When an Alexandria police officer shot and killed a Springfield teenager in the parking lot of a West End diner last year, the scene was flooded with investigators trying to piece together what had happened. But one individual made his way onto the scene and played a quiet but important role in the initial stages of the investigation: the officer’s lawyer.
He assessed the liability, advised the officer and played an important behind-the-scenes role as events unfolded. But legal representation is expensive, and senior members of the police union became increasingly concerned about what might happen if the case were to go to trial.
"I went into panic mode," said Sean McGowan, who was then president of an organization known as Alexandria Committee of Police Local 5. "It was becoming apparent that we were grossly underrepresented."
The Local 5 was a member of the International Union of Police Associations, a Florida-based organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO. But McGowen said that the 2006 diner shooting revealed an important weakness of the international association — specifically, a lack of legal representation and political organization. That’s when McGowan and other union leaders began exploring alternative associations, eventually travelling down to Georgia to meet with officials from the Southern States Police Benevolent Association. In Nov. 2006, McGowan called for a vote to dissolve the local union’s ties with the Florida union in favor of a new relationship with the Georgia association that union leaders believed would provide better legal representation and stronger political organization.
There was only one problem: What should happen to the union’s $40,000 bank account?
"When they stepped away, they did not dissolve the union," said Dennis Slocumb, administrator for the Alexandria Committee of Police. "We still have members, and that money belongs to ACOP."
MORE THAN A year after the vote, in which the vast majority of Alexandria police officers switched their association memberships, the Florida-based association and its local affiliate have filed a lawsuit in Alexandria Circuit Court staking their claim to the bank account. The question over the bank account comes down to who has the better claim to the money: the handful of members who never opted out or the hundreds of members who switched their affiliation. For the lawyers at Lay, Moore and Poretz, who are representing the new Alexandria chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, the dispute comes down to majority rule.
"The largest number of police numbers decided they no longer wanted to be associated with IUPA, and they wanted out. They should have been able to do that without the unwanted distraction of litigation," said Jim Lay, a principal in the firm and the lawyer who represented the officer in last year’s shooting. "The IUPA is acting like an abusive husband who won’t agree to a divorce unless he gets the house and the flat-screen TV."
But officials at IUPA took a drastically different view, saying that the bank account was the accumulated dues of its members. Because a group of Alexandria police officers are still members of the Florida-based organization, its lawyers content, they are entitled to the bank account. They brought the lawsuit last month in an effort to claim what they say is rightfully theirs.
"We are trying to get services to our members, and we are trying to get our local chapter back on its feet," said Aaron Nisenson, general counsel to IUPA. "This money should stay with out Alexandria members and not be sent down to Georgia."
A trial date in the case has yet to be set.