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.
Union officials said comparisons with other counties are superficial without considering all police pension benefits. They also said police officers must be able to put their lives on the line without fearing for their financial futures.
"Our members do not hesitate to run into danger," said Walter Bader, a longtime leader of Montgomery's police union. "I think we've built something that guarantees that."
He called the approval process thorough: "It's long and drawn out and stressful."Working on Disability
County officials declined to disclose the names of officers on disability, saying such personnel information is private. But the status of many officers is common knowledge in police circles, and some officers are willing to discuss their own cases.
More than 10 retired officers on disability have gone on to work as school security staffers, said a county source who declined to be identified because disability matters are considered personnel information. Although disability benefits can be reduced if an officer picks up most other work for the county, the school district is considered a separate agency.
The security job description includes an expectation that the officer can lift heavy objects, engage in frequent climbing, spend long periods of time walking and standing and have "sufficient physical strength to intervene in fights and physically restrain persons."
Former officer Tom Abbamonte, 53, said he was recruited by the school district soon after retiring on a full disability pension in 1997 with neck and back injuries. In nine years as a school security officer, Abbamonte said he had to physically intervene in fights or other incidents about once a month.
"In retrospect, no, I should never have been hired, not with my injuries," Abbamonte said.
On Feb. 3, 2006, Abbamonte confronted a 16-year-old special-education student who outweighed him by about 50 pounds and was threatening to hurt a teacher. A fight ensued, during which Abbamonte and another retired Montgomery police officer, also on disability, restrained the student.
Abbamonte struck the student and was fired. He challenged the dismissal, saying he hit the student with an open hand in self-defense and to stop the student from hurting others. At one point, the Maryland labor department ruled that Abbamonte was entitled to unemployment benefits because "to let this student loose could have been disastrous."
Abbamonte said he was offered a "deal" from the school system: He could apply for disability from the school system if he dropped his grievance.
That's what Abbamonte did, saying the fight exacerbated injuries dating back to 1985, when his patrol car slammed into a tree during a chase. He now collects two disability pensions from the county. He is battling the county over $20,000 in out-of-pocket pain medication. "I spend every day in agony," he said.
Montgomery's director of school safety and security, Bob Hellmuth, who retired from the police department on disability from a back injury in 1992, said his officers typically don't have to physically intervene as often as once a month. Hellmuth said that the job is far less active than police work but that "occasionally, you do have to go 'hands-on' to stop the fight."
He declined to comment on Abbamonte's departure from the school system.A Permanent Status
For years, those on disability weren't called in by county officials for physicals to see whether their condition had improved. Such was the case for Ron Bird, a former Montgomery officer who retired in 1988 from pinched-nerve injuries suffered a year earlier when he fought a drunk driver who attacked him. Bird said he received medical evaluations in the first few years, but they stopped. Bird continued to serve as a sergeant major in the U.S. Army Reserve until retiring in 1993, according to military records.
He said there was no conflict between his disability status and his Army work because he had an administrative position in the reserve, in charge of soldiers who had teaching assignments. He was never called for full active duty.
Bird, 64, said disabled officers go on to other jobs in part because the more sedentary jobs in the police force, such as planning or records, already are filled.
A year after William Sage retired from the police department on full disability, he found work as a detective in the state correction department's internal investigative unit.
During a 1998 marijuana bust in Silver Spring, Sage tackled a suspect and landed on concrete, according to state workers' compensation records. Over the years, he said, his back problem got progressively worse. By 2004, Sage said, he was on limited duty, and he put in for disability. "Those injuries do haunt me to this day," said Sage, 42. "While I cannot do the job of a Montgomery County police officer, it does not mean I cannot perform a job elsewhere."
According to his job description, he makes arrests, seizes evidence and testifies in court.
Sage has never had to make an on-scene physical arrest, the department said. "Investigating a crime in an institution where people are under lock and key is not the same thing as chasing bad guys down the street like Serpico," said Rick Binetti, communications director for the department.
Even so, Binetti said, detectives are expected to be able to perform physically. "He passed our physical examination," Binetti said.
Michael Parlon, who retired on disability in 2003, works as a bailiff at the District Court in Rockville and teaches a women's self-defense course in Frederick. He left the police department after a shoulder injury he suffered during President Bush's 2001 inauguration. Parlon was running while carrying a heavy bag of riot helmets when "something snapped," he said. "I hurt all the time."
The inspector general raised questions about Parlon's case after secretly videotaping him teaching a class in the fall. But Parlon's attorney, Rene Sandler, has said that Parlon, 50, has severe limitations on the use of his right arm.
Kevin Strange, 38, also was awarded disability payments, according to county sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the program. He was certified as a commercial pilot as of 2007, according to his online flight instructor listing. Strange also swam last year for the Montgomery Ancient Mariners, a competitive swim team, according to the group's newsletter. Strange declined to comment when contacted.
Records from the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission show Strange reported three incidents from 1996 to 2002: a neck and back injury, a sprained wrist, and a twisted ankle and leg injury.Questioning the System
Critics of Montgomery's system say a more fair review would distinguish between partial and total disability, as in the military. "When someone gets full disability for hurting a finger, that doesn't make much sense," said Michael Sauri, a local doctor and disabled military veteran.
A key element of Montgomery's all-or-nothing system has its roots in the 1976 case of injured officer Charles Whittaker. Whittaker returned to patrol duty, then reinjured his back. An appeals court decided in 1983 that even if Whittaker was partially disabled, he could no longer do his patrol job and was entitled to full benefits. The union later cemented the reasoning into its labor contract.
Through the years, the police union continued to play a strong role in shaping the disability system. Union leaders have a say in choosing the doctors who serve on a three-member Disability Review Panel and the labor arbitrator who chairs the appeals board. The doctors are selected by the county's chief administrative officer from a list agreed to by the unions and county managers.
Sandra Salan, a doctor who served on the panel from 1995 to 2002, questions the integrity of such a system. "There's no such thing as independent when the unions select people on the board and decide who stays and who goes," said Salan, who was a neurologist for the Social Security Administration's disability program for 20 years.
Joseph Adler, the county's human resources director, expressed confidence in the panel's decisions, which he said are based solely on medical information. The union, he said, could raise objections if only management had a hand in selecting doctors.
Bader, the police union leader, said regional comparisons should look at normal retirement benefits as well. Fairfax, for example, offers higher regular retirement benefits. Any changes to Montgomery's disability benefits should recognize that, he said, by looking at changes such as enhanced regular retirement and more department jobs for injured officers.
Marshall E. Thielen, president of the Fairfax police officers' union, said studies commissioned by the union show that Montgomery officers receive more in "direct pay" over their careers, which includes wages and such extras as uniform allowances and holiday pay.
It has been seven months since Leggett issued a news release recommending a long list of changes to the system. Council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) has proposed legislation, but the efforts have been met with resistance. Earlier this year, more than two dozen uniformed police officers jeered the bill sponsors at a hearing.
Gino Renne, president of the county's largest public employees union, accused the sponsors of trying to undermine collective bargaining.
"You said this is going to happen," Renne said, jabbing his fingers at Andrews. "Well, I'm going to threaten you just like you threatened us: It ain't going to happen."
Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.