During the past two weeks, I’ve watched as an old controversy found its way back into the news: the Albuquerque Police Officers Association was providing officers who shot people up to $500 to help them “decompress.”
The Albuquerque Journal raised the specter of the payments first, in the course of reporting on trips to Hooters and a Chinese massage parlor taken by then-APD officer Jeremy Dear and his partner, officer Sonny Molina, two days after Dear fatally shot 19-year-old Mary Hawkes.
A story about the payments from the New Mexico Political Report, an online news organization, followed shortly thereafter.
And last week, the Journal published an editorial condemning the police union for offering the payments, saying the practice “hurts every man and woman in uniform.”
This is a manufactured controversy. And as the journalist who first and most closely examined the union’s payment practices, I should know. It was the APOA’s old payment system that caused such a stir, but the controversy was resolved years ago when the union returned to reimbursing officers only after they submit receipts and an internal panel approves the payment. You wouldn’t know that from reading the Journal, though. Nor would you know whether the union was even aware of Dear’s and Molina’s post-shooting activities, let alone providing financial support for them. The current union president and Dear’s attorney told me neither officer received APOA funds or submitted receipts for reimbursement.
It would be impossible to overstate how big a deal news of the union’s cash payments to officers was when I first began reporting on them — four years ago — and how much pain the news caused family members of men who had been shot by the police. Mike Gomez, whose son, Alan, was fatally shot by officer Sean Wallace in 2011, likened the payments to a “bounty system.” Gomez and others staged a protest outside City Hall. The New York Times assigned two reporters to the story.
That all happened as I was reporting a series of stories about the payments for the Journal. (At the time, I was the newspaper’s police reporter.) Those stories were published against the backdrop of a record spike in shootings by APD officers and a looming federal investigation of the police department.
People were angry.
It was the details of how union officials doled out the payments that particularly incensed family members and others. In the immediate aftermath of shootings, then-union President Joey Sigala and his vice president, Felipe Garcia, were handing the shooting officers $500 in cash or checks. No questions asked. No strings attached. Just, “here’s five hundred bucks, spend it as you will.”
Sigala at first dug in as the controversy grew. He defended the payments, saying they were meant to help officers unwind during a stressful time. Sigala said the payments would continue. But a growing, unrelated financial mismanagement scandal was about to cost him his job.
After a week of news stories and outrage, Greg Weber, Sigala’s successor, agreed to dump the quick cash payments. Standing alongside Mayor Richard Berry at a news conference, Weber announced that the union would still support officers involved in “critical incidents,” but the officers would have to submit receipts for hotel stays or other “decompression” activities. The union board would decide whether to reimburse the officer.
Berry, who had strongly condemned the cash payments and asked the union to stop them, called it a “great day for the city.”
For most, the controversy ended on that “great day.” Even the Journal editorial board praised the new payment system, calling it a shining example of city administration-union cooperation. (In the intervening years, news stories have popped up here and there saying the payments had continued. And Berry has attempted to distance himself from his jubilation in March of 2012, saying he didn’t realize at the time that the union would continue to reimburse officers — despite his attendance at the news conference during which the new practice was announced.)
Fast forward to two weeks ago.
Two questions kept swirling through my mind as I read the Journal and NM Political Report stories, both of which characterized the union’s current payment scheme as “controversial” or the subject of “criticism:” had the union reverted back to the no-strings, cash payments? And whichever payment method the APOA was using these days, did Dear and Molina get union money for their day of Hooters chicken wings and trips to a “hole-in-the-wall” Chinese massage joint?
Neither news organization drew a distinction between the quick-cash system — the one that had caused so much heartache — and the reimbursements. And neither organization’s story said whether the union had shelled out money to support Dear and Molina.
The Journal editorial, however, went a step beyond the paper’s reporting, saying the “union is sending the wrong message by providing cash to play on the town after an officer has taken a person’s life, whether justified or not.” This appears to mark an about face for the newspaper’s editorial stance, which, four years ago, was that reimbursing officers solved at least one optics problem for an embattled police department and its boss, the mayor.
So I called Shaun Willoughby, current president of the APOA, and asked what was going on. Willoughby told me nothing had changed since 2012; the union was still reimbursing officers involved in “critical incidents” after reviewing receipts. He reminded me that the APOA is a private organization, and that the money used for reimbursements comes from membership dues; it is not taxpayer money.
The reimbursements, Willoughby said, would continue. But neither Dear nor Molina had submitted receipts from Hooters or the massage parlor. And the union did not pay for those trips through any other mechanism, he said.
My next call was to Joey Peters, the NM Political Report journalist who wrote about the payments. After I explained the difference between the two payment schemes, Peters clarified his story and appended an editor’s note saying he had done so.
Then I contacted Journal reporter Ryan Boetel and Kent Walz, the paper’s longtime editor. (It was an odd situation for me, as Boetel has my old job, Walz was my boss for 10 years, and I do not generally write about the media.)
In emailed responses, Boetel and Walz stood by the paper’s coverage, saying no one had asked for a correction or challenged the accuracy of either the story or the editorial.
Here, in part, is Walz’s response: “We felt the practice of offering the reimbursement to ‘decompress’ was important to ask and to report given the controversy surrounding APD and the practice.”
Boetel said in an email that he “didn’t know if Dear and Molina had been reimbursed for the trip to Hooters or their massages prior to publication.” In a subsequent email, he elaborated: “The reimbursements are available to all officers after they are involved in shootings, including Dear and Molina. But the story doesn’t say what sorts of things officers involved in shootings have been reimbursed for or if Dear or Molina got any money from the union after the Hawkes shooting. That said, I don’t think not knowing those details means I shouldn’t report that the reimbursements are available.”
There you have it. From the Journal’s perspective, it was fair and appropriate to resurrect an old controversy — one that had, by nearly every account, blown over four years ago — even though the paper had no idea whether that controversy had any ties to the Hawkes shooting.
Whether two officers’ trip to a low-rent massage parlor in the days after the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old woman says something about who those officers are, their state of mind, or, indeed, the larger culture at APD is certainly worthy of public debate. It is an issue worth critical reporting, and I encourage critical reporting.
I’ve never shied away from critical stories about the police, the APOA, or any other powerful institution I’ve covered. That said, when news organizations, powerful and otherwise, dragged the union into this controversy without the facts — and without explaining the nuance of an old controversy — they opened themselves up for critical reporting, too.