Monday, July 22, 2024

A Sig Sauer P320 9 mm firearm like the kind used by Cambridge and Somerville police. (Photo: Jimmy Smith via Flickr)

A veteran Cambridge police lieutenant has sued gun maker Sig Sauer and the City of Cambridge, claiming he was injured in May 2019 when his Sig Sauer patrol gun fired without his pulling the trigger. Detective Lt. Thomas J. Ahern, now retired, also alleged that police higher-ups threatened after the incident that he wouldn’t have a chance of promotion unless he admitted falsely that he had pulled the trigger and submitted to disciplinary action.

In the June 16, 2021, federal court lawsuit, Ahern said he warned police officials repeatedly before and after the city decided to order the gun in 2018 that it was unsafe because of “uncommanded discharges,” to no avail. Television station WCVB first reported on problems with the gun in November 2020 and on Ahern’s suit when it was filed.

Ahern retired from the Police Department in January of this year after serving for more than 29 years. The suit remains pending, with major motions and any trial scheduled for next year. Ahern’s suit said there have been at least 52 reports of the gun firing without a trigger pull since 2014, when Sig Sauer introduced the model. Ten lawsuits and three class actions have claimed that the gun is unsafe. It appears that no civilian has been injured when an officer’s gun allegedly went off without the trigger being pulled, although some civilians were hurt when their own guns fired, according to court filings that gave details of reported “uncommanded firings.” According to court filings, though, a Philadelphia transit officer’s gun fired without a trigger pull in August 2019 and almost hit a passenger; there was video of the incident and Philadelphia equipped officers with another pistol.

The city’s answer to the suit said it didn’t know whether Ahern’s gun fired without his pulling the trigger, but in a reply to questions posed by the lieutenant’s lawyers the city asserted that Ahern was “the sole cause of any action or injury” that resulted from his  “violation” of police gun rules.

The city also denied that Ahern warned police officials about the safety of  the gun in 2017 and at “social events” in 2018 and that the city had an “ulterior motive” in denying him a promotion after the May 19, 2019, incident.

Sig Sauer has also denied that the gun can go off without a trigger pull and has asserted that officers elsewhere in the United States who have sued on similar grounds were shown to have handled the weapon improperly. In answers to Ahern’s and other suits, Sig Sauer has contended that safety mechanisms would prevent the gun from firing without the trigger being pulled and therefore, if it went off, someone or something pulled the trigger. As for Ahern, Sig Sauer not only denied that it could have fired without a trigger pull but said he didn’t handle the gun properly.

Besides Ahern, two other Cambridge officers and two in Somerville have also claimed that their Sig Sauer guns fired without their pulling the trigger, according to Ahern’s suit and others. Three officers filed lawsuits against Sig Sauer but they have not sued Cambridge or Somerville.

Waited to order

Asked whether Cambridge police are still outfitting officers with the Sig Sauer model named in Ahern’s lawsuit, Jeremy Warnick said they are. Warnick – a police department spokesperson who on Monday became director of media relations and content strategy for the city – said that while considering whether to change to the Sig Sauer P320 9 mm model from a different Sig Sauer gun, “we became aware” that the P320 gun “as it was originally designed” could fire when dropped.

“As a result, we delayed ordering the Sig Sauer P320 9 mm until Sig Sauer upgraded that handgun and ensured that appropriate modifications had been made to rectify that issue and its associated safety concerns,” Warnick said.

“In consultation with our armorers, we are confident that any such issues that may have existed with the originally designed Sig Sauer P320 9 mm handgun have been addressed and that the upgraded Sig Sauer P320 9 mm handgun exceeds the department’s high safety standards,” Warnick said.

In a van in Harvard Square

Cambridge police equipped the force with the P320 in the fall of 2018. Sig Sauer had issued a “voluntary upgrade” of the gun the year before to deal with reports that it could fire when dropped, court papers said. The incidents involving Ahern and the four other local officers occurred after the upgrade and didn’t involve the gun being dropped, according to lawsuits.

Ahern’s gun fired while he had taken it out to check the holster; he was holding the gun along its sides in a manner recommended in police officer training, without touching the trigger, the suit said. At the time, he headed the department’s SWAT team and was in a van with other team members at the Harvard Square May Day celebration because of the danger of terrorist attacks at a large gathering, the suit said. The shot grazed his leg and destroyed his cellphone, which protected him from more serious injury, according to the suit. The following day, doctors at Cambridge Hospital diagnosed him with a contusion, or bruise, and he had difficulty walking, the lawsuit said.

Answering Ahern’s specific allegations, Sig Sauer said it “denies that [Ahern] properly handled the gun because it is not appropriate to function check a holster with a loaded weapon and because [Ahern] had the loaded gun improperly pointed toward his body.”

Other complaints

Lawsuits listed these other alleged “uncommanded firings” involving police officers in Cambridge and Somerville:

Cambridge officer Jacques Desrosiers’ gun fired Oct. 10, 2019, while the 24-year veteran was in uniform and it was in his belt; he was severely injured, according to a suit he and his wife filed against Sig Sauer last October. In an answer, Sig Sauer said the description of Desrosiers carrying the weapon “‘under’ his department-issued belt suggests he was unsafely carrying the pistol, leaving the trigger unprotected.” The company also denied that the gun could have fired without someone or something touching the trigger.

Somerville police officer Walter Collette Jr. had his gun wrapped in his gym bag when it went off on July 23, 2019, and injured his leg. Collette, who was on duty and walking to his motorcycle club for dinner, has also sued Sig Sauer. A U.S. District Court judge dismissed three counts of his complaint and left five pending, including one for violation of the state consumer protection law. Sig Sauer said it was unsafe to wrap a loaded gun in a gym bag.

Cambridge officer David Albert’s gun fired without a trigger pull on Dec. 2, 2019, while Albert was “putting on his duty belt.” Albert has not filed suit, according to federal court records.

Somerville officer Ashley Catatao’s gun fired while it was holstered on April 6, 2022, injuring her leg. She sued Sig Sauer in April 2022.

Replying to these and other allegations that the gun fired without the trigger being pulled, Sig Sauer called each incident an  “alleged negligent discharge” and denied that the P320 could go off without someone or something touching the trigger. In some cases the gun-maker said police investigators found that the trigger had been actuated, in one instance apparently by a seat belt.