Montgomery’s time to slow the exorbitant rate of police disability retirements

June 25, 2011

CRIME RATES in Montgomery County are trending down, thanks at least partly to the county’s hale and hearty police force. Many Montgomery officers, however, seem to regard themselves as frail, sickly and pain-addled — at least judging from the astonishing rate at which they continue to retire with full, tax-free disability pensions.

More than half the county police retire with disability awards equal to two-thirds of their salary, costing county taxpayers millions of dollars annually. The disability system, which makes no distinction between a sore wrist and neck-down paralysis, was first exposed as a scam almost three years ago — “abusive,” in the words of Montgomery’s inspector general. Some officers who received disability pensions went on to other, physically demanding jobs elsewhere.

Now, as the County Council prepares to do something about it, police are fighting back tooth and nail.

To understand the disability racket in Montgomery, compare the claims there to those in neighboring Fairfax County. According to statistics compiled by The Washington Examiner last week, 91 Montgomery police officers were awarded disability pensions in five years ending in 2009, and another 25 applied last year. (Few applicants are denied the award.) But in the decade ending last year, just three Fairfax police officers managed to score a disability pension.

At the heart of the dysfunction in Montgomery are two problems — one cultural and one systemic. Of course police officers work hard and bravely to keep citizens safe. But there also appears to be a sense of entitlement among some county public safety officers. Witness the scheme in recent years whereby more than 200 police officers and sheriff’s deputies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on courses that were in fact taxpayer-funded scams to buy cut-rate weapons for officers to use recreationally or resell, as they saw fit.

The systemic problem is more susceptible to legislative remedy. Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) has introduced legislation that makes a common-sense distinction between serious and minor impairments, establishing two levels of disability awards. The bill would diminish the early-retirement incentive for officers with aching backs and knees, who represent the large majority of disability claims, while still maintaining generous awards for officers with more serious injuries. It would also sensibly disqualify officers who commit firing offenses from collecting disability pensions.

The county’s fire and rescue workers have had such a two-tiered system for almost a decade. And while many firefighters continue to claim disability pensions, the vast majority are judged to have partial disabilities, saving taxpayers money.

In thrall to unions representing government workers, the council rejected similar legislation two years ago. But things have changed, and county politicians have gotten the message that profligate spending on swindles such as the disability dodge can no longer be business as usual in Montgomery. The council is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday. We hope this time members will muster the political will to adopt it unanimously.

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