Friday, August 17, 2007

APS officers' sickout follows gun vote

By Susie Gran, Albuquerque Tribune

Almost all of the Albuquerque Public Schools police force failed to show up to work early today in an apparent sickout, but by mid-morning most were back at work.

The 26 officers' absence came after the Board of Education on Thursday refused to allow them to carry guns around the clock and didn't act on a recommended pay raise.

"Everybody's very concerned," said Albuquerque Public Schools acting Police Chief Steve Tellez.

Tellez said the sickout was not a union-sanctioned event and that he was not warned to expect a protest.

However, Tellez said he knows what the officers' issues are: pay and guns.

"We told them the safety of the students is more important than what they were doing," Tellez said. "They were trying to send a message.

"They realized their priority and came back to work. Their emotions got the best of them."

Tellez said he expected all the officers to be back at work today. The district has policies for violating sick leave, he said. Also, there is a "no-strike" clause in the police union contract with the district.

"If discipline is necessary, then we'll take that action," Tellez said.

The school district has 33 sworn officers who are allowed to carry their weapons before and after school hours. They have been pressuring the school board to allow them to be armed during school hours.

A pay raise also has been under discussion. APS police officers make $12 per hour compared with $19 to $21 per hour for city police and sheriff's deputies.

School board members this morning said they did not believe the officers' absence caused a safety crisis.

"There's no question our schools are very, very safe today," board member Robert Lucero said.

But Lucero said he's disappointed in the officers who didn't show up.

"It kind of reminds me of a child throwing a temper tantrum," he said. "The fact they could do this is incredibly childish."

Board member Marty Esquivel said he didn't agree with the sick-out tactic, although he can understand officers' frustration with the gun issue. School police should realize there will be more discussion about the gun policy, he said.

"It's not over, although they seem to think it's over."

Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White said plans were developed at an emergency meeting this morning to patrol the schools.

About 20 city police officers and sheriff's deputies on desk assignment were shifted to schools, wearing their guns and ready to respond to emergencies, he said.

"This is not a long-term service" to the schools," White said, although he left open the possibility of asking payment from the district for the police coverage.

The school police absences were "placing a burden on everyone," White said, although the morning was calm.

The school police protest followed a 4-2 vote Thursday by the school board's Policy Committee to make no immediate changes to the police force.

A commission formed by Superintendent Beth Everitt has met this summer to consider changes to the APS Police Department.

An audit this year identified various problems in the department, and longtime police chief Gil Lovato's contract was not renewed. Lovato has since sued the district for wrongful termination.

The commission, the Mayor's Office and White all support arming the school police, but the school board kept the status quo Thursday.

"We like what we have," said Dolores Griego, a South Valley board member who has opposed arming school police around the clock.

The committee vote left open the possibility of upgrading the department someday to an accredited, fully armed police force, but that could take as long as three years, board President Paula Maes said.

"They won't have a Police Department by then," Albuquerque Public Schools Sgt. Kim Murray said Thursday night. "This Police Department is about to disintegrate."

Officers are resigning over the gun issue and low pay, he said.

Everitt said Thursday she endorsed the commission's recommendations, which could be phased in over three years.

She said legislative or legal action would be necessary to create an accredited police force that meets national standards; that a police chief should be hired now; and that the department should be reorganized and salaries increased for officers.

Paul Broome, the mayor's education adviser, criticized the board for not resolving the gun issue and not endorsing the commission's work.

"This is a classic example of what the mayor has been talking about. This school board won't make the hard decisions. They put everything off. They don't take a stand," he said.

Broome served on the commission, along with principals, students, parents, law enforcement officials, a legislator and community members.

But board members Griego and Berna Facio said the commission did not represent all segments of the community. Several students complained that the student voice wasn't being heard.

Broome took issue with the criticism. "This was not a slanted commission," he said. "Quite frankly, that's an insult to the entire group."

Two students on the commission, from Cibola and Manzano high schools, favored arming school police.

Griego, Facio, Maes and Lucero voted for the status quo. Esquivel and Mary Lee Martin said they wanted to follow the commission's recommendations. Gordon Rowe left the meeting before the vote.

Maes said her vote "had nothing to do with guns" and that she was giving a vote of confidence to school police.

The committee vote is not final. The full board will consider the commission's recommendations at a later date.

At a news conference this morning, Maes said the board will vote to accept the commission recommendations.

"The first choice of this board will be to have a standalone Police Department," she said.

A standalone Police Department would require accreditation, armed officers and higher pay, the commission said.

Lucero argued that creating a full-fledged police force wasn't allowed by state law, based on a legal opinion by board attorney Art Melendres.

Lucero said the board should wait for an opinion from the attorney general before taking action.

Another discussion on the gun issue is inevitable, board members agreed.

"We'll rehash this issue when the next chief is on board," Lucero said.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You asked on another blog if APS has emergency procedures. They do, but the plan has remained basically static since it was written in 1997. APS is remiss in not being in compliance with Homeland Security Presidential Directives requiring goverment entities to have an All Hazard emergency plan in place.

The critical incident managemnt plan written by myself and several other committee members can be found as a link on the APS Police website - they changed exactly one procedure since 1997. Time for an overhaul!

J. H. Lopez, former APS Police Sergeant and Safety Specialist