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In the Line of Fire

Injured Cops Told to Retire or Be Fired

Frank Klein
COP OUT: After 25 years, more than half of them on "light duty," Baltimore police officer Shirley Onyango is being asked to retire because of her disability.

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 1/19/2005

They’ve been shot, beaten, and sustained debilitating injuries while trying to chase down suspects. And now they’ve been told that if they don’t file applications to retire from the Baltimore Police Department by April 1, they’ll be fired.

The letters started going out in the week between Christmas and New Year’s to 163 city police officers who have been assigned to permanent light-duty positions because of injuries or other health problems: If they don’t submit their retirement applications to the city’s pension board between Jan. 3 and April 1, the letter states, they will be “involuntarily terminated from the Department due to your inability to perform the requirements of a police officer.”

The letter, signed by Deputy Commissioner for Administration Kenneth Blackwell, notes that a new law put on the books on Dec. 6 allows officers who have been injured for more than five years to apply for a disability pension during this one-time window in the current law. (Under city law, any police officer or firefighter who has been injured has five years from the date of his or her injury to apply for a disability pension.) There is no guarantee, however, that the city’s pension board will grant them disability retirements. (Blackwell did not return calls for comment.) And the demand that injured officers retire would seem to clash with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires employers to try to make reasonable accommodations for injured employees to keep their jobs.

Of the 163 officers who received the letters, 107 were injured in the line of duty and 56 had non-line-of-duty injuries. All 163 still work in various administrative positions within the police department, some in jobs that are considered sensitive and which previous police and political administrations did not want done by civilians. Some also hold jobs that can only be done by officers—taking police reports on minor crimes called into the 311 center, for example.

There are several types of medical pensions city police officers can receive, including 100 percent of their salary tax-free for those who have lost complete use of their extremities or eyes or with brain damage and 66 2/3 percent of salary tax-free for severe injuries. For lesser injuries—those that might make an officer unable to perform the full duties of police officer, but would not impair their ability to do other types of work—they are eligible to receive pensions that pay less and are taxable.

The decision on what type of pension an officer gets is made by a hearing examiner, who can also decide not to grant any medical pension at all. Police department spokesman Matt Jablow points out that the letter says that if an officer goes through the pension process and isn’t given some kind of pension, he or she can stay within the department. But, as one officer who asked not to be named points out, if an injured officer has just a few years on the force and only gets a pension based on those years of service, “it’s not enough to live on”.

Lt. Fred Roussey, who took over as president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police union in late November, says he’s appalled by what is going on and hasn’t been able to get answers about this new policy from the city, some members of the police command staff, or even his predecessor as union president, Dan Fickus. (Fickus did not return a call asking for comment.)

The push to remove permanently disabled officers from Baltimore Police apparently started over the summer, while the union was in negotiations with the city for a new labor contract. The old contract expired July 1, and officers continued to work without a contract as the negotiations continued into November. Although Roussey was not involved in these negotiations, he had to sign the contract, along with Fickus, because it wasn’t prepared until about a week after he was sworn in, he says.

Ed Ambrose, the civilian who heads the police department’s Human Resources Division, says the department is not in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act because “everyone here is full duty.” He also says the ADA doesn’t require the department to keep paying the disabled officers at a police salary.

Attorney Beth Pepper, who has handled ADA employment cases—including winning one against the city in 1999—sharply disagrees with Ambrose’s assessment of the ADA. After being told about what Baltimore Police is doing, Pepper says that the way in which the department went about implementing its new policy “might be intentional discrimination.” Pepper says ADA demands that the employee meet the “essential requirements of the job as defined by the employer,” but the “prior practice” of the employer in handling disabled workers is also taken into account, including such things as whether an “employee . . . has been working at a job several years.” Pepper says the courts also look at ADA claims as being “defined by the way it’s done in the real world.”

The current controversy has its roots in an Aug. 17 order issued by former police Commissioner Kevin Clark on a “[m]aintenance program for limited/light duty personnel.” In that order, Clark wrote, “There are no permanent limited/light duty positions within the Department” (emphasis in the original). The order says there are a limited number of light-duty positions that can be filled for a maximum of 12 months by officers who are temporarily disabled and by those who are under disciplinary investigation.

“From the date of this agreement,” Clark wrote, all officers who have been determined to be permanently disabled by doctors at the Public Safety Infirmary at Mercy Hospital will have one year “to complete the appropriate procedure to separate themselves from the Department through retirement or other avenues.” (Clark’s attorney did not return phone calls asking for comment.)

“What agreement?” Roussey asks, adding that he has been unable to get either city or former Fraternal Order of Police officials to tell him anything about the alleged agreement.

Ambrose contends there was an agreement. Asked with whom, he says that the police union (under Fickus) “was involved in formation of this policy,” but never fully agreed with it. He later says that the union “has made its position clear” that it is against the policy, and that the union was told about the policy before it was ordered as a “courtesy on the part of the [city] labor commissioner,” Sean Malone.

Any agreement on this issue is news to Shirley Onyango. A 25-year veteran of the Baltimore Police, Onyango, 44, doesn’t look like someone with disabilities. But while working as a uniformed officer in 1987, she broke her wrist and injured both her knees in a fight with a man resisting arrest; in 1996, she injured the rotator cuff in her left shoulder on a metal clasp on the door to the department’s Evidence Control Unit. She has had surgery on both knees, has had continued problems with and treatment for her injuries, and has even had to walk with a cane at times.

Onyango never stopped working, however. She has worked in Evidence Control, at the 311 center, and in Central Records, where she is currently assigned. Although she’s been off the streets for a decade, in December she passed the shooting test given to all police officers yearly—a state requirement to remain in full-duty status. Onyango, who got the letter ordering her to apply for retirement on New Year’s Eve, says she is reluctant to discuss her medical problems because she doesn’t want to be the object of pity. “Everybody’s gonna look at me,” she says.

Onyango is also one of the 21 plaintiffs on a federal lawsuit charging Baltimore Police with discriminatory practices in hiring, discipline, and employment practices, which was filed before she was ordered to apply for retirement.

On Dec. 6 the City Council passed a bill allowing a window for 22 officers to apply to be reclassified from having non-line-of-duty injuries to line-of-duty injuries; at the time, however, council members did not know that they were opening a window for Baltimore Police to demand that all injured officers apply for retirement, according to both Council President Sheila Dixon (D) and Councilman Keiffer Mitchell Jr. (D-11th), who heads the Taxation and Finance Committee that held a hearing on the bill. Mitchell says he was told that the Fire and Police Employees’ Retirement System had requested the bill, and that it “had a direct impact on 34 people.”

Dixon says that she knew that eliminating some light-duty officers would “streamline” the police department in a time of tight finances; she says she was told that such a move could amount to a savings of around $3 million. She also says that she “was told that the FOP didn’t completely support” the legislation. Now that she’s seen what’s actually happening, she’s scheduled a meeting for the end of January with everyone involved.

“Obviously we don’t enjoy doing this, but we have to, given the financial problems of the city,” Jablow says, adding that all officers need to be street ready, particularly “for emergency deployments.” The police union’s Roussey says that’s ridiculous. He says he checked with officers who were with the Baltimore Police during the April 1968 riots, and they told him that even then some officers had to be kept inside to work in communications, processing arrests, and other necessary administrative work.

Roussey says he’s working to keep injured officers who want to work on the job. He’s put out bulletins to officers warning them of the new policy and advising them not to offer any information to the police doctors at Mercy Hospital unless they are asked.

Shirley Onyango hopes Roussey’s efforts to halt the forced retirements is successful. “I’m not ready to retire,” she says, laughing, “until I have all white hair.”

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