Should Bay Area taxpayers foot bill to send cops to out-of-state funerals?

BERKELEY — Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, New York City police officers killed in the line of duty in December, were laid to rest before galleries of dignitaries and thousands-strong walls of police officers from across the nation — including dozens from the Bay Area.

Such displays of unity and respect, on Dec. 27 for Ramos and Jan. 4 for Liu, are testimony to a tight fraternity of police that transcends jurisdictional boundaries. But sending officers to attend out-of-town funerals also is costly in time and money, and in more than half of the Bay Area police agencies queried by this newspaper, the taxpayer picked up all or some of the tab.

“The coldblooded assassination of peace officers is an attack on the foundation and rule of law upon which our country is based,” said Berkeley police Chief Michael Meehan, whose department sent an honor guard member and another officer to Liu’s funeral at public cost as “a show of support to the NYPD specifically and to demonstrate support for the safety of peace officers, including in Berkeley.”

Meehan also said the trip was worth the cost because it meant much to his officers.

“Morale is important in all organizations to ensure the work continues to get done at the highest level and with the greatest effort,” he said.

But other local departments limit their officers to in-state funerals unless they pay their own way. And one nationally known expert on law enforcement said it is “never appropriate to use taxpayer dollars to send officers to the out-of-town funerals of police officers,” especially out of state, unless the expense has been agreed to under a labor agreement.

“While it’s entirely appropriate for police officers to use this time to travel to the funerals of police officers who have been killed in the line of duty, all travel-related expenses should be paid for by the police officers themselves or at the expense of their unions if the unions are willing to cover these costs,” said Tom Nolan, an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College, former Boston police lieutenant and policy analyst in the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security.

This newspaper surveyed local departments about the New York funerals to explore the different ways police handle such expenses at a time when there are many competing demands on strapped law enforcement budgets. It found wide disparities in practices.

Several Bay Area police unions paid for food, lodging and airfare in connection with the New York funerals. JetBlue flew some officers free of charge. On the other hand, some Bay Area police officers attended the funerals on their own time and dime; how many is hard to say, if only because the agencies queried do not systematically track what their officers do on their own time.

The two Berkeley officers who attended Liu’s funeral between them clocked 40 paid work hours, according to department records; Berkeley also paid $850.60 for lodging and meals, and JetBlue provided free air transport, according to the Berkeley Police Department. The department did not provide an estimated cost for the paid work time.

Information provided by other Bay Area police agencies showed:

Oakland sent four officers to one or the other New York funerals, using a total of 85 work hours between them, calculated at $4,587.60. Oakland also paid $5,357.74 for airfare, lodging and meals.
“Years ago, when OPD experienced the loss of four officers during one tragic incident, the NYPD sent a group of officers to the funeral of our fallen officers,” Oakland police Chief Sean Whent said, referring to the March 21, 2009, killing of four Oakland police officers by a wanted felon during a traffic stop and subsequent ambush. “The tragic circumstances of the murders of those two NYPD officers deserved a similar show of respect from our department.”

San Jose provided a total of 100 hours paid release time for three officers, calculated at $4,629.68, to attend one or the other funeral, and additionally paid $6,078.30 for airfare, food, lodging and a luggage fee.

Twelve San Francisco officers, including a captain and an officer who each attended both funerals, used a total of 287 regular staff hours the department computed at $17,423.49. JetBlue provided free flights, and the San Francisco Police Officers Association and Asian Peace Officers Association helped pay expenses.

Two Richmond officers and one sergeant attended one or the other New York funeral at a total cost of $3,576.40 in staff time; the city additionally chipped in $400 for lodging, with the Richmond Police Officers Association picking up the rest of the tab for travel and hotel accommodations.

Two Concord officers attended Ramos’ funeral and 12 attended Liu’s, but none used work time; the city spent $2,600 total on hotel and food for four officers.

Two Fremont police officers attended each of the two funerals on days off. Fremont paid $2,788.51 for airfare, hotel and ground transportation.

The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office computed its expenses at $4,734.80, including work time of two deputies, in connection with Liu’s funeral. Two other deputies attended on their own time. The total includes a per diem for food and lodging. JetBlue provided transport.
Many police agencies said they did not take on any expenses in connection with the New York funerals, including some of the area’s largest: The California Highway Patrol, BART Police Department, the Alameda and Contra Costa sheriff’s offices, and the Antioch and Hayward police departments. Several said that any of their members who may have gone to New York for the funerals did so on their own time and expense.

One Contra Costa sheriff’s lieutenant “responded to New York to support his brothers and sisters in blue on his own dime,” on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, his regular scheduled days off, said that agency’s spokesman, Jimmy Lee.

“(He) packed up and left his wife and 9-year-old son late Christmas night and headed to New York to support the family and co-workers of Officer Ramos,” Lee wrote. “He never submitted any claim or reimbursement forms from the county.

“He feels that the support of slain officers is more important than any compensation, and he would do it again on his own dime in a heartbeat.”

Many departments that did not pay for officers to go to New York said the decision was driven primarily by budget concerns.

Antioch police Chief Allan Cantando said his department is rebuilding staff, and currently has mandatory overtime to cover shifts,

“I too factored in the cost of sending staff, and the loss of their services to the residents of our city,” Cantando said. “I recognized there would be national attendance, and I felt it was best to keep our officers within the state.”

Hayward’s department also decided not to send officers to the New York funerals for budgetary reasons, said Records Administrator Adam Perez.

BART typically sends members of its honor guard detail to services held within the state for fallen public safety personnel, said Police Administrative Supervisor Justin Morgan, but there is no formal policy on out-of-state travel.

A spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol, Jaime Coffee, said out-of-state travel must be approved by the CHP commissioner and the state Department of Transportation.

“CHP policy allows a CHP officer, when practicable, to attend the funeral service of a fallen state police or highway patrol officer, and present a California state flag and letter of condolence from the commissioner,” Coffee said. “This policy does not, however, provide for CHP officers to attend funerals for out-of-state local law enforcement.”

Some outside observers also question whether taxpayers should foot the bill for such travel.

Ken Hambrick, chairman of the Alliance of Contra Costa Taxpayers and a Walnut Creek resident, said he is compassionate about the death of public servants who put their lives on the line, especially police officers. But, he said, that’s not a justification to spend public money on funerals in other jurisdictions.

“Many others put themselves in the line of fire, like our military, and we do not recognize them when they die. Perhaps we should, but we don’t.”

Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.

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