FOR THE RECORD: This story misspelled the last name of Bill Pounders. It has been corrected.
Mayor Richard Berry on Saturday said he is “disappointed” in the Albuquerque police union’s decision to continue making cash payments to officers involved in shootings, a practice critics of APD have described as a “reward system.”
“I am convinced there are other ways other than cash payments to support our officers and their families during times of great stress and crisis in their lives, and I will direct (Police Chief Ray Schultz) to continue to work with the union to craft a better solution for our officers and our community,” Berry said in a prepared statement.
City Councilor Debbie O’Malley weighed in on the matter Saturday and called the practice “completely inappropriate,” especially considering that officers are placed on paid leave for at least three days after a shooting and have access to free counselling through the city.
“We obviously need to support our officers – theirs is probably the hardest job in the city – but this is definitely the wrong way to go about it,” O’Malley said. “It just looks so terrible for the city. I think there are a lot of people really embarrassed today.”
She said news of the payments is just another in a long line of negative, troubling stories about APD during the past few years and laid the blame at the feet of Schultz, Berry and city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry.
“A lack of leadership is what keeps coming to my mind,” O’Malley said. “There is mounting frustration on my part. I’ve seen months and months and months go by with just one story after the next. We pay three people some pretty high salaries to oversee this police department, and no one is putting this house in order. It’s going to keep getting worse until there’s a change in leadership.”
Meanwhile, news of the payments began to spread across the country as national media outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post and others picked up the Journal’s coverage and carried their own versions of the story.
A Journal story published Friday revealed that the union had paid more than $10,000 to officers involved in shootings, dating to the start of 2010.
In all, 23 APD officers shot people during 20 incidents last year and the year before. Fifteen of those shootings were fatal, and the department has been under increasing scrutiny from community groups and the families of those shot by officers.
The U.S. Justice Department is weighing an investigation into APD that would determine whether it has a pattern or practice of violating civil rights. The shootings have been a major focus of those asking for the investigation.
Internal union financial documents obtained by the Journal show that 20 of the officers received union payments. Of those, 16 received $500, two were paid $300, one received $800 and a payment of $1,000 went to one officer.
Family members of the 20 men shot in 2010 and 2011 by APD officers blasted the payouts, calling them an apparent “reward system” or “bounty.”
The documents did not indicate whether officers involved in three shootings this year also received checks, but Albuquerque Police Officers Association leaders on Thursday explained and defended the practice as a way to help officers get out of town and decompress during a stressful time.
Bill Pounders, who served as APOA president from 1992 to 1995, said on Saturday he started the practice as a way to help officers “get out of town and get a fresh perspective before coming back to work.”
However, Pounders said he would call an out-of-town hotel and pick up the tab for an officer with the union credit card – not hand an officer a check.
“The association might want to reconsider the way they’re doing this,” he said. “Instead of just handing out checks, they might want to go back to just setting up accommodations.”
On Friday evening, union President Joey Sigala said decisions on which officers get union money after a shooting will be made by the APOA’s 20-member board rather than by himself and the vice president going forward, but the practice will continue despite calls from Berry and Schultz to halt it.
On Saturday, the mayor reacted to Sigala’s plans to continue the practice.
“I am disappointed in the union’s decision because it sends the wrong message about a great police department full of dedicated and professional officers,” Berry said.
Neither Sigala nor union Vice President Felipe Garcia responded to requests for comment Saturday, but on Friday, Sigala said the practice has gone on for 20 years and is common knowledge among APD’s rank and file and “upper administration.”
Schultz said late Friday that he has been aware the union “provided support” to officers after “critical incidents,” but he did not know until a Journal reporter told him on Thursday that the APOA was making payments to officers involved in shootings on a regular basis.
The financial documents obtained by the Journal were prepared by union Treasurer Matt Fisher earlier this month after members demanded to see a breakdown of how APOA money was being spent.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal