Montgomery County Police Seeking Disability Benefits Find System Weighted in Their Favor

By Dan Morse and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 9, 2009

If a Montgomery County police officer can show that his bad knee limits his ability to chase a suspect through the woods or that his injured trigger finger can no longer fire a gun, he gets the same tax-free benefits as an officer paralyzed from a gunshot, under the police department's one-size-fits-all disability retirement system.

That threshold, according to an analysis of the program by The Washington Post, has allowed officers to receive full disability payments while going on to fly commercial aircraft, teach self-defense classes, break up fights as high school security guards, serve in the U.S. Army Reserve and work as a prison system detective.

The Post's review of county and state documents and interviews with current and retired officers did not uncover deception, but it did find rules weighted toward police officers that had been negotiated over the years by their powerful union.

If Montgomery officers are injured on the job, they can seek to work on limited duty and return to full capacity with a doctor's permission. Or, if officers can show they are no longer capable of performing any of the fundamentals of police work, they can apply for a tax-free disability retirement pension at any point in their career. Many officers apply for disability based on old injuries, saying they have gotten worse.

"They don't have to exaggerate, and they don't have to make things up," said Thomas D. Evans, a 24-year veteran of the Montgomery police department who was acting chief in 1999. "It's just almost as easy as signing your name on the application."

The Post's analysis found that a far higher percentage of officers get disability in Montgomery than in nearby jurisdictions, some of which have tougher rules and award partial disability.

No other local government appears to award disability retirement packages as often as Montgomery, where 41 percent of officers who retired between 2000 and 2007 receive the benefit. In contrast, not one of the 252 police officers who retired from the Fairfax County force in that period is collecting disability. In Howard and Prince George's counties, 5 percent and 23 percent, respectively, of officers who retired during that time receive the benefit. The District did not provide comparable figures.

Montgomery's plan gives those injured on the job nearly 67 percent of their salary in tax-free payments that don't decrease if the retired officer collects Social Security. Unlike Prince George's, Montgomery does not try to limit a retired officer from engaging in "substantially similar" work while collecting disability payments. And unlike Fairfax, Montgomery does not reduce benefits if a retiree's paycheck from another job plus disability payments exceed the officer's former county salary.

Montgomery applications are reviewed by a panel of physicians that the union helps choose. In Prince George's and Fairfax, physicians are selected without union input.

In the past 10 years, 91 percent of Montgomery's officers who applied for disability payments received them. The county pays about $38 million a year to all public safety and general government disabled retirees. Officials were unable to immediately break down the payments to police.

The system became a flashpoint in local politics last year when the county inspector general reported that officers had applied for disability benefits even as they were working in "full-duty" status, including three high-level commanders who were approved for tax-free pensions of at least $88,000.

Montgomery's elected officials called for reforms over the past decade but did nothing to enhance oversight. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and some County Council members said they are alarmed by the comparatively high number of disability retirements but note that the system evolved through years of labor negotiations. Leggett proposed measures last summer to provide more scrutiny, and the council is considering making changes through legislation. But the efforts have slowed over demands by the union that changes first be negotiated.

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