Thirty-eight District of Columbia police officers with injuiries leaving them too disabled to work on the street but too able-bodied to be allowed to retire, are each receiving about $20,000 a year in pay and benefits, including mandatory pay raises, to work as clerks in limited-duty office jobs.
In all, the city is paying the officers, who are derisively called "half cops" and "rubber guns" by their colleagues, a total of more than $760,000 -- an amount that is nearly twice as much as what low level civilian clerks could earn if they were hired at typical $11,000 salaries to do the same jobs, high-ranking police officials say.
The dilemma stems from the Police and Firemen's Retirement and Relief Board's reluctance to retire the officers because of abuses in recent years. Hundreds of police and firefighters have retired on pensions equaling two-thirds of their pay, claiming they had such injuries as trick knees or crippled trigger fingers.
A decade ago, nearly 98 percent of all D.C. police and fire retirees went out on disability claims at a cost of $12.4 million to the federal government. Last year, fewer than 5 percent of the retirees left the departments on disability claims, but total costs still tripled to more than $37 million to cover cost-of-living increases.
Armed now with a broad interpretation of the law, support from the courts and a mandate from Congress to trim the disability rolls or face the loss of a share of the federal funds paid into the retirement system, some officials say the city's retirement board has apprently overracted. The board has ruled that any officer who can do any useful and efficient work will not be allowed to retire. The D.C. Court of Appeals has generally upheld this interpretation.
As a result, "We now have $20,000-a-year police officers filing and typing," said Assistant Police Chief Marty M. Tapscott. One of the 38 men, who asked to remain anonymous, said he hides in an office when his back pain becomes too unbearable to work. He said he also takes prescribed drugs that sometimes cause hallucinations and sedate him to the point "I'm not even here mentally."
Other disabled officers on the rolls include:
Officer Jospeh P. Roache, an eight-year veteran, who was denied retirement and placed on limited duty two years ago suffering from epileptic-type seizures. He is a medical file clerk at the police and fire clinic being paid $21,000 to perform a $14,000 civilian job.
Officer Linwood Daniels, a 13-year veteran, placed on limited duty in January after he was shot in the hand. He is paid $21,000 to perform the work of a $10,000-a-year clerk.
Lt. Robert Poggi, a 14-year veteran, who was denied retirement and placed on limited duty in December. Physicians ruled he cannot perform "street duty, make arrests or climb stairs rapidly . . . sit for long hours during the day [or] lift anything heavy." He's paid $26,660 to hold a $10,000-a-year clerical job.
If the disabled officers are not soon removed from the police rolls, officials say the city will be forced to create permanent limited-duty jobs for them. No official job category now exists for such officers.
All 38 officers have been stripped of their police powers to make arrests, carry a gun or carry a badge, said Capt. Charles R. Bacon, deputy director of police personnel.
Most of the disabled police interviewed said they are unwilling workers locked into dead-end jobs that one man described as "involuntary servitude." Frustrated police officials said the size of the disabled force could easily swell into the hundreds.
Inspector Bobby J. Wallace, the police representative on the retirement board, said an immediate change is needed in the retirement compensation laws. Wallace said the current law allows maximum benefits for job-related injuries no matter how small they are. The board wants that changed to allow the pensions to match the degree of the injury, he said. Therefore a man with a 10 percent permanent disability would receive only 10 percent of his salary in pension benefits.
The board also has ordered about a dozen police officers and firemen who retired as long as 10 years ago to return to work after clinic doctors found they no longer had the disability that entitled them to retire.
As the conflict brews, police administrators bitterly contend that they don't want a force of permanent limited-duty officers like the one in New York City, which has 3,000 such police officers.
"We've been saying all along it's more cost-effective to retire the people. The pressure is enormous not to retire people on disability," said Isaac Fulwood, deputy chief of police for finance and management. "We can't become so dollar conscious we lose our common sense."