When Flor Peña and Alberto Venera collected their award for good police practices in animal protection, they got a standing ovation.
The gala was organized by the Animal Protection Network (REPA), an umbrella group for animal rights associations, in collaboration with the Spanish government’s Directorate General for Animal Rights, and held in Madrid on October 6. Members of the 15 award-winning teams of officers from local law enforcement, the National Police and the Civil Guard from across Spain had rolled up in uniform.
Only Flor and Alberto, two national police officers from the city of Alcalá de Henares, in Madrid’s commuter belt, accepted their award in civilian attire. It was what the pair termed the ultimate “humiliation” from their police commissioner, who had forbidden them from picking up their award in uniform, arguing that “they did not represent them.”
A week after the gala, Flor and Alberto spent more than two and a half hours in a prestigious law firm in Madrid. They are now preparing a workplace harassment lawsuit with the help of the police union Jupol. “It will be difficult to prove, but there is enough evidence to try,” says Flor.
Five months ago, the pair were taken off the streets and sent to the local court complex, where their job description consisted of taking detainees from their cells to the courtroom. They claim that only officers being disciplined are reassigned in this way.
The confrontation between these police officers and their superiors revolves around how the pair handled complaints of animal abuse. Together, Flor and Alberto have rescued up to 40 animals over two years, but, according to their superiors, in some cases, they did not follow the correct administrative procedure.
According to Flor and Alberto, the real reason behind the confrontation is that animal abuse is not a priority for their bosses, who urged them to focus on other crimes. The tension was such that an internal investigation was carried out. In a document to which EL PAÍS has had access, the investigation concluded that both officers had acted correctly and performed a “praiseworthy and admirable” job.
The police commissioner of Alcalá de Henares has declined to answer EL PAÍS’ questions about a case that will most likely end up in court, according to Javier Otero, Flor and Alberto’s legal representative from the police union. “When we analyzed the situation we tried to solve it without going to court, but it was impossible,” says Otero. “We have had to resort to more drastic measures.”
SUP, another police union to which Flor and Alberto belonged, analyzed their case but did not subsequently support their claims as they considered that the two officers were not following the appropriate channels to process the reports of abuse.
If you see the abuse with your own eyes or a member of the public calls you, what do you do? If I see it, I have to do somethingNational police officer Flor Peña
Police sources, meanwhile, stress that Alberto and Flor should have focused on more important issues. “It’s the local police who are in charge of animal abuse issues, and these officers were neglecting other duties by devoting themselves to this,” said a National Police source.
The same source also claimed Flor and Alberto were handling these issues “in an irregular manner,” rather than in the established way of taking the complaint to the police station, and from there relaying it to the local police or government delegation. “They were warned several times,” said this source, adding that this is why they were taken off their beat. “The usual protocol has been followed in the case of two officers not meeting their priorities.”
But the pair deny that they failed to focus on other matters. They claim that animal abuse is included in the Penal Code and consider that any law enforcement officer must act when faced with a crime, whether that crime is theft, sexual aggression or animal abuse. This, they say, is why 50 national police officers received training in Alcalá de Henares a year ago to learn how to act when faced with reports of this nature. It was organized by the SUP union and at that time their superiors had no objection to putting it into practice.
Flor says she became nervous about receiving any animal-related complaints, given the pressure they were under. “But if you see the abuse with your own eyes or a member of the public calls you, what do you do?” she says. “Do you stop doing your job? If I see it, I have to do something.”
Mati Cubillo, president of an association named Animal Justice, which is part of REPA, believes this to be correct. Cubillo explains that her association reports situations of abuse across the country and that both national and municipal police officers are equally responsible when it comes to taking action. This is why the national police officer Montserrat Torres also received an award on October 6. “But at her police station, her boss welcomed the fact that she was being interviewed, because it was a source of pride,” says Cubillo. “Something very alarming is happening in the case of Flor and Alberto, something that hasn’t happened before. I think [Interior Minister Fernando] Grande-Marlaska should take action. I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Flor admits her nerves are on edge. She says she didn’t know what anxiety was until now, and that she fears receiving calls at odd hours from her bosses despite having worked at the police station for 10 years and having a “spotless” record.
All the material she has accumulated in recent months is contained within two folders. She opens them at a sidewalk café in Alcalá de Henares and pulls out the photos of an Argentine Dogo that she and Alberto found in the basement of a house; normally a strong, muscular breed, this particular animal was clearly starving and lying among feces and accumulated junk. The dog never left those four walls and the neighbors said it had repeatedly tried to escape through the window. This was one of the complaints that caused their professionalism to be called into question.
Evidence of abuse
Once Flor and Alberto arrived at a scene of abuse, they would call the local animal shelter. Afterwards, the veterinary services would issue a report, every one of which provided proof of the abuse. “It shows that they were not wrong when they confiscated the animals,” insists Cubillo.
Until last May, Alberto led a team of 10 officers, including Flor, patrolling the city of Alcalá de Henares by night and dealing with crimes of all kinds.
Now both of them are having a hard time. Flor has decided to empty her work locker and hand over the key for fear that one day she will find something inside it that will incriminate her. Both she and Alberto agree that they should have sought professional help for their emotional wellbeing, but have not done so for fear that it will be another stain on their record and that they will lose their badge.