City, union make deal to boost police pay

Feb. 5—Officers are pleased. Police accountability advocates, not so much.

Mayor Tim Keller's administration has struck a new deal with the Albuquerque police union that raises starting officer pay to over $68,000 per year — putting the city well above regional peers like El Paso and Tucson — boosts longevity pay and adds a new incentive worth up to $5,200 annually.

Police Chief Harold Medina said the collective bargaining agreement forwarded this week to the City Council shows the administration "continues to invest in competitive salaries for APD officers to attract and retain officers and improve community-oriented policing."

The CBA easily won approval from union members.

But the agreement does not include accountability provisions APD Forward — a coalition of organizations working for police reform — petitioned for in 2020. That petition garnered 2,200 signatures.

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico and a member of APD Forward's steering committee, said the new agreement "creates a culture of impunity that is toxic to good policing and it destroys the community trust."

"We are asking that the mayor take a step forward to find a balance between fairness to the officers and officer accountability," she added.

The previous two-year contract was good through June of 2020, but the parties said negotiations stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

APD Forward circulated its petition to change the CBA in the summer and fall of 2020. At the time, law enforcement practices were high in the public consciousness as the country — and city — reckoned with questions about police use of force and racial injustice.

While more than a year has passed, Ferguson said the matters remain critical.

"I think the constitutional policing may not be the headline news continually every single night the way it was last year, but it is still a headline issue," she said. "Every citizen needs to care about it, and this CBA in particular is one of the issues that isn't as transparent and obvious to members of the public, but it is one of the most critical components."

'Competitive edge'

The city's rank-and-file officers voted overwhelmingly to approve the latest contract, said Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers' Association, adding that he himself was "very happy with it."

He applauded the pay increases and said they would help in recruiting and retaining members of the force.

"We had, I believe, over 175 officers ... leave the department in 2021. We had 81 leave in 2020," Willoughby said. "So we are definitely needing to continue to bring that competitive pay, and that competitive edge ... so that we can compete in this region of the United States for the best and brightest that are interested in law enforcement."

An APD spokesman said 178 officers left in 2021 and 99 left in 2020.

Under the new agreement, officers get an 8% pay hike now and a 5% increase in July. By this summer, early-career officers will make $32.89 per hour — or about $68,411 per year. Those with over 14 years of service will see their base pay rise to $74,298.

Officer experience pays off in other ways too, namely "longevity pay," which is also increasing by 5% in July.

Officers qualify for longevity pay in their fifth year. With the new contract terms, it starts at $2,730 per year and grows from there, topping out at $16,380 annually for those who have served more than 17 years.

The latest agreement also includes a new form of compensation called "incentive pay." Officers qualify by working out of the same area command (or staying in Internal Affairs) for at least one year. Officers will get a $1,300 incentive payment per year served — up to a maximum of $5,200 — each December, according to the new agreement.

Medina said the CBA's compensation package enables "real community policing."

"We asked a lot from our officers, especially during COVID and the political unrest in 2020. The people of Albuquerque have expressed their desire to keep public safety as a top priority and to have longer-term relationships with officers in their neighborhoods. We are doing that with this new agreement," Medina said in a statement.

City representatives were unable to answer questions about how much the officer pay raises and new incentives will increase total city spending on police.

Albuquerque's starting officer salary is well above some peer cities like Tucson ($54,517) and El Paso ($47,011), according to each city's website. The new agreement would also keep APD starting wages slightly higher than the New Mexico State Police, even if state officers get a proposed 19% pay raise, according to numbers provided by APD.

Changes to protocol

Pay is just part of the 50-page agreement. The contract also outlines the internal investigation protocols and discipline.

APD Forward had sought to extend the timeline for investigations and to not carry forward two provisions in the last CBA: one that bars the city's Civilian Police Oversight Agency board members from knowing the names of the officers the agency investigates and another that requires telling officers under investigation the name of the person who complained about them.

"The names of complainants were in the old contract. There is no change in this one," APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said in an email to the Journal. "I realize ABQ Forward wanted to change that, but that did not happen."

Ferguson pointed out that APD has already failed to meet deadlines for investigations into use of force by officers — failures that the U.S. Department of Justice attorneys and the independent monitor overseeing the department's court-mandated reform effort have repeatedly criticized.

"That has created a system where many investigations into use of force run the clock out," she said. "And that hurts both the public and the officers."

The petition called for extending investigation deadlines to 180 days — a provision Ferguson said is standard to other departments around the country.

While that change was not made, the contract did extend the time period to 120 days outright — previously the APD standard was 90 days with an optional 30-day extension with the police chief's approval. It also added a 15-day preliminary review time period.

Gallegos said the changes to the timeline should be helpful.

"The new 15-day period at the front end allows the department to more quickly determine all of the potential violations, if there are any, rather than waiting toward the end of the investigation," he said. "Presumably, once the 120 (day) period starts, the investigation will be more efficient and not result in surprises. And eliminating the requirement to request a 30-day extension from the Chief will also make the process more efficient."

Willoughby said the union was not interested in extending the timelines for investigations.

However, it did want — and get — more clarity on when officers can be disciplined if policy violations are found by the department's Force Review Board after the initial investigation is completed. That board is made up of command level staff who periodically review completed investigations into uses of force to catch problems or identify areas for training.

"Some cases were deemed to be in-policy, and the Force Review Board brought it back and had it reinvestigated at which (point) the case changed (to) be out of policy and discipline was imposed," Willoughby said.

He said the union filed numerous complaints with the labor board and won the first case that has been heard.

The new agreement spells out the timelines more explicitly, saying if the department identifies new allegations of misconduct after the officer has already been told they are being investigated, then the review can be expanded only if the investigations into both the initial allegation and the new allegation are completed within the 120-day time frame. The department can only open new investigations into the same officers and circumstances in the most egregious cases.

In recent reports the independent monitor has applauded the Force Review Board for catching policy violations that internal affairs investigators missed, but he cautioned that cases can take many months before they are heard, which could undermine its impact.

When asked how the department will handle cases where policy violations are found by the Force Review Board that were missed by the initial investigators, Gallegos said the board was not designed to be disciplinary.

"The major focus is supposed to be on supervision, tactics, training, and policy," Gallegos said. "If some of those issues are identified in the first 15 days prior to the investigation, the department can pursue those, and the investigation can proceed. But the idea is to keep the (Force Review Board's) focus on those issues, and not the discipline."

City Council President Isaac Benton said Friday he was still sorting through the CBA details, as the administration did not send a copy that tracked changes from the previous agreement.

Benton said he fully supports the pay raises and, in particular, the incentive structure designed to keep officers in the same neighborhoods longer.

"People in my (district) are frustrated because by the time they get to know a group of officers serving in their area, they're gone again and there's a whole new group that comes in," said the Downtown-area councilor. "That's problematic in terms of community policing."

Though he favors the contract's financial terms, he said he would have liked more input in the contract's other details.

While the council cannot participate in labor negotiations and has little say over the final contracts beyond appropriating the funds to carry them out, Benton said the legislative body should have had a chance to weigh in before the deal-making started.

He said that did not happen in this case, as the Keller administration started negotiations before meeting with the relevant council committee. By the time such meetings occurred, Benton said, the committee's influence was limited.

"We found out they were commencing negotiations with APOA after the fact," Benton said.

The city's negotiations with the police union began in 2019 but stopped in March 2020 due to COVID-19 and did not resume until December 2020. The parties negotiated throughout 2021 and signed the agreement Dec. 30, 2021, according to a city spokeswoman.

The city was allowed to continue with the old contract due to a 2020 state law change that made CBAs "evergreen" and valid until replaced by a newer agreement, mayoral spokeswoman Ava Montoya said in emailed answers to Journal questions.