In what world could an employee be caught on work video or in front of witnesses engaging in two horrific on-the-job incidents of cruelty, then be indicted on felony charges in connection with one of them, and still continue to collect a paycheck?
That would be the bizarre world of Bernalillo County, where previous administrations and elected commissioners gave the keys to unions in contract negotiations.
Nothing illustrates this better than the case of Metropolitan Detention Center supervisor Eric Allen, who 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 guards to “hurt” a prisoner corrections officers said was being belligerent.
The incident was reported by medical staffers at the massive lockup. A private investigator hired by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office to investigate said witnesses described what happened to inmate Joe Ray Barela as “torture.” Granted, Barela, a state prison inmate who was at MDC, is hardly a model citizen and was a difficult prisoner. But that in no way, shape or form warrants torture.
In another incident involving Allen, captured on video, inmate Susie Chavez was hit with pepper spray, shocked with a stun gun and held in a wrist lock until she shrieked in pain. The reason: She wouldn’t stop crying when ordered to do so.
The county has given Allen a notice of intent to discipline, including possible termination, but acknowledges that under existing rules the indictment against Allen “has no direct bearing on the county’s administrative employment action.”
In the real world, including at the Albuquerque Police Department, the indictment would have been more than enough grounds to fire Allen. In fact, in most places he would have been long gone before that.
Instead, he is still on the payroll and has collected roughly $88,700 in county pay since being placed on paid administrative leave two years ago.
Union officials, of course, say they are committed to defending Allen and that the truth will come out.
Now factor in that the county has tried to get rid of Allen before. 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 an arbitrator ordered the county to reinstate him on the grounds his actions were reasonable.
The county detention center is not grade school, and “he started it” shouldn’t fly as an excuse for physical violence by those entrusted with keeping the lockup safe.
The county should move quickly to try again — knowing the union will dig in and pursue appeals. It also needs to negotiate contract changes that remove procedural roadblocks to effective discipline.
In the meantime, county management needs to send a message that this kind of conduct can’t and won’t be tolerated.
And taxpayers need to send that same message to elected commissioners. They can’t give away the keys and then complain when somebody drives off with the car.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.