The newly minted leaders of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association on Thursday announced they will no longer make cash payments to officers involved in shootings – a practice that sparked a public outcry and national media attention after the story broke last week.
Greg Weber, an APD sergeant, made the announcement at a joint news conference with Mayor Richard Berry, Police Chief Ray Schultz and union officials just hours after he was named interim union president.
Berry and Schultz began calling for an end to the practice last week after the Journal reported that a total of $10,000 had been paid out to officers involved in shootings over the past couple of years.
Berry said he met with APOA leaders Thursday morning. At the news conference, he congratulated the union on a “good decision” and called it a “good day for the city.”
While making no apologies for the practice, Weber said union officials recognized that the public’s perception of it may have damaged the APOA’s reputation with elected officials and the public.
“But let me be clear: this was never about a bounty,” he said, referring to a word used by family members of the 23 men shot by APD officers since January 2010 and other APD critics to describe the payments.
Weber is replacing former president Joey Sigala, who, along with vice president Felipe Garcia, stepped down earlier this week amid criticism over the payments as well as complaints from other union members about union spending.
Weber said APOA officials spoke with other police unions around the country before coming up with a new practice: reimbursing some officers for travel, food and hotel stays in the aftermath of a shooting.
He said the union will also consider paying for additional counseling for officers, who have access to free behavioral health services through the city and are placed on at least three days’ paid leave after a shooting.
But financial support will be considered on a case-by-case basis by the union’s board in the future, Weber said, and “payments without review and submission of receipts after a shooting will no longer be issued.”
Revelation of the payments particularly outraged families of men shot by police. The families and other critics have been calling for a federal probe of the department.
Internal union financial documents obtained by the Journal show that 20 of the officers received the union payments since the beginning of 2010.
The documents did not indicate whether officers involved in three shootings this year also received checks, and it is unclear when the APOA began making the payments.
It appears the union’s new change in course is in fact a return to past practice.
Weber said he couldn’t speak specifically to how the APOA used to do things – primarily because he just became interim president.
“I do know that there were times in the past that we reimbursed officers or paid them up front for time out of town,” he said.
Other police unions interviewed by the Journal have similar practices. None pays officers in cash or check.
For example, the Dallas Police Association pays anonymously for counseling for officers involved in shootings, President Ron Pinkston said.
Accompanying Weber to Thursday’s news conference were APOA Treasurer Matt Fisher and interim Vice President Tom Henderson, who also was named Thursday.
Weber and Henderson are inheriting a union that has been in turmoil the past month.
As union officials, Sigala and Garcia were paid by the city to attend to union work full time. They were also paid stipends by the union.
Sigala has been reassigned to the DWI seizure unit, and after three weeks of accrued vacation, Garcia will be temporarily assigned to APD’s operations review division.
The payment documents obtained by the Journal were prepared by Fisher earlier this month after members demanded to see a breakdown of how APOA money was being spent.
The demands came after Fred Mowrer, the union’s lawyer, sent an email to board members saying $259,000 had been spent on salaries and “union work” during the past two years, spending that he said threatened the union’s ability to battle the city over ongoing contract issues.
APOA members voted earlier this month to hire an outside firm to audit the union’s finances for the past two years and to require more financial accountability after learning that Sigala’s wife had been paid nearly $6,000 in union funds and that he and Garcia had paid themselves more in dues-funded salaries than the APOA board had approved.
A meeting of the full union membership is scheduled next week.