The New York Times by Manny Fernandez and Dan Frosch - March 25, 2012
ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Mike Gomez has been angry with the police officer here who shot and killed his 22-year-old son, Alan, last year, after officers responded to a report that the young man was acting erratically and firing a rifle. But Mr. Gomez became even angrier just days ago after he learned that the officer, Sean Wallace, received a $500 payment from the Albuquerque police union shortly after the shooting. The payment, union officials said, was made to help Officer Wallace cope with the stress of the shooting. But Mr. Gomez said he believed the money served a more ruthless purpose: as a bounty-style reward for a shooting. “You’re telling police that if you shoot somebody you’re going to get paid leave and you’re going to get $500,” said Mr. Gomez, whose son was unarmed when he was shot last May. “If the police shoot a person they get this. What does the family get? A funeral bill.” The controversy surrounding the payments has shed light on a little-known practice that police unions in at least a few other cities, including Phoenix, have engaged in for years. Advocates and others here have protested the Police Department’s 23 shootings by officers since 2010 — 18 of them fatal — with some people calling for the police chief’s resignation and for a Justice Department investigation.
Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico with a population of 546,000, has 1,100 sworn officers. New York City, with a population of 8.4 million and a uniformed police force of 35,000, had 22 fatal shootings by officers in the same time period. The police union payments were reported on Friday by The Albuquerque Journal. Twenty Albuquerque officers involved in shootings in 2010 and 2011 were paid by the union, with 16 receiving $500, two $300, one $800 and another $1,000, the newspaper reported, citing internal union financial documents. Many of the officers who received the money were involved in the 15 fatal shootings in Albuquerque during that time. Executives of the union, the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said the payments had been given to officers after the shootings and that the practice had gone on for at least two decades. They said the payments of up to $500 were to cover the costs of out-of-town trips for officers and their families after stressful episodes, and that any payment to an officer beyond $500 was for other union-related matters. The executives denied that the money was intended to reward officers who fired their weapons. “It’s difficult for people to understand what officers involved in shootings go through — the self-doubt, the worry — and we take great offense to the fact that people are referring to this as a reward system,” the union’s president, Joey Sigala, said in an interview. “We hold onto the honor and the integrity of this profession. And we take great pride in this community.” Under pressure from city and police officials, union executives held an emergency board meeting on Friday to discuss suspending the practice. They later announced that the union would continue issuing the payments, saying that its 20-member board would now decide who would get the money on a case-by-case basis. Previously, it was left to Mr. Sigala and the three other members of the union’s executive board on how the payments would be allocated. The union’s move to keep issuing the payments goes against the wishes of Mayor Richard J. Berry and the police chief, Raymond D. Schultz, both of whom want the payments stopped. “I think we all have the same goal in mind: helping the officer and his family after a traumatic incident,” said Chief Schultz, who has been under increasing pressure to ease concerns over the rise in shootings by officers in recent years. “The biggest concern is making a cash payment to the officer. That obviously sends the wrong message to the community.” Mayor Berry said he was disappointed in the union’s decision to keep making the payments.
“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 Chief Schultz to continue to work with the union to craft a better solution for our officers and our community,” he said in a statement on Saturday. Police union officials in other cities said they often provided financial assistance or other types of aid to officers involved in shootings, and they said there was nothing wrong with the practice. “It is completely perplexing to me how anyone can equate this to anything other than the concern and compassion for a police officer who has just been through a traumatic event,” said Joe Clure, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. “It’s insulting to me as a police officer that they’re trying to paint these guys as villains.” Mr. Clure said his union typically sent movie tickets, a gift certificate to dinner and a personal card when officers were involved in a shooting or a car crash. In certain circumstances, he said, the union would give officers “$500 or $1,000 to send them to the beach or help them relax.” Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, said his organization did not give officers involved in shootings money or gifts, but he strongly defended the Albuquerque union, saying he thought it was beneficial to help officers get out of town during stressful times. “Anyone who claims that this is a reward has absolutely no idea about police work and how traumatic it is for an officer who has been in a shooting and for their family,” Mr. Hunt said. “I thank God every day that I’ve never had to take someone’s life.” Renetta Torres, whose son, Christopher, was killed by the Albuquerque police last April, said she was appalled by the practice. Her son, who suffered from schizophrenia, was shot after the police said he tried to wrestle away the gun of an officer questioning him about a road-rage incident. The Torres family, along with the Gomez family, have filed wrongful-death lawsuits against the Police Department. “These were needless killings,” Ms. Torres said. “We put these police on paid administrative leave and we give them their little bonus. It flies against everything that is decent and right.” Debbie O’Malley, a member of the Albuquerque City Council, said the city had been fielding complaints from citizens about excessive force and shootings for months, and that in recent years, the city had paid more than $10 million stemming from various lawsuits against the Police Department. “We have a real serious problem here,” she said. “Myself and other members of the council are very concerned about this. Something needs to change. We can’t keep this up.” Matt Flegenheimer contributed reporting from New York.