January 28, 2016

House panel passes bill to return cops to work

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A bill to allow retired cops to return to their police departments across the state passed its first House committee, a marked difference from last year when it died quickly.

The measure passed the House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee on partisan lines, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats voting against.

Sponsored by Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, this time the bill doesn’t hurt the Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico fund. Or at least that’s the promise the veteran legislator made.

Albuquerque City Attorney Jessica Hernandez testified that former cops who decide to return to work won’t be able to add to their pensions, but would still have to contribute to the PERA fund.

She also said that, given that Albuquerque Police Department is currently under court-ordered consent decree from the federal Department of Justice for previous shootings of civilians, retired officers would have to go through a vetting process.

“Some of the few retirees may be a part of a culture that is changing,” Hernandez said. “The chief is doing a screening process.”

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said his city needs the policy because APD is short a few hundred cops and needs to get back to 1,000 officers. He has been a strong proponent of the legislation.

“I’m here because I need your help,” Berry said.

Despite the changes from last year’s bill, several representatives of organizations testified against it, including PERA Executive Director Wayne Propst.

“The problem is using a retirement fund to solve a retention problem,” Propst told committee members.

He said once the Legislature allows return to work policies on cops to happen, other employment groups will start to ask for similar measures. Larrañaga said he’d be the first to deny other employment groups return to work programs.

“This is an emergency situation for one class of employees and that’s public safety,” Larrañaga said.

Pete Dinelli, a former Albuquerque city councilor and mayoral candidate who lost to Berry, told the committee he doubted claims of shortages by other police departments, including state police.

“That is a unique Albuquerque problem,” Dinelli said. “The elephant in the room is Albuquerque is under a consent decree.”

New Mexico Police Chief Pete Kassetas took offense to Dinelli’s comments.

“How dare you say my agency is fully staffed,” he said.

Reps. Patricia Roybal Caballero and Andres Romero, both Democrats from Albuquerque, apologized for Kassetas’s comments.

“That’s not appropriate,” Roybal Caballero said. “I want to feel that I’m protected based on what I have to offer, even if my opinion is different from the majority.”

She called the return to work bill a “band-aid fix” to a complex problem. Romero said his concerns dealt with choosing to use retiring officers to fill a gap rather than fully focusing on recruiting new ones.

Those who testified in favor of the bill included members of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the Department of Public Safety and the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association.

The bill moves next to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.