Annexation and the budget may be out in front, but the high-stakes sleeper issue of the March 2 Santa Fe mayoral election is police discipline.
Last week, SFR and the Journal North reported on recent legal settlements tied to the termination of several Santa Fe Police Department officers.
The largest settlement, for $225,000, was related to the firing of Officer Flavio Salazar. Documents show Salazar lied to a grand jury to obtain a felony charge against an elderly man whom he had injured while placing under false arrest.
Now SFR has learned that police union leaders had asked Mayor David Coss to intervene on behalf of officers facing termination for misconduct. The mayor’s refusal to do so may have played into the union’s decision to endorse another candidate, former City Manager Asenath Kepler.
“I just remember that [Santa Fe Police Officers’ Association president Sgt. Allan Lopez] came several times to say that they were going to take it to arbitration if I didn’t fix it,” Coss confirms to SFR. “I said, ‘It’s not the mayor’s role or even prerogative to intervene in disciplinary actions. I was also standing by our [police] chief, because those were offenses that merited discharge. We just can’t tolerate any excessive force or police brutality. We certainly can’t tolerate lying to a jury.”
Lopez confirms to SFR that he met with Coss about specific pending discipline cases. “We know the mayor can’t get involved in disciplinary things, but he can at least talk to the city manager,” Lopez says.
Former City Manager Galen Buller had a “clear record” of siding against employees, Officer and POA Vice President Adam Gallegos says.
“We did an informal poll of the other unions, like fire and [American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees], and they pretty much had the same experience. All three unions approached the mayor to discuss this issue,” Gallegos tells SFR.
So did Coss show Buller the door to curry favor with the unions before the election? Lopez and Gallegos of the POA say that’s possible—but that Buller’s departure came far too late to earn their support for Coss.
Coss scoffs at the suggestion: “Galen left because he was ready to leave,” he says. “It was pretty well-known the unions were unhappy with him. But I backed him constantly.”
The Santa Fe Firefighters Association joined the police union in endorsing Kepler, chiefly over her opposition to an annexation that would add to the workload of those bureaus. AFSCME endorsed Coss, a former union organizer.
Some union officials may have a personal stake in how discipline is handled. In 2008, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that Gallegos had been placed under investigation after allegedly getting drunk and peering into the windows of a woman he’d met while on duty. Gallegos, who reportedly claimed he was just checking up on the scene of a burglary, tells SFR his discipline case is “still pending.”
Lopez says Salazar and the other officers who were terminated were punished excessively because they spoke out against former police Chief Eric Johnson. “All those guys could’ve been saved,” Lopez says. He thinks Kepler handled personnel cases fairly—that is, until Coss fired her. “I’m not against discipline,” Lopez says.
Kepler says the police disciplinary cases that resulted in settlements “never even came up in their reason for endorsing me.”
However, she was aware of union dissatisfaction with Buller, who succeeded her as city manager. “What the unions are looking for is someone who’s going to listen fairly to both sides,” Kepler says.
As for Salazar’s case, Kepler says she only knows what she’s read in the papers. “It sounds to me that there were conflicting facts…We just have to be very careful when we’re dealing with people’s livelihoods,” Kepler says. “Unless you’re there, you don’t know what happened.”
Salazar’s testimony that he’d identified himself as a police officer before arresting 62-year-old Fredrico Rael was proven false by an audio recording. In arbitration, Salazar said he shouldn’t be fired because he had not been convicted of perjury. The arbitrator, retired District Judge Woody Smith, rejected that logic, writing that the evidence “left no doubt in my mind that Flavio Salazar intentionally and knowingly made false statements to a Grand Jury…Dishonesty in such matters of public trust is intolerable.”
New City Manager Robert Romero says he released the settlements, originally requested by the Journal, to all local newspapers in the interests of transparency. “I thought it was important enough that everybody should see it,” Romero says.