A former Albuquerque Police Department detective was awarded over a million dollars by a district court judge yesterday, after she sued for the department’s failure to make allowances for her disabilities from injuries she sustained while on the job.
Former APD Detective Teresa Romero, and two other women filed lawsuits under the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act and Human Rights Act. The court found that Romero, who was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder related to her work, was injured during her work at APD Sex Crimes Unit.
“Romero suffered from mental impairment as a result of secondary PTSD and anxiety that constituted a serious medical condition and a mental disability as defined by the [Human Rights Act],” Second Judicial District Judge Nancy J. Francini wrote in a ruling September 22. “Romero’s disability was caused by her work for APD.”
According to the ruling, Romero first sought counseling after she experienced a trauma “trigger” during a reality-based training exercise in 2016 where she was required to shoot and kill a male suspect. She started hyperventilating and could not breathe. Those specific trainings are pass/fail.
According to Romero, none of her supervisors suggested that she seek mental health treatment, and there was no psychologist or therapist at the training for officers experiencing such symptoms. It was only after a fellow employee suggested she seek behavioral health therapy in the summer of 2017 that Romero sought assistance, court documents state.
She was again required to attend the reality-based training in October 2017, where again, she experienced acute PTSD symptoms.
As The Paper. has reported, discussions about officer mental health have become more prevalent in recent years, and the data is startling. The 2008 Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) found that 23 percent of male and 25 percent of female officers reported more suicidal thoughts than the general population (13.5 percent). In a previous study, suicide rates were three times higher in police than in other municipal workers, researchers found.
Romero told the court that she was afraid to speak up about her mental health illnesses because of the stigma associated with the mental health of an officer. She also said she learned early in her career that officers should not cry in the field and there was a negative stigma against an officer who sought mental health medical care.
After her second experience during training, Romero was asked to provide a note from her therapist stating that she could not complete the reality-based training. But Romero thought the department was asking for her full treatment details and feared that therapist’s notes would result in her being sent for a fit for duty examination, which she believed would end her career in law enforcement court documents state.
In May 2018, after being placed on first light-duty, and then administrative leave, Romero was referred for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. The evaluation found that she was temporarily unfit for duty and that counseling was mandatory. She filed a Human Rights Act complaint.
In December 2018, Romero again completed a fitness-for-duty evaluation. The examining doctor found that while she was not yet ready to return to duty, she was making progress and that another evaluation in three months would be appropriate. But the city never informed Romero that there was a path to return to work.
Then in February 2019, Romero received an email from the city saying she was no longer on administrative leave, but on injury leave.
Romero later moved to another state and officially retired from APD in January 2020. It wasn’t until she filed her lawsuit that she learned there actually was a path for her to return to duty according to the fitness-for-duty examination.
“APD did not reasonably accommodate Romero for her disability and serious medical condition after she filed her Human Rights Bureau complaint on May 21, 2018,” Francini ruled. “APD did not provide Romero with modification or adaptation of her work environment, work rules or job responsibilities or explore less restrictive alternatives to enable Romero to perform the essential functions of the job, as defined by the [Human Rights Act]. APD did not have a legitimate business reason for failing to reasonably accommodate Romero and provide her with support and options to return to work.”
The court found that Romero’s mental health treatment was a motivating factor in APD’s continued decision not to bring her back to work or providing a path for her to do so.
The court ordered APD to pay all of Romero’s attorney’s fees, $330,193 in back pay and economic losses, and $1,087,000 for emotional distress, anxiety, humiliation and mental anguish damages.
Shannon Kennedy, of Kennedy Law Firm represented Romero and the other plaintiffs.