SEPTA cop whose gun mysteriously fired cleared of wrongdoing, litigation against gunmaker ‘pending’

A transit police officer keeps watch on the Market-Frankford line. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A transit police officer keeps watch on the Market-Frankford line. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Police Department officially exonerated the SEPTA police officer whose Sig Sauer P320 service weapon discharged unintentionally at a Center City train station. 

“The investigation is complete, and has determined that there was no criminal culpability or wrongdoing on the part of the officer with regard to the discharge,” said Sekou Kinebrew,  Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson, in an email. 

The police department declined to comment further about the August 26 incident, citing “pending litigation between SEPTA and Sig,” signaling that the transit agency may be taking legal action against the New Hampshire-based gunmaker.

SEPTA declined to comment on any pending litigation. The authority is “still in the process of reviewing what our next step will be with Sig Sauer,” SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said. 

The transit officer was on patrol during rush hour at Suburban Station when his holstered Sig service weapon discharged. There were no reported injuries and a preliminary inspection found no cause for the weapon to fire. 

In the weeks that followed, SEPTA ordered 350 new Glock pistols to replace the Sigs. The unplanned switch cost the authority more than $175,000, not including “unanticipated processing and labor costs.” 

The Sigs that SEPTA replaced were themselves replacement guns, received in 2016 as a complimentary upgrade from another Sig model, the P2340. The regional transit authority received a complimentary modification to the guns in 2018 due to a “possible mechanical defect.” SEPTA expected to use the P320s until at least 2028. 

Sig did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

The Suburban Station discharge was one of several unintentional firings involving U.S. law enforcement and the P320. 

Just this past spring, Sig settled a $10 million personal injury lawsuit with Virginia sheriff’s deputy Marcie Vadnais. The deputy alleges her P320 service weapon discharged without her pulling the trigger, firing a bullet into her leg as she was removing the holstered weapon from her belt.  

And in the four months since the SEPTA cop’s gun went off, two more lawsuits have been filed against Sig stemming from incidents of the P320 unintentionally firing and causing injury.

Former law enforcement officer Stephen Mayes filed a suit against Sig for at least $10 million in damages stemming from an October 2018 incident where Mayes’ alleges his P320 “discharged with no prompting while fully-seated in its holster, while his hands remained off the pistol.” Mayes suffered a gunshot wound to his thigh. 

The suit goes on to list a series of incidents going back to 2002 wherein Sig Sauer firearms unintentionally discharged. More than a dozen of the incidents involve the P320 model that SEPTA recently replaced.

In September, another former cop, Thomas Frankenberry, filed a lawsuit against Sig. The South Carolina former officer alleges that his P320 discharged “without the trigger or gun being touched” in 2016. The gun was in his waistband, according to legal filings. 

The bullet entered Frankenberry’s “hip area, tunneled through his upper thigh, narrowly missed his femoral artery, and lodged into his knee cap,” leading to a “substantial amount of emergency surgeries, frequent hospital visits, medical procedures, and physical therapy sessions over the course of many months, and multiple years.” Frankenberry’s lawsuit seeks more than $10 million in compensation.

There have been even more reports of accidental shootings involving the P320 that are currently under investigation. Another Virginia deputy, from the same department as Vadnais, had an accidental discharge in September, and a police officer in Massachusetts was shot in the leg by a P320 in October. 

While the law enforcement agencies in Virginia and Massachusetts are keeping mum during their investigations, another incident in New Jersey involving a Department of Veterans Affairs officer may reveal the cause of the alleged discharges.

On October 11, officer Frank Kneski tried to remove his holstered P320, his off-duty weapon, from his belt. The inside-the-waistband holster was stuck on his belt, according to the incident report. Kneski “started pulling and pushing harder” and that’s when the weapon fired, burning a hole in his pants and grazing his butt. 

The report also concluded that “at no time did he remove the sidearm from his holster” during his attempt to remove the holstered weapon. 

Kneski’s supervisor Major Peter Villani contributed to the report with an analysis of the weapon that found “it is quite possible any abrupt movement or twisting of the P320 while holstered” can lead to discharge. 

‘A major design flaw’

The P320 uses a spring-loaded firing-pin, called a striker. The striker is the part of the firing system that hits the back of the round on the primer. When the striker hits the primer, it causes a mini-explosion inside the round, propelling the bullet through the barrel of the gun.

The striker remains in tension, ready to project forward toward a round in the chamber. However, it is held back by a part of the trigger system called the sear. When the trigger is pulled, the sear releases the striker, allowing it to project forward and hit the round to fire the bullet. 

Villani found the sear inside Kneski’s gun made very little contact with the striker. In addition, the striker moved side to side inside the gun, he reported. These factors make it very possible for the striker to slip past the sear and make contact with the round, the police major reported. 

Villani deemed the gun defective and said the flaws he found may explain why there are so many incidents of the P320’s accidental discharge.

Sig Sauer’s profile got a boost in 2017 when a version of the P320 was selected as the new sidearm for the U.S. Army, an agreement worth up to $580 million. Prior to the contract, the Army drop tested the weapon and found “the striker struck the primer causing a discharge,” according to federal records. The Army told Sig to correct the problem. They obliged by “implementing lightweight components in the trigger group mechanism,” and that November, the 101st Airborne in Kentucky was the first Army unit to receive the military version of the P320. 

Reports of the so-called “dropfire” malfunction occurring in the consumer model of the P320 began to surface this past summer. In August, a Connecticut police officer filed a lawsuit stemming from an alleged incident in January where he was shot in the leg after his P320 fell to the ground and discharged while holstered. The Dallas Police Department suspended the use of the gun over drop safety concerns. Later, gun retailer Omaha Outdoors reported a dropfire defect in the P320, and suspended sales. 

After these reports, Sig offered a voluntary upgrade program where owners of the gun could send it back to the manufacturer for changes, including a lighter trigger, sear, and striker. Moving forward, newer P320s were manufactured with those upgrades. 

Sig may have addressed the dropfire problem, but that didn’t stop Derek Ortiz of Arizona and Dante Gordon of Texas from filing class-action lawsuits in 2019 accusing Sig of knowingly selling defective firearms after the Army identified the problem. An estimated 500,000 P320s were reportedly distributed before the upgrade, but the wave of unintentional shootings has continued even if the guns were upgraded. In fact, Villani reported Kneski’s pistol had already been upgraded when it went off without him pulling the trigger.

“It’s either a major design flaw or it’s a virus going around causing everyone to pull their triggers nationwide,” Villani said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.