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Originally published Friday, March 23, 2012 at 9:48 AM

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NM police involved in shootings got union checks

Albuquerque police officers involved in a rash of fatal shootings over the past two years were paid up to $500 under a union program that some have likened to a bounty system in a department with a culture that critics have long contended promotes brutality.

Associated Press

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —

Albuquerque police officers involved in a rash of fatal shootings over the past two years were paid up to $500 under a union program that some have likened to a bounty system in a department with a culture that critics have long contended promotes brutality.

Mayor Richard Berry called Friday for an immediate halt to the practice, which was first reported in the Albuquerque Journal during a week in which Albuquerque police shot and killed two men. Since 2010, Albuquerque police have shot 23 people, 18 fatally.

"The administration has nothing to do with how the union conducts their business," Berry said in a statement, "but I was shocked yesterday when made aware of this practice. I cannot stand aside and condone this practice. It needs to end now."

Although the union said the payments were intended to help the officers decompress from a stressful situation, one victim's father and a criminologist said it sounded more like a reward program.

"I think it might not be a bounty that they want it for," said Mike Gomez, the father of an unarmed man killed by police last year, "but in these police guys' minds, they know they are going to get that money. So when they get in a situation, it's who's going to get him first? Who's going to shoot him first?"

Maria Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law & Police Science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said she found the program disturbing.

"I'm not a psychologist. I'm a criminologist. But if you give somebody a monetary incentive to do their job, usually people are tempted by the monetary incentive," she said. "To me, this is a violation of professional ethics."

Other law enforcement officials called speculation of a bounty system ridiculous but acknowledged the payments could be poorly perceived.

"Frankly, it's insulting and very insensitive that somebody would believe that a police officer would factor in a payment for such a difficult decision," said Joe Clure, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association.

Clure said his union gives officers who fire their guns in the line of duty a $25 dinner card and a few movie tickets. On rare occasions, the union will give as much as $500 for a hotel room and travel for an officer who is having an especially difficult time in the aftermath of a shooting, although he doesn't recall that happening in about 10 years.

In Idaho, State Police Cpl. Fred Rice, chairman of the Idaho State Police Association, said his organization made a conscious decision not to give cash or checks.

"That would almost look like to me, if I gave every time an officer involved in a shooting a $500 check, someone might think, `Oh, that's a quick way to make money,'" he said.

Rice said his organization takes steps to help officers involved in shootings on a case-by-case basis, usually selecting something specific to help that officer unwind and relax, like a weekend ski trip or dinner with their spouse.

"The requests are usually brought to our board anonymously, by people who know them and know they might need a break. It may be nothing more than to go and have dinner with them," Rice said.

David Klinger, a former police officer who is now a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said he saw no problem with the program, noting the officers already have administrative time off and need to deal with a very stressful situation.

"I've been through it," he said. "And if someone wanted to say, `Hey, Dave ... we want you to go hang out in San Diego and sip sarsaparilla on the seashore,' I think that would be a grand idea."

The Journal reported that 20 of the 23 officers involved in 20 police shootings in 2010 and 2011 received payments of either $300 or $500 each, which the union said were meant to help them and their families "find a place to have some privacy and time to decompress outside the Albuquerque area."

Three more men have been shot by Albuquerque police this year, all fatally. It was not known if they have received the union payment.

Berry called on Police Chief Ray Schultz to work with the union to end the practice.

Schultz, who called the practice "troubling," said the union has agreed to hold an emergency board meeting.

Sean Wallace, the officer who shot Gomez's son, was among those who received $500 in 2011. He also received $500 after a non-fatal shooting in 2010.

Wallace didn't immediately respond Friday afternoon to an email request for comment relayed through the Albuquerque Police Department.

Joey Sigala, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, and Felipe Garcia, the vice president, declined to be interviewed, but they told the Journal in a statement that "any claim or assertion that these were somehow cash payments for the officer merely `shooting someone' are absolutely ridiculous and false."

Critics have blamed the escalation in shootings that began in 2010 on what they said is a long-standing culture that condones police brutality. In addition to the shootings, the department came under scrutiny last year for comments made by officers on social media. For example, one of the officers involved in a fatal shooting described his occupation on Facebook as "human waste disposal." Another said on MySpace that "Some people are alive only because killing them is illegal."

The shootings have prompted calls from activists and the City Council for a U.S. Department of Justice review. They have also spurred changes in hiring and training practices at the Police Department.

Prior to 2010, the city's historical average for officer-involved shootings was five or a six a year, officials have said.

The DOJ last year began an initial probe to determine if a civil rights investigation is warranted.

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Associated Press writers Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, and Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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