ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry is calling on the city’s police union to end its practice of reimbursing officers who request it up to $500 for hotel, travel and other expenses after they are involved in a shooting.
Stephanie Lopez, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, said Friday the money is to help officers and their families decompress and get out of the media spotlight in the aftermath of a shooting and said she has no intention of ending the practice.
APOA Vice President Shaun Willoughby said the reimbursement is crucial for officers as they endure “one of the most life-changing events in a police officer’s life,” especially with the current climate at APD and strained relationships with the public.
But Berry said that even a perception that officers have an incentive to shoot someone is the wrong message to send to the public amid intense public and federal scrutiny of the police department over its use-of-force policies. Albuquerque police have shot and killed 26 people since 2010 and were sharply criticized by the Department of Justice over the way officers use deadly force when the DOJ wrapped up an investigation into APD.
“Anything that the union does that has the appearance of rewarding officers who are involved in officer-involved shootings tarnishes the reputation of this department,” Berry said in a phone interview Saturday. “And it does not set well with the city or this mayor.”
The union instituted the reimbursement system after coming under fire for an earlier program in which it automatically gave members $500 after an officer-involved shooting.
That practice came under scrutiny when the Journal reported that as much as $10,000 total had been given to officers involved in shootings between 2010 and May 2012, prompting the father of a man shot and killed by police to blast the practice as a “bounty” system. After then-union president Joey Sigala stepped down, his successor, Greg Weber, announced that the practice had ended.
However, the practice of giving money to officers did not end entirely. It shifted from an automatic $500 payment to a process based on requests for funds and reimbursements. The mayor called ending the process of cutting checks automatically a “good decision” and said it was a “good day for the city” at a joint news conference with union leadership in March 2012.
Weber said at the news conference the requests for reimbursement would need to be accompanied by receipts and that they would be reviewed by the union board on a case-by-case basis, according to a Journal story published March 30, 2012, under a headline, “Cops Stop Payments.”
Lopez would not say last week how many officers have received the reimbursement but stressed that officers involved in a variety of emotionally taxing situations, including the death of a relative or a sick child, can receive assistance from the union’s “benevolence” fund and general fund.
She said, however, that the reimbursements after shootings come from the general fund.
Berry’s chief of staff, Gilbert Montaño, said the mayor did not endorse the reimbursement policy and did not know at the time that that’s what the change amounted to.
Montano also said it’s impossible to know exactly what the union process is or how subjective it may be, as union finances are private and the city has no control over the way APOA spends its dues.
After an officer is involved in a shooting, he or she is placed on standard three-day administrative paid leave, and APD gives officers two to three days to rest and consult with an attorney before they are interviewed by department investigators and Internal Affairs.
Lopez said money for officers dealing with stressful situations can come from two sources, including the benevolence fund, which is allocated about $10,000 each fiscal year, and the union’s general fund.
“It’s financial assistance for our members who need it in a time of need,” she said. “…It‘s not that we’re paying for a vacation for them.”
Lopez said officers can be reimbursed for hotel, travel and other expenses if they want to get out of town with their families to decompress and avoid the often-relentless news media spotlight. Apart from the news media scrutiny, she said shootings also take a financial toll on officers accustomed to working overtime in addition to their regular salary. The union money can help tide them over, she said.
Lopez would not say how many officers involved in shootings have requested the money since she became president in April 2013. She said there have been at least two payouts to officers from the union’s general fund this year, but that doesn’t mean the money went to officers involved in shootings. That money is also available for officers to pay for training or if they’re applying for a promotion, she said.
APD Chief Gorden Eden, who said he was not aware of the union practice, said he finds it disturbing because officers encounter other types of potentially traumatic events, for example when investigating a particularly extreme child-abuse case.
“Every day, our officers experience tragic and horrific events as they perform their duties,” Eden said Friday in an email. “What is disturbing is that it appears this APOA practice may only apply to officers who are involved in shooting incidents and not provided on an individualized basis to those other officers who also face traumatic events…”
Lopez said officers are trained to cope with daily “death and destruction” and can seek therapy if they need it. However, she said officer-involved shootings are different because officers who shoot someone are sought out as targets by critics.
“That person is involved in that incident, they’re not investigating it,” she said. “And they become a target of the community.”
Lopez also said the practice has become much more formalized since she took office. She said Sigala did not adhere to strict accounting practices and that money went unaccounted for. Now, she said, it’s clear which officers requested the money, why they requested it and whether it was approved.
She said she could not recall any instance where an officer involved in a shooting was not given some financial help if he or she asked for it.
Lopez added that the amount of animosity against Albuquerque police officers has ramped up dramatically in recent months as local and national scrutiny against APD has increased.