If your officer gets injured, they're covered, right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
With recruitment and retention all the buzz in law enforcement, many agencies are looking at improving pay, incentives and working conditions. One item often overlooked, and unknown even by many police leaders is what support an officer who sustains a disabling line-of duty-injury can expect. The answer may not be very much.
To advocate for local, state and national policies that make law enforcement a more stable career, leaders must know their own agency's policy and response to disabling injuries. Only a few large police departments are positioned to provide long-term disability income and benefits for injured officers. Here are some concerns officers should know, leaders must communicate and executives resolve by advocacy.
Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program
The Public Safety Officers' Benefits (PSOB) program is designed to provide a cash benefit to survivors of officers who suffer prescribed line-of-duty deaths. PSOB also, theoretically, includes a disability benefit for officers permanently disabled in the line of duty.
Although Congress is considering fixes to the PSOB program, there are many issues that have kept disabled officers waiting for years for benefits. The program is backlogged, there is no manual to guide the bureaucrats who decide on benefits and the applicant must depend on their employing agency to provide information for their application. Differences on what constitutes total disability can deny benefits to an officer who could get a job washing dishes for a few hours a day and, therefore, be deemed not "totally disabled."
Dependents are also eligible for federal education benefits, but only after PSOB benefits are approved. Children can age out and families go bankrupt from medical costs and loss of income while waiting.
Action item: Police advocates should urge their federal representatives to support PSOB reform.
There's a good chance your officers don't have any disability coverage. They and their families need to be aware of the risk of catastrophic financial loss.
Since many agencies opt out of Social Security, it follows that Social Security Disability is also unavailable to employees. A good faith assumption that disability claims to Social Security will be honored is quite wrong. Some agencies have optional disability insurance as an employee benefit, but officers often chose to decline the insurance to save the out-of-pocket premiums. This is short-sighted for the employee, but departments should be diligent about educating workers on their risks and choices.
Employees who think they can go on the market for private disability insurance will find that no insurer wants to cover police officers.
Action item: Police advocates can urge organizations to develop a group policy for officers and urge their federal legislators to require employers opting out of Social Security to inform their employees about their options.
Most workers' compensation (WC) has been privatized with a resulting profit and bonus motive. There are too many WC horror stories to relate here, but one can safely say that WC is structured to do everything it can to deny and minimize benefits. The process should not require the involvement of lawyers to force appropriate care, but injured officers are finding it necessary.
If an officer is on injury leave and runs out of leave time, they can find themselves unemployed and without health insurance. Many officers who have supplemented their income with law enforcement-related off-duty employment suffer the loss of that revenue source as well.
Action item: Police advocates should monitor their WC systems and address injustices and denials of care.
Some states provide exemptions for disabled officers from property taxes, hunting and fishing license fees, or other considerations that reduce the burden of living on a reduced income.
Federal legislation is being considered at the time of this writing that would exempt disability income from taxes after retirement age. Current law exempts disability income from federal taxes until retirement age, after which that income is federally taxed. This creates an additional burden to disabled officers at the worst possible point in their lives.
Action item: Police advocates should contact their federal legislators to urge passage of lifetime federal tax relief from disability income and support local and state tax relief as well.
If we want to be honest in our recruitment and retention efforts, we must educate our recruits, officers, leaders and legislators about the challenges of continuing care for those willing to sacrifice all.
Additional resources on officer injuries: