Representatives of Washington's police union charged yesterday that sick and injured rank-and-file members wait months and years -- without pay -- for an appearance before the city retirement board while top ranking police officials, with little advance notice, have their cases heard quickly by the same board.
"I have cases in my office of officers waiting up to a year, a year and a half to go before that board," said Peter Lyons, an attorney for the International Brotherhool of Police Officers. "Their mortagages are threatened, their marriages are threatened . . . Then (former chief Maurice J.) Cullinane puts in for retirement and he goes before that board. (Assistant Chief Tilmon) O'Bryant puts in for retirement and he has no trouble going before the board."
Cullinane appeared before the Police and Firemen's Retirement and Relief Board and received his disability retirement on Jan. 5, after announcing the last week in December his intention to seek it. O'Bryant's decision to retire apparently is also a recent one. He was scheduled to go before the retirement board yesterday.
Lyons and other union officials made their charges before a Senate subcommittee studying the city's retirement system and to reporters after their testimony. They called for a congressional investigation of the police and fire clinic, which processes the cases and makes referrals to the retirement board.
Sen. Thomas J. Eagleton, chairman of the subcommittee said he could see "a conflict of interest" between police doctors at the clinic and department superiors that come to them for examinations and processing. "Perhaps they feel kindly toward the chief," Eagleton said.
Eagleton asked the union officials for examples of abuses, but stopped investigation. "I'd like to see what short of any commitment toward an the facts are," he said later in an interview.
The catalyst for the union's outrage was the revelation this week that O'Bryant sought to retire on disability and got an immediate appointment before the board.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," said union vice president Lary Melton. "The men all went ape . . ."
O'Bryant, as head of the department's administrative service division, is responsible for the police and fire clinic, and rules on the appeals of all sidelined officers seeking administrative leave with pay while they await disposition of their cases, which includes treatment by doctors and possibly referral to the retirement board for a tax-free disability pension.
According to Lyons, O'Bryant has turned down all the appeals, forcing men to use their sick leave until it is exhausted and then their own financial resources.
Some of these men have since lost their homes, their cars and their wives, Melton said.
O'Bryant's attitude in denying the appeals, Lyons said, "is that he has been on the force a long time and he's fit, and these men ought to get back to duty. I was just talking with him two weeks ago and he was saying he had never sustained an injury and kept fit by running three to four miles a day. Now he's going out, the clown is going out!"
O'Bryant declined to comment yesterday to a group of reporters waiting for him in front of the police and fire clinic, where he was scheduled to appear before the retirement board. He later sent word to a reporter through a spokesman that with so many reporters, he feared his remarks would be taken out of context.
O'Bryant, 58, a 31-year veteran of the force, is seeking disability retirement because of headaches, hypertension, high blood pressure and back pains. He was referred to the retirement board by Dr. Robert F. Dyer, director of the clinic, who recommended O'Bryant be retired on disability. If the retirement board concurs, he will receive a tax-free pension of $32,840,50 a year for life.
It is not known when Dyer wrote his recommendation on O'Bryant. The letter is undated. But top clinic officials, doctors, board members, and Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson did not find out about it until late last week.
O'Bryant is known to be a health enthusiast who jogs every morning around the Tidal Basin and Hains Point, and he told clinic officials as recently as two weeks ago that he was still doing it.
O'Bryant was passed over for promotion when Mayor Walter E. Washington appointed Jefferson chief last month, and again when Jefferson passed him over to name Bernard Crooke the number two man in the police department.
A clinic psychiatrist noted in Dyer's recommendation to the board that O'Bryant's "hypertension is aggravated by many duty-performed strains," and cites as an example "situations where demands are for discussions that are in conflict with the conscientious police officer's convictions."
Percy Battle, chairman of the retirement board, said that only a handful of cases are awaiting a turn before the board, and that O'Brryant was scheduled this week because of a cancellation.
Applicants are normally taken in turn, Battle said, and O'Bryant was allowed in out of turn only because his request was sudden, and all other applicants and their lawyers had been notified of their dates before the board. All the current cases have been scheduled by the middle of next month, Battle said.
The union officials said yesterday they had no quarrel with the retirement board. "The board does a good job," Lyons said. "The inequities exist before you get to the board."
While rank and file members are in the hands of the clinic, awaiting referral to the board, there are administrative delays, Lyons charged. "They say the doctors haven't completed their examination that the letter was typed wrong, all kinds of reasons," he said. "Yet some people, like the chiefs, walk right through."
Lyons and the other union officials had no figures on the number of men awaiting referral to the board, but said that long delays occur frequently. Lyons said the average wait was about six months. Doctors at the clinic have said it is more like two or three months.
The Washington Post has learned from other sources that at least 42 officers are on leave, without pay, awaiting an appearance before the board. Some have been waiting longer than a year.