Fla. LE agencies consider how to classify coronavirus deaths

Under current state law, line-of-duty death benefits do not include COVID-19

By Natalie Weber
Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA, Fla. — The No. 1 killer of law enforcement officers in 2020 and 2021 wasn’t a weapon. It wasn’t car crashes or heart attacks, either.

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit organization that tracks and memorializes fallen officers in the United States, COVID-19 accounted for the highest number of law enforcement deaths in 2020, and it continued to be the leading cause of death in 2021.

The casket of St. Petersburg Police officer Michael Weiskopf, who died due to COVID-19 complications, is carried by an honor guard on August 31, 2021 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The casket of St. Petersburg Police officer Michael Weiskopf, who died due to COVID-19 complications, is carried by an honor guard on August 31, 2021 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Martha Asencio-Rhine)

In 2021, the coronavirus caused 358 officer deaths nationwide, compared to 62 gunfire deaths and 22 fatalities from automobile crashes — the second- and third-leading causes of death, respectively. In Florida, COVID accounted for more than three out of every four officer deaths in 2021, according to data from the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Coronavirus deaths for law enforcement officers in Florida peaked at 20 fatalities in August, as the delta variant swept the nation and the state hit a record high number of infections. The number of COVID-19 officer deaths that month outnumbered the total number of Florida line-of-duty deaths from all causes in 2020. As of Monday afternoon, only one Florida line-of-duty death had been recorded in 2022, and the death was not coronavirus-related.

[RELATED: COVID-19: Law enforcement deaths]

Yet, despite the virus’ status as the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers over the past two years, Florida agencies do not have a uniform approach to how these fatalities are classified — and whether officers’ surviving relatives will receive line-of-duty death benefits.

While Florida’s statutory line-of-duty death benefits do not currently include COVID-19 fatalities, individual county and city governments have their own standards for other potential avenues of compensation, such as financial assistance for funerals, workers’ compensation and other agency-specific forms of support.

“It’s a messy thing because the decision is made at many levels,” said Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It depends a lot on where you are. Different states and different jurisdictions will have different rules.”

Current state law

Current statutory line-of-duty death benefits do not include COVID-19, though there were attempts in the Florida Legislature to update the statutory benefits.

Under Florida statute 112.19, employer-paid benefits include $75,000 for those killed in the line of duty, plus another $75,000 for those killed while pursuing a suspect or responding to a traffic incident or emergency.

The statute also includes an employer-paid sum of $225,000 for officers who are “unlawfully and intentionally killed” or die because of an “unlawful and intentional act.” Benefits for all officers killed in the line of duty also include $1,000 for funeral expenses paid by employers, though families may receive to up to $5,000 for funeral expenses from the officer’s agency.

Agencies also may offer different workers’ compensation coverages and pension benefits, depending on the organization.

Florida statute 112.181 states that first responders who are exposed to tuberculosis, hepatitis or meningococcal meningitis and suffer a disability or die as a result of one of these illnesses “shall be presumed to have a disability suffered in the line of duty, unless the contrary is shown by competent evidence.”

Twin bills in the Florida House of Representatives and the state Senate attempted to alter statute 112.181 to include COVID-19 deaths. However, both bills ultimately died in committee this year.

Florida Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff, R- Deland, one of the House bill’s sponsors, said the measure particularly was meant to help the families of officers who died before coronavirus vaccines were widely available. The exact details of whether later deaths would count was still being workshopped when the bills died, she said.

The bills also would have amended the statute to include other deaths caused by infectious diseases that had been declared a public health emergency.

“We were also trying to have the Legislature cover future pandemics,” Fetterhoff said. “We just want to make sure that these first responders that put their lives on the line every day for us are taken care of when the time comes.”

Differing approaches

While COVID-19 is not currently covered under these state statutes, agencies still have a say in what assistance they provide to the families of officers who have died of COVID-19.

The Florida Highway Patrol counts COVID-19 deaths as line-of-duty fatalities for funeral honors, said Capt. Peter Bergstresser, an agency spokesperson. Workers’ compensation claims are directed to the risk management division in the Florida Department of Financial Services, he said.

In Tampa Bay, line-of-duty benefits for the region’s largest municipal police agencies are determined by their individual cities’ administrations.

In St. Petersburg, those decisions are made by the Police Pension Board and the city’s Human Resources Department.

According to Chris Guella, human resources director for the city of St. Petersburg, all Florida cities were required to count any COVID-19 infections among first responders as work-related incidents through June 30, 2021. St. Petersburg decided to extend this policy through Sept. 30 of that year, Guella said. St. Petersburg benefits include $7,500 for funeral expenses and a bimonthly payment to the spouse that maxes out at $150,000 or when the surviving spouse remarries — whichever happens first.

The city’s HR department also determines death benefits that function independently of workers’ compensation claims. These benefits are governed by Florida statute Ch. 112.19.

Beneficiaries of deceased St. Petersburg officers also can submit an application to receive the officer’s pension, Guella said.

The Police Pension Board of Trustees makes the final determination in whether a St. Petersburg Police Department officer’s death is considered a line-of-duty death for pension purposes, he said.

When St. Petersburg police Officer Michael Weiskopf died of coronavirus in late August, the police department organized a procession and honored him with the traditions typical of a police funeral, including a bugler playing taps, a riderless horse, a 21-gun salute and the presentation of the flag.

Weiskopf’s family received workers’ compensation benefits. However, with regards to benefits governed by the pension board, Weiskopf’s widow chose to request the death benefits package that isn’t connected to line-of-duty fatalities from the Police Pension Board, Kirby said.

In Tampa, when Officer Matthew Coleman died of COVID-19 in September, his death was not counted as a line-of-duty death, according to Adam Smith, spokesperson for the city of Tampa. Smith declined to comment on why Coleman’s death was not counted as a line-of-duty death. He said the city is not developing a general policy on how the city will classify coronavirus deaths.

Those who die in the line of duty are compensated with life insurance matching their salary up to $150,000, Smith said. Smith said COVID-19 is not currently counted as a line-of-duty injury under workers’ compensation.

Rick Osorio, risk manager for the city of Clearwater, said eligible family members may receive workers’ compensation if it was determined that an officer who died of COVID-19 had contracted it under work-related circumstances.

Family members of first responders could receive line-of-duty death benefits, depending on if the city’s Pension Advisory Committee decided the death qualified, the city’s human resources director, Jennifer Poirrier, said. These benefits would be determined by the committee and its trustees, she said.

Retirement benefits for the local sheriff’s offices are overseen by the Florida Department of Management Services’ retirement division, which handles retirement benefits for all Florida sheriff’s offices — except the Duval County Sheriff’s Office, according to management services spokesperson Debbie Hall.

Applications for line-of-duty death benefits are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, she said. However, agencies still can provide localized support for deaths that they designate as line-of-duty fatalities — for example, by helping pay for funeral expenses.

Representatives for both the Pasco and Polk sheriff’s offices said they would classify all coronavirus deaths as line-of-duty deaths. They cited the Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act of 2020, a federal law passed in August 2020 that established the presumption that officers contracted coronavirus on the job, thereby qualifying them for line-of-duty death and disability benefits. The law was modified by the Protecting America’s First Responders Act of 2021, extending the presumption through December 2023 — or whenever COVID-19 is no longer considered a public health emergency by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Each agency has lost one officer to the coronavirus. Deputy Sheriff Christopher Broadhead of Polk County and Detective Raymond Orion Williamson of Pasco County both died in August 2021, at the height of Florida officer deaths from COVID-19.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office provides deputies who died of COVID-19 with line-of-duty funeral honors, spokesperson Scott Wilder said. Surviving relatives may be eligible for financial assistance from Polk Sheriff’s Charities, Inc., and the sheriff’s office would help family apply for state and federal line-of-duty benefits.

Pasco County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Amanda Hunter said the agency would “assist with funeral arrangements and honors, while also supporting the family through resources such as our Family Support Network,” an online platform providing resources for deputies and their families.

Spokespeople for Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Manatee counties said their agencies classify COVID-19 deaths on a case-by-case basis.

In Manatee County, after Deputy Doug Clark died of COVID-19 in August, the sheriff’s office designated his death as a line-of-duty fatality due to a “known work-related exposure” to the virus, said spokesperson Randy Warren. Hernando County Detective Tommy Breedlove’s death also was counted as a line-of-duty fatality after he succumbed to the virus in September, spokesperson Denise Moloney said.

A question of vaccination status

Coronavirus deaths have slowed since last fall, with the last Florida coronavirus fatality in law enforcement on Oct. 21, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

“I think some of that is general population getting vaccinated, as well as some law enforcement professionals getting vaccinated,” said Randy Nelson, a policing expert who serves as director of the Bethune-Cookman University’s Center for Law & Social Justice.

Nelson said he believes agencies should take vaccination status into account when determining line-of-duty death benefits — but that should only apply to the time frame after the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine and officers were given some time to make a decision whether or not to vaccinate.

“I think at some point, you have to have a framework for folks doing their own assessment and research and FDA doing theirs,” he said. “I think you have to have a window.”

Kenney, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, also takes a middle-of-the-road approach to this debate.

“If you’re voluntarily or willfully refusing to take preventive steps, then that should certainly affect the benefits,” Kenney said. “But whether it’s technically a line-of-duty death should come down to the question of ‘Did you contract it as a result of your work or not?’”

With coronavirus vaccines widely available, law enforcement agencies will likely have to decide whether or not to take vaccination status into consideration when making line-of-duty determinations, said Kenney.

“The biggest issue that’s coming out now is the question of whether or not, if you’re unvaccinated, did you deliberately, willfully make the decision not to protect yourself, in which case, would workman’s comp rules apply?” Kenney said. “Obviously, that’s going to play out differently in different states. Florida and Texas and Georgia and so forth have resisted any sort of mandates of vaccinations.”

©2022 Tampa Bay Times. Visit tampabay.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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