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County rules in detention officer’s case

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Bernalillo County officials say that the recent indictment of Metropolitan Detention Center supervisor Eric Allen “has no direct bearing” on the county’s ongoing effort to terminate him.

Allen was indicted earlier this month on a charge of aggravated battery causing great bodily harm, stemming from a December 2015 incident in which he allegedly ordered prison guards to “hurt” a state prison inmate who corrections officers said was being belligerent. He is scheduled to be arraigned on Tuesday.

The county had placed Allen on paid administrative leave in January 2016 in connection with an excessive force investigation. And this past September, the county sent him a letter notifying him of its “intent to terminate” his employment, citing a “pattern of excessive force and inappropriate conduct.”

In the nearly two years since he was placed on leave, Allen has collected roughly $88,700 in county pay. He earns nearly $46,000 a year.

“I support the MDC’s administrators’ proposed disciplinary action to terminate Mr. Allen’s employment,” County Manager Julie Morgas Baca said this week in a statement. “I am eager to see this case come to a close for the benefit of everyone involved.”

But county spokeswoman Tia Bland said the fact that Allen has been charged with a third-degree felony doesn’t mean the county can now expedite the termination process.

‘No direct bearing’

“The criminal indictment has no direct bearing on the county’s administrative employment action, specifically the county’s current process in progress to terminate Eric Allen’s employment,” she said. “Although the indictment is separate, it arises from the same set of facts and reinforces the county’s position to terminate Eric Allen’s employment.”

Stephen Perkins, president of the corrections officers union, agrees that the indictment doesn’t affect the disciplinary process that is underway, nor does it change the union’s plan to defend him through the county process.

“I’m not a legal expert, but just looking at the facts of the case, I think the district attorney overreached. … The truth will come out,” Perkins said.

He said Allen is being made a scapegoat because of his union activity.

While MDC has no policy specifically stating that employees facing criminal charges can be terminated, some other public agencies do.

An Albuquerque Police Department operating procedure states that police officers can face discipline “up to termination” if they are indicted or have criminal charges formally filed against them for a felony or a misdemeanor crime.

“According to our legal staff, MDC does not have a policy like that,” Bland said. “The reason APD and the (sheriff’s office) have that policy is because per state statute a police officer cannot serve as a police officer with a felony conviction, and a law enforcement agency cannot have officers enforce the law when they themselves have charges pending. There is no such prohibition for corrections officers.”

Next step is hearing

As for Allen, Bland said the next step will be a due process hearing, which will be scheduled in January, that will allow him to respond to the county’s notice of intent to terminate his employment and the evidence the county presents.

Allen will present his arguments to MDC Deputy Chief of Security Ralph Fernandez, who will then make a recommendation to MDC Chief Greg Rees to either overturn or sustain the recommended discipline.

If the decision is made to fire Allen, he can appeal, first to Rees, then to Morgas Baca or a designee. If the termination is upheld, Allen can request arbitration, during which a third party would hear arguments and issue a ruling. That decision could then be appealed to District Court by either Allen or the county.

The incident for which Allen was indicted involved inmate Joe Ray Barela and happened in front of medical staffers who were trying to treat him in the jail’s infirmary.

In statements to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and a private investigator hired by the county, those witnesses described what happened to Barela as “torture” and said they were in tears. They told investigators that officers used excessive force on Barela and that the incident fueled tension between medical staff and corrections officers inside the jail.

Other incident

That incident was one of two involving Allen that resulted in a criminal investigation.

The other incident occurred in September 2015 and involved inmate Susie Chavez, who was shocked with a stun gun, held in a wrist lock and hit with pepper spray because she wouldn’t stop crying.

Allen, one of two supervisors present, recorded the incident with an on-body camera, and that footage showed Chavez shrieking in pain as corrections officers used force against her.

A Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office detective concluded that the application of force by Allen and another corrections officer was done in a rude and insolent manner. The district attorney’s office is still reviewing that case.

The county has previously tried to terminate Allen.

He was fired in 2008 after being accused of punching an inmate in the head twice. The union argued Allen had been hit first, and in 2009 an independent arbitrator ordered the county to reinstate him, determining that Allen’s reaction was reasonable and in keeping with his training.