Philly lawmakers seek hearings on use of police disability benefits

By Barbara Laker and David Gambacorta
The Philadelphia Investigator

PHILADELPHIA — In response to a recent inquiry by the Inquirer, Philadelphia City Councilman Allan Domb is due to introduce a resolution Thursday calling for a hearing to examine how abuse of a generous medical benefits program contributes to a existing manpower shortage within the police department.

The newspaper article, “MIA: Crisis in the Ranks,” published Feb. 1, found that at least 652 officers were tagged “injured on the job” on a 2021 list shared between the police department and the bureau’s office. district attorney, a figure that had more than doubled since 2017.

Pennsylvania’s Heart and Lung Act ensures that cops, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters injured in the line of duty are able to collect 100% of their salaries and do not have to pay state taxes or federal, or at least a 20% increase. The Inquirer found that several officers who were believed to be too injured to do police work managed to simultaneously hold second jobs, in violation of a police directive.

More than 650 Philadelphia cops say they’re too injured to work. But some have second jobs.

[MORE COVERAGE: ‘Repulsive’: Philly top cop slams officers abusing injured-on-duty benefits]

“We need to make sure the abuses you’ve described in this article are investigated and prosecuted for violations,” Domb said. “It hurts everyone. And it’s not just the police – it could be any other department. We have to make sure we’re diligent. It’s taxpayers’ money.”

There is no cap on how long agents can stay away or how many times they can submit a claim during their career. In fiscal year 2021, the city spent $24 million in salaries for police officers who had been designated injured on duty.

Physicians selected by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 treat officers who file heart and lung claims. Last year, these medics designated all but 65 of the 652 police officers injured as ‘off-duty’, meaning they weren’t even available to take care of tasks like filling out paperwork, answering phones or testify in court.

Domb’s resolution calls for two committees — Public Safety, Labor and Public Service, and Fiscal Stability and Intergovernmental Cooperation — to hold the hearings. It was co-sponsored by Board Members Cherelle L. Parker, Curtis Jones Jr., Katherine Gilmore-Richardson, Mark Squilla, Cindy Bass, Derek Green, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, and Isaiah Thomas.

“There’s no negativity here. Nobody is pointing fingers at anyone,” Domb said. “We just want to make sure [the police department] is properly staffed.”

Between vacancies and cops unavailable due to injury, the police are short by more than 1,100 officers. About 14% of patrol officers — about one in seven — are listed as injured on duty, according to an Inquirer analysis of internal police documents.

Compared to other cities, Philadelphia has a much higher percentage of its entire police force — 11% — out of work due to injury. In Portland, about 1.9% of officers are injured. In Chicago, that number is 3.3%.

“If an officer sustains an injury, they should be allowed access to sick leave,” Domb said. “However, the city must also be diligent in managing the program to prevent any kind of misuse and maintain public trust.”

The Inquirer identified four current officers who worked at other jobs while on Heart and Lung, and another who for months played on a traveling softball team.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said she immediately checked whether these officers had been the subject of previous Internal Affairs investigations.

“If not,” she said, “we launched one right away.”

Domb’s resolution notes that staffing shortages are leading to the use of more overtime by the police. In fiscal year 2021, the department’s overtime budget was exceeded by 127%.

Outlaw said she views heart and lung abuse as a “slap in the face” for cops who show up for work every day, especially those who have continued to show up throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. and during the civil unrest following the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer and police fatally shooting Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia.

FOP President John McNesby declined interview requests. The union, however, last year agreed to a provision in a three-year, $133 million contract with the city to limit cardiac and pulmonary benefits to officers injured while involved in “protecting life and property, law enforcement and/or investigation of crimes.”

In 2003, a year before heart and lung benefits became available, only 19 Philadelphia cops were listed as injured on duty. By 2008, the number of police officers injured had risen to almost 300 and has since more than doubled.

City Comptroller Rebecca Rhynhart said she will review Heart and Lung as part of an upcoming audit of the police department requested by the council.

“You have to know how much [of the Heart and Lung benefits] is applied correctly and how much is misused,” Domb said. “We have to put all eyeballs on it, because it’s not fair.

(c) 2022 The Philadelphia Investigator

About Antoine L. Cassell

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