As police officers for the city of Sweetwater, Ihosvany Gárciga and Ernesto Barquín maintained a clean record in a Department fraught with scandals and alleged irregularities.
So when they were fired last month, along with 12 other officers, both said they were shocked and insulted.
“What I want to know is why they chose to dismiss me?,” said Gárciga, 40, who has been with the department for six years. “I keep wondering who made the decision.”
The layoffs, which occurred just a day after Orlando López was sworn in as mayor, unleashed new controversy in the already troubled city. Who determined which officers should be dismissed and what criteria was used remains unknown.
Several commissioners described the move as arbitrary and on Monday, six of the seven commissioners voted in favor of reinstating all of the dismissed police officers to their posts. So far, only seven of the officers have been rehired. Gárciga and Barquín, the only full-time employees who were part of the layoffs, have not been reinstated. Both were hired full time by the previous administration and earned about $60,000 each, in salary and benefits.
López, who promised government transparency during his campaign, recently told the media that he did not need to give explanations to those dismissed, adding that they were reserve officers, part-time employees or still under the probation period. He said he followed the recommendations of a transitionary board, which identified police officers “who were useless.”
“If someone tells me that these employees are no good and need to be fired, I will fire them,” López said last month during the swearing-in ceremony for Interim Police Chief Plácido Díaz.
Now Gárciga and Barquín are seeking to be reinstated to the police force and clear their names.
“I’m defending my name and my honor, because the worst thing you can do to a man is trample his dignity,” said Barquín, 31, who has two young daughters and a pregnant wife.
“I have been an upstanding police officer. And suddenly my name is all over the news and the mayor is saying that he fired me because I'm worthless. This is an abuse and humiliation that affects my record,” said Barquín, who has worked in Sweetwater for two years. “I'm out of work, without health insurance for my wife who now needs it most, and even my grandmother has asked me for an explanation because she sees my name on television and thinks I did something wrong.”
El Nuevo Herald has made several requests for public records on the dismissals. But the requests have not been answered for two weeks. López and Díaz also did not respond to interview requests.
López recently stated that he made the decision to fire the officers without disclosing the reasons so as “not to harm their records.” He added: “If what they want is to be fired for cause, I will gladly give them the cause and ruin their records for the rest of their lives.”
“That’s a lie,” said Gárciga, who is married and has two teenage stepdaughters. “In Sweetwater, there have been some police officers with problems on their record but I’m not one of them. I did not violate my probation period, I did nothing wrong. This was an unfair dismissal and they took advantage of those who did not yet have all the protections under contract [with the police union.]”
Meanwhile, Díaz, the interim chief whose appointment still has to be ratified by the Commission, sent a memo to commissioners stating that he would consider reinstating the dismissed officers. In the memo, Díaz explained that the measure was taken on the recommendation of the previous police administration.
“Even though... It has not yet been determined that such personnel actions were taken without cause,” Díaz wrote, “I believed due process with complete transparency should be afforded to all individuals.”
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