The FBI is investigating whether members of the Los Angeles Police Department's elite Swat and Special Investigations Section units violated the law by buying large numbers of custom-made handguns and reselling them for profit.
Federal authorities opened the inquiry into the alleged gun sales in recent weeks after LAPD officials alerted them to possible gun violations, sources said.
The move comes after an earlier LAPD investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of officers. But on Friday, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck acknowledged that that probe was "clearly lacking" and said the department has opened a second investigation of the weapons transactions that is still ongoing.
Suspicion over the guns first arose in May 2010, when a lieutenant in the LAPD's Metropolitan Division, which includes Swat, attempted to take an inventory the division's weapons, according to a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by the lieutenant and a report last year by the LAPD's inspector general, Alex Bustamante.
While accounting for the weapons, Lieutenant Armando Perez discovered that Swat members had purchased an unknown number of pistols from gun maker Kimber Manufacturing and were "possibly reselling these Kimber firearms for large profits to people outside of Metro SWAT," said the lawsuit and Bustamante's report.
Sales records showed that as many as 324 pistols had been bought from Kimber. There are only about 60 officers in Swat, and the guns were intended to be used by officers on duty.
The FBI is expected also to look into the possibility that officers from the LAPD's Special Investigations Section (SIS), which conducts surveillance in major, high-risk cases, were also improperly reselling Kimber guns, the sources said.
Federal and state gun laws restrict gun sales by people not registered as weapons dealers.
Kimber's dealings with the LAPD date back to at least 2002, when the department contracted with the company to buy a relatively small number of pistols, Bustamante reported.
Then, in 2007, the firm unveiled a new variant of its model 1911 pistol, designed for officers in the SIS. The weapons were emblazoned with the SIS insignia, and the company made the .45-caliber handgun to address specific requests made by SIS officers. The guns, for example, were lighter than those typically carried by LAPD officers and could be cocked and fired with one hand, in case the other was injured or otherwise unavailable.
Bustamante said that Kimber sold the Swat guns, which bore a special "LAPD Swat" insignia, to members of the unit for about US$600 each - a steep discount from their resale value of between US$1,600 and US$3,500. It is not known how much the SIS officers paid.
Perez, the Swat lieutenant, filed his lawsuit earlier this year, alleging that he had endured harassment and threats from other LAPD officers since drawing attention to the gun dealings.
His attorney, Matthew McNicholas, said there is evidence that shows the LAPD had formal contracts with Kimber to buy a certain number of the custom Swat and SIS guns but that the gunmaker sold more weapons directly to officers informally.