But, as Pappas tells it, the department didn’t care about his hopes or his plans or that he would wake up the day after his daughter’s birthday without a job. He says officials forced him to turn in his badge — and they did so for a reason that was beyond his control. He hadn’t hurt anyone. He hadn’t disrespected anyone.
His mistake: He had gotten sick.
He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and was working in a limited-duty capacity when he was forced to retire at age 49.
“They destroy people’s lives,” Pappas says of the police department he joined just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He says he saw other injured and ill officers “retired for the most trivial stuff” before his turn came.
“I still get emotional,” he says. “It really, truly still affects me deep down inside. I have lots of anger toward the department and what they’ve done. A lot of anger.”
Pappas is one of four former D.C. police officers named in a class-action lawsuit that was filed on Thursday in federal court. The lawsuit alleges that the D.C. police routinely violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.
It describes the department as pushing out officers who develop disabilities, without trying to accommodate them by extending their leave, restructuring their duties or reassigning them to jobs they can perform. The department, according to the lawsuit, has in place a policy and a practice that calls for forcing employees into disability retirement if they spend 172 work days within a two-year period on less than full-duty status.
What that means, if the lawsuit’s allegations are true, is that officers who get too sick or too hurt are losing their jobs.
It means that the people we count on to protect us aren’t feeling protected.
Eve Hill, a partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, one of the two firms that filed the lawsuit on behalf of current and former officers, says the police department fails to engage “in a fair and interactive process” for officers who develop disabilities.
“Instead,” she says, the Metropolitan Police Department “imposes a blanket rule and forces all such officers to retire early.”
The four officers named in the lawsuit had 85 years of combined experience, and all were expected to fully recover, some within weeks or a few months of their forced retirement.
I reached out to the police department and the D.C. attorney general’s office for a response to the lawsuit’s allegations. The attorney general’s office did not respond. A police department spokesman sent this reply: “MPD does not comment on pending litigation; however, we take every step possible to accommodate heroes injured in the line of duty.”
Police departments across the nation are often opaque about their internal operations, which means when we hear about officers being stripped of their badges, it is usually only after their actions have drawn intense public scrutiny. Even then, once that scrutiny wanes, many of those officers win back their jobs through an appeals process.
Two years ago, a Washington Post investigation found that 451 officers who had been fired from the nation’s largest police departments had been rehired. I wrote two stories for that project. One was about a police officer who shot three people in three years and was described by a defense attorney as a “nightmare to the citizens of Philadelphia.” In one instance, he chased an unarmed man down an alley and fatally shot him in the back.
That officer was fired and then allowed to return to the force. So, too, were officers who had been accused of sexual abuse, forgery and driving a murder suspect away from a scene.
The lawsuit filed on Thursday is concerning on its own. But against that backdrop, it is outrageous. It shows four officers who were pushed out and kept out — not because of anything they did, but because of what happened to them.
One officer, according to the suit, had spent nearly 19 years working for the department when he injured his back while on duty.
Another officer had worked on the force for 27 years when doctors determined she needed ankle and foot surgery. She was involuntarily retired, according to the lawsuit, “just two months before she was expected to be able to return to full duty.”
Nichole Mathies was three weeks short of her 25th anniversary with the department when, she says, she was forced to retire because of an injured ankle.
“To me, that was heartbreaking,” she says. “Once that happened and they deemed that I would be retired, I was broken.”
Mathies was 20 years old when she took the police exam and 21 when she joined the academy. Early on in her career, she says, she was named officer of the year. She sent me a photo of her standing in the middle of a group of officials, holding her award. She says she “loved” patrolling the streets because she found it easy to relate to residents. She had grown up in Southeast Washington.
“I was one of them,” says Mathies, now 50. “Even if they were involved in some criminal activity, I still saw the humanity in them.”
Mathies hurt her ankle on Aug. 2, 2014. As she tells it, she was walking across the 5th District parking lot after roll call to get her assignment when she stepped in a pothole. She says doctors initially thought it was a sprain, but an MRI later showed she had torn ligaments and tendons. She says an orthopedic specialist told her she would need surgery — and one surgery turned into a second surgery, followed by a determination that she would need a third surgery.
All the while, Mathies says, she never thought the department would force her out. She figured they would give her time to heal. She says she was getting regularly evaluated by the medical staff at the Police & Fire Clinic and providing them with her medical records. (The lawsuit also alleges that the department violates the ADA by engaging in intrusive medical inquiries.)
On Oct. 23, 2015, even though doctors anticipated she would be able to return to her full duties after that third surgery, Mathies was involuntarily retired.
“It just felt like a slap in my face that when I needed them to be there for me, to give me a little time, they didn’t,” she says. “That just brought home for me that I was expendable. I was another body.”
She describes the policy as also affecting officers who aren’t yet injured or sick: “It makes everybody feel like I’m going out here risking my life, risking my health, and if something happens, they’re not going to have my back. I’m going to be discarded.”
Pappas, who served in the Army before joining the police department, says doctors told him his congestive heart failure was probably the result of a virus. He says he was taking medication to strengthen his heart while working limited-duty and applying for other department jobs when he was involuntarily retired.
At the time, he says, he was worried about how he was going to take care of his family. He and his wife, in addition to their 6-year-old daughter, had a 4-year-old son.
“What am I going to do?” Pappas recalls thinking. “I am 49 years old. I have congestive heart failure. What kind of job am I going to get?”
He says he always had control of his life — and then, suddenly, he didn’t.
“It hit me so hard,” says Pappas, now 54. “The anxiety hit me so hard. The depression hit me so hard. I remember one day, my son looked at me and said, ‘Daddy, how come you never smile anymore?’ Oh, my God, that just tore me apart.”
Before he lost his job, Pappas says he was earning about $80,000 a year. Now, he says, he receives about $29,000 a year for his retirement. His family has since relocated to Texas, drawn by the lower cost of living. He says his wife, who works for the Defense Department, was able to take a temporary posting in Houston.
Pappas says he hopes the lawsuit forces the police department to do two things: change its policy, and make whole all of the officers it has hurt, because he knows there are more than four. He also knows that at least one of them has reached unthinkable lows.
An officer with diabetes who used to work alongside him, he says, was recently seen begging for money on Bladensburg Road by a mutual friend of theirs.
“You can’t just destroy people’s lives like that,” Pappas says. “To this day, I am not at peace with myself. I’m not at peace with myself at all. I still have anxiety. I still have depression.” And, he says, he still doesn’t have a job.