Limited Duty, Full-Time Pay
Thursday, October 5, 2006
Anthony Medoro had troubles with his boss. His supervisor was "dictatorial and micromanaging" and undermined his self-confidence, Medoro said. The stress was so oppressive he couldn't bear going to work.
Medoro, then 44 and a D.C. police sergeant with 20 years on the force, filed for sick leave due to job-related stress. Medical staff noted that Medoro had long-standing problems with weight gain, high blood pressure and domestic strife that also could have accounted for his anxiety, but D.C. police administrators accepted Medoro's arguments and concluded that his stress came from his job.
That decision in 2002 put Medoro in a remarkable position: For more than a year, he did no work but collected his full salary of $71,000, tax-free. Medoro used none of his own sick leave and continued to qualify for raises, vacation time and credit toward his pension, personnel records show.
Medoro returned to a new assignment and a new supervisor in September 2003, but within a month, he filed another stress claim and then, a third. By then, the department had narrowed its definition of on-the-job stress and rejected his new claims.
Now a lieutenant in the 5th District in Northeast, Medoro is among hundreds of police officers who have collected full pay but not worked full duty -- some for years at a time. The gap left in the force prompted the city two years ago to tighten rules governing medical claims. Since then, the number of officers away from full duty has dropped. But with crime among the District's most pressing problems, police officials still struggle to keep enough officers on the streets.
More than 4 percent of the city's nearly 3,800 officers are unavailable for full duty because of injury or illness. After a string of homicides this summer, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey spent $10 million in overtime and resorted to six-day workweeks and vacation restrictions to beef up police presence in neighborhoods. Last week, homicides spiked again.
The illness and injury claims have cost the city millions in salaries, medical care, disability payments and lost work hours. And the department's tolerance for long-running absences -- whether illnesses are genuine or exaggerated -- has left residents without the full police protection they were funding.
One officer who hurt his knee at the police academy without ever making it on patrol did limited work at full pay for five years. Another officer who injured his legs in an off-duty motorcycle accident earned full pay but worked partial duty for 14 years. Told he would have to retire, the officer made a videotape of himself running and said he was fit for work.
"Shame on us," Ramsey said, when asked to look over a collection of injury reports that his department had approved. "If you're going to fight crime, you have to have people on the street, and this problem means I don't have as many as I could."
In late 2003, 11 percent of the force was out, the equivalent of an entire police district. In the years since, Ramsey said, the department has made "good progress."
But some neighborhoods are still disproportionately affected. Early this year, for example, two areas of Northeast, including the Trinidad and Michigan Park neighborhoods, were without 15 percent of their patrol officers because of injury and illness, staffing records show.
Baltimore has driven the number of its unavailable officers far lower, and faster -- from 5 percent of its 3,200-member force a year ago to about 1 percent, according to the city's Office of the Labor Commissioner.
Within the D.C. department, some officers say they resent having to compensate for missing colleagues. But outside the department, the cases draw little scrutiny because decisions are made behind closed doors.
The Washington Post reviewed hundreds of public and private documents, including court cases, retirement hearing transcripts, medical assessments and police records since 2003. That review shows that officers with little or no chance of being able to patrol were kept on the force for years, preventing the department from hiring able-bodied officers to replace them. A cumbersome process caused long delays in forcing officers to retire. In a few cases, claims continued to be covered even after the department learned officers were lying about injuries.
The fastest-growing type of claim was from officers who said they couldn't work because of extreme stress. But of 135 stress cases reviewed by The Post -- all of those active in late 2004 and 14 more from court files and other documents -- the majority cited common workplace tensions. Only 12 cases involved a shooting or being threatened with a gun. Just four described a single traumatic event as the source of stress.
The remaining claims included officers who said they were too stressed to work because of arguments with colleagues, shift changes, disciplinary actions, the end of an affair with a supervisor or being forced to teach an unpopular class at the academy. Each of those claims was approved, and the officers received full pay while away from full duty for at least a year.
Despite tighter standards, the department still has a generous benefit "unheard of in private industry and public service," an internal department memo said. Commonly, employees on workers' compensation collect two-thirds of their salary and pay no federal or state income tax. But District officers hurt on the job who can't go to work collect all of their salary tax-free -- meaning they lose money by returning to work.
For years, officers were loosely monitored once they were off, records show. One D.C. officer on sick leave worked for a Pennsylvania police force until he was discovered by the District and submitted his resignation.
Medoro, who described his job stress as "way beyond the commonplace," said the department paid little attention when he was on leave. "I could have fallen off the face of the Earth for the first six months I was off."
'We've Been Too Easy on This'
Each day, on average, four D.C. officers file claims of illness or injury.
In addition to sick leave, the District allows recuperating officers to work limited duty, mainly doing clerical work and often for restricted hours. Those arrangements were meant to be temporary to give officers time to recover or, if they could not return to the rigors of regular police duty, to be retired on disability.
"The overwhelming majority do it right. They get hurt. They come in. They get treatment. They go back to work," said Ira Stohlman, medical services manager for the department.
Stephen M. Strader, however, never made it past being a recruit. In 1998, Strader injured his left knee during training runs. For most of the next five years, while still listed as a recruit, he delivered mail and did office work until he was forced to retire in 2004, records show. Strader did not respond to requests to discuss his case but, under the department formula, he is eligible for a lifetime tax-free disability payment of at least $19,278 annually.
Officer Debra A. Domino collected full, tax-free pay for 18 months while off work -- roughly $80,000, according to city pay records. She had been a crossing guard coordinator in the 6th District in Northeast but was reassigned to a beat in late 2002, a change she objected to. When she confronted her supervisors with her objections, their reaction added to Domino's stress, she said, and left her unable to work. Domino, 41, returned to full duty in July 2005 after being threatened with retirement, according to records.
Domino did not respond to interview requests, and police officials said they would not discuss individual cases. But Ramsey and others say the department's lax approach in the past rewarded underperformance.
|Assistant D.C. Police Chief Shannon P. Cockett, left, Capt. Michael Eldridge and Diana Haines Walton, deputy director of human services. Cockett has worked to tighten stress-claim rules.|
Under controls promoted by D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and adopted by the council, officers away from full duty for more than 172 work days in a two-year period are considered disabled and can be processed for forced retirement. The law took full effect in June 2005.
Officers who want to stay on the job must be capable of patrolling. If officers "can't do what we need . . . they should not be carried on the force," Cockett said. "This is not a lifetime hire."
In spring 2005, the department told 166 officers that they were approaching the 172-day cutoff and could be forcibly retired. Forty-three officers immediately said they would return to work, raising questions about why they had not done so earlier.
"Malingering is hard to prove," Cockett said. But those notices, she said, spurred "some miraculous recoveries."
" 'Miraculous' is cynical," said Gary Hankins, a former officer and labor consultant to the police union. "When the department holds an ax over people's heads, it could be forcing back officers who aren't ready to return but are afraid of losing their jobs -- and not doing them or the public much good."
The process remains complicated by multiple layers of review: Officials within the department initially decide whether a claim is job-related. Medical personnel on contract to the city at a police clinic determine whether an officer stays on sick leave, works limited duty, returns to full duty or should be considered for disability retirement.
An independent retirement board either orders a disability retirement or tells the department it must retain the officer.
The stakes are high, because injuries that are deemed to be work-related draw higher payments and free care from the clinic. The department recently fired an officer who forged the date on a clinic report to get more time off. A few officers have been so belligerent during clinic visits that medical workers asked for armed officers to be stationed outside their doors. One officer threatened physical retaliation if a medical staffer did not back up his injury claim.
New Standards for Stress
When the number of unavailable D.C. officers peaked in 2003, one of every five was claiming stress as the problem, police records show.
Officers and the union attribute the stress to several factors, including poorly trained managers, heightened terrorism fears and the cumulative effect of a difficult job on an aging force.
But also, Cockett said, "word got out that you could get away with just about anything, and they thought there was a gravy train rolling, and they jumped on it. "
Department officials say it is difficult to separate officers who are slacking from those who are genuinely ill. "Once an officer cites stress, it's a hard one to knock down," said Diana Haines Walton, deputy director of human services. "It makes it really hard on commanders, because you can't risk it. You have to take the officer's account at that point."
Injury reports show that officers have been out on stress claims because they were facing investigation for wrongdoing. One cited personal bankruptcy. Another said that after she was reassigned to a new unit, she couldn't find her way to crime scenes. Still others said they were too stressed to work because their hours had changed.
"If you're under investigation, it's supposed to be stressful," Ramsey said. "If you go out sick saying, 'My sergeant yelled at me,' that's juvenile, and trying to justify it is appalling. And we all were grown-ups when we took this job, and we get paid pretty darn well for it. So, c'mon, we're the police -- someone has to work midnights."
In mid-2003, Cockett ordered a review of the stress cases and concluded that a large number were workplace complaints that, even if legitimate, should not be resolved as medical claims.
The department then moved from having "no standard," in Cockett's words, to a much tighter set of rules. Now, stress claims can be approved as job-related only for officers who are assaulted or suffer a life-threatening injury on duty or those who kill or seriously injure someone.
The department reclassified 37 cases as unrelated to work. The officers then had to use their sick leave, pay for private medical care and pay taxes on their salary if they wanted to remain off.
From a high of 75 in 2003, the department has slashed the number of stress cases to five and ruled just one job-related, said Cockett, who calls that a success. But union officials say the department has gone too far.
The Fraternal Order of Police challenged the stress policy as illegal, and an arbiter ruled in the union's favor last year. The department has appealed that finding and in the meantime is sticking with its new standard.
"It's a draconian measure that gets the department out from under the hard work of delving into these case by case," said William B. Sarvis Jr., an attorney with the police union. "You penalize everyone because you suspect you have a problem with a few."
The requirement that the problem stem from a single incident ignores how stress builds in officers until it finally cripples some, said Beverly J. Anderson, a psychologist with the police employee assistance program. "The work can wear away until they reach a kindling point."
A Fight Over Fairness
Pamela Bartles, who was injured on the job in 2002, is among officers who say the new rules forced them to battle for fair treatment.
|Former D.C. officer Pamela Bartles with her cat Simon and son Dillon. Bartles, on lifetime disability, says revised guidelines forced her to battle for fair treatment after being injured on the job.|
Over four years, she had three knee surgeries. She was able to go back full time on patrol in the 7th District in Southeast -- for a total of six months -- until she was injured chasing a suspect and later fell after her knee buckled on stairs.
With her career in jeopardy, she experienced nightmares, insomnia and a racing heart beat, according to psychologists' reports. Her anxiety was ratcheted up when police supervisors docked her sick time, including time off for medical visits arranged by the police clinic.
In May 2005, with the new standards in place, the department notified her that she might be forced to retire. Within a week, Bartles overdosed on pills and was hospitalized. She overdosed three more times, according to the testimony of psychologist Mitchell H. Hugonnet at her retirement hearing. "Frankly, I fear for her life," he said.
Within hours of Hugonnet's testimony, the retirement board overruled the department, saying that Bartles's psychological problems had been caused by the job. And in a rare ruling June 30, the board found that the problems left her totally disabled. As a result, her lifetime disability payment of $37,666 a year is tax-free. Bartles is not working and continues to receive psychological treatment at the city's expense.
"I fought as long as I could," she said in a recent phone interview. "I consider what happened to me an assault. That was upsetting. I'm hoping my talking could help another officer or get someone to listen to them. But I feel like I wasn't strong enough. That's embarrassing."
Since the new law took effect, the retirement board has been overwhelmed, causing "a rapidly growing backlog of cases needing opinions," Alma L. Hicks, board chairperson, said in an e-mail.
Last year, the clinic sent 88 new disability retirement cases to the board, four times the number it handled in 2003, board records show. The number of hearings increased nearly fivefold. Staffing for the board -- officially known as the Police and Firefighters' Retirement and Relief Board -- has fallen from five to three in the past year.
Ramsey and other officials also acknowledge a loophole in the law: the 172-day rule applies to a single injury or illness, so an officer who claims a succession of injuries could be off work indefinitely.
Even with the tighter standards it remains difficult for the department to catch officers faking or exaggerating injuries. After a years-long hiatus, the department two years ago reinvigorated what it calls "casualty surveillance" within its internal affairs office. About 20 officers have been investigated, and at least six have been disciplined or fired, with other cases pending, said Assistant Chief William R. Ponton, who heads the office. The team has found officers moonlighting without permission and others playing basketball while they said they were too injured to work full duty.
But surveillance is time-consuming, and the cases "are really hard to prove," Ponton said. "If we're looking at a guy who is supposed to be able to lift his arm shoulder-height but not over his head, is it then suspicious that we're watching him prune a tree?"
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.