law. But even if we train them, they’re not going to be under our authority ... we’re not going be out there with them and advising them.”
Holladay said the coroner’s office would remain under Villines and the county Quorum Court’s supervision.
But according to Arkansas Code 12-9-303, an auxiliary officer only has power if he’s operating under “the direct supervision of a full time certified law enforcement officer.”
Experts from the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training were not available for interview Thursday or Friday to explain whether or how a coroner could openly carry without supervision from certified law-enforcement officers.
When asked what additional security coroners would have if allowed to carry weapons openly, Holladay couldn’t say.
“That’s one of the things that came to my mind when the issue came up. They already carry,” Holladay said. “That’s a question you’d have to ask [Hobbs].”
Hobbs said that concealed carry privileges hamper his coroners and that carrying openly could have a deterring effect.
“One time a while back, I was at the corner of John Barrow [Road] and West Markham [Street] on the way to the [state Crime Laboratory] and a guy just opened my driver’s side door ... I wasn’t expecting anyone to just run up and open the door at 2 a.m.,” Hobbs said. “My concern is mainly our safety.”
Hobbs said his office is behind the curve on being armed. Washington County Coroner Roger Morris said he and his deputies are certified as auxiliary officers and are part-time deputies with their sheriff’s office.
Morris said he’s been threatened and assaulted as a coroner, and that tempers and emotions after a death can lead to altercations.
“[Open carrying] is a protection mechanism but also a mechanism for helping law enforcement,” Morris said. “If it’s a volatile situation, if you know that tempers are going to fly, then if you’re carrying outside it’s an intimidator ... if not ... they think [a coroner] doesn’t have [a gun], ‘let’s kick his tail’... it’s a deterrent.”
Leonard Krout, president of the Arkansas Coroners Association, said his organization doesn’t have an opinion on allowing coroners to open carry, but he said it makes sense for coroners in larger areas like Washington and Pulaski counties to have some sort of protection when law enforcement isn’t around.
“I’m kind of torn between open-carry and conceal,” Krout said. “If you carry openly, you invite trouble but I’ll leave that up to [individual coroners].”
Krout pointed out that coroners used to be treated as just another member of law enforcement by state law and that there never was a need for a license or auxiliary officer certification.
Although they are nonbinding, a 1993 Arkansas Attorney General’s opinion said that coroners fell within the “statutory definition of law enforcement ... and are authorized to carry weapons.”
But a 1999 opinion approved by then-Attorney General and current U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor said that changes to state law governing coroners in 1993, changes that have redefined the role of the office, have made their role as law-enforcement officers “unclear.”
The distinction is compounded by references in the code that went unchanged in 1993 that refer to deputies as “peace officers,” though Pryor said those designations’ repeal was “implied” by other changes.
The opinion stated that “[coroners] may no longer fit the statutory definition of [law enforcement officers].”
Still unclear whether he and his officers will be able to carry openly, Hobbs said that if they do, they won’t try and act like law enforcement officers. Just coroners.
“We’re not here to arrest anybody,” Hobbs said. “We’ll do our same job. We’re the coroner’s office, our main focus is investigating deaths.”