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Union offers police 'responsible choice'

James Pinkerto, Houston Chronicle
Updated 2:35 pm, Friday, January 25, 2013
  • Houston Police Officers' Union Vice President Joseph Gamaldi holds a prepaid TaxiCard, part of a program that will have the union paying for cab rides home for police officers who have had too much too drink. Photo: James Nielsen, Staff / © Houston Chronicle 2013
    Houston Police Officers' Union Vice President Joseph Gamaldi holds a prepaid TaxiCard, part of a program that will have the union paying for cab rides home for police officers who have had too much too drink. Photo: James Nielsen, Staff

 

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A police officer is the last person you expect to drink and drive. And the Houston Police Officers' Union wants to make sure of that by providing officers who drink too much a free cab ride home.

Joseph Gamaldi, vice president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, said on Wednesday that pre-paid Yellow Cab pay cards have been distributed to officers after a successful four-month trial run. The cab program is modeled on one pioneered by the Dallas police association.

"The program is designed to give our members, after a night out, a responsible choice for their ride home at no cost to them," Gamaldi said. "If they have consumed any amount of alcohol they feel can impair their driving in any way, they contact Yellow Cab by phone."

Union officials stressed the cab rides are not in response to a specific driving while intoxicated problem among HPD officers.

They say the program is a preventive measure, considering that Harris County leads the nation in alcohol-related traffic deaths.

Monitored for abuse

Names of union members who sign up for the cards remain anonymous, but the program is monitored to prevent abuse, is for off-duty use and is not paid for with public funds or union dues, officials said. Interest from union investments pay for the initiative.

"We felt if this program saves just one life, it's a benefit not only to our members but to the community as a whole," Gamaldi said. "We believe our members make responsible decisions. We just want to make sure that decision was as easy as possible in these isolated situations."

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said that he welcomed any initiative to help keep streets and highways safe.

"This particular initiative from the HPOU to support its members is similar to any company or organization that offers healthier lifestyle options to its employees," McClelland said. "I expect all my employees to conduct themselves responsibly on or off duty."

The union cab initiative, called the Courtesy Ride Program, was supported by a number of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers executives who attended a news conference at union headquarters Wednesday.

"Drunk driving does not have a type of victim. It crosses over all races, ages and all boundaries," said attorney Will Womble, a member of MADD's advisory board. "And that is why MADD supports the outside the box thinking that the union and Yellow Cab have come up with in an effort to create a plan for those that require a ride home."

John McNamee, executive director of the Southeast Texas MADD affiliate, said "MADD wants to encourage everyone to have a plan and be responsible when they're out drinking."

Hoping to start a trend

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston police union, said his colleagues hope to challenge other organizations and corporations to consider providing a similar benefit to their employees.

Hunt said the cab cards cannot be used to transport officers to another bar, and said an officer could use his or her card to pay for a cab ride for another officer who had not enrolled.

"We don't believe we have a widespread problem within the Houston Police Department with drinking and driving," Hunt said. "However, we believe if we got out in front on this and said we want to challenge other businesses in Houston to do something similar for their employes and members, maybe we could deter these problems."

Houston police officers have been disciplined for alcohol-related incidents in recent years.

McClelland fired union board member Mike Hamby in June 2011 after the intoxicated senior police officer tossed a tear gas grenade into the tent of competitors at a Houston Rodeo barbecue cook-off.

McClelland also fired Sgt. Ruben Trejo in August 2011 after he crashed his private car into an empty school bus while driving to work, an accident that led to a DWI charge.

Last month, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that more than a dozen police officers had been disciplined for driving while intoxicated or being drunk while on or off-duty since 2008 in Fort Worth.

Troy McKinney, a Houston defense attorney whose specialty is DWI, supported the cab program as long as Houston police don't pay less than the public.

"So long as the union pays Yellow Cab whatever the full fare would be for anyone, there's no problem with it," McKinney said.

The Dallas Police Association started a similar program three years ago, and it is used by "a handful" of Dallas officers every month, said president Ron Pinkston.

"I think it's a very positive move," for Houston, Pinkston said.