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‘Repulsive': Philly top cop slams officers abusing injured-on-duty benefits

Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said it’s a “slap in the face” to cops who report to work every day

danielle outlaw philadelphia police comissioner

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks at a Philadelphia Police promotion ceremony in December 2021.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Gambacorta, Barbara Laker and William Bender
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has vowed to investigate and punish Philadelphia police officers who are abusing a generous state disability benefit at a time when hundreds of officers say they are too injured to work.

An Inquirer investigation, “MIA: Crisis in the Ranks,” published last week, found that at least 652 officers were labeled “injured on duty” on a 2021 list shared between the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office, a figure that had more than doubled since 2017.

The newspaper found that some officers who were supposedly too hurt to do police work managed to hold down second jobs — some of which were physically strenuous — and launch businesses. A police directive prohibits officers from working any other job while they’re out with Heart and Lung claims.

“Disappointing isn’t the word,” Outlaw said on Thursday. “I find it absolutely repulsive for people who think they can get away with stuff like that.”

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 don’t have to pay state or federal taxes, amounting to at least a 20% raise. There is no cap on how long officers can stay out, or how many times they can submit a claim.

Doctors selected by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 treat officers who file Heart and Lung claims. Last year, those doctors designated all but 65 of the 652 injured cops as “no duty,” meaning they were unavailable to handle even menial tasks, such as filing paperwork, answering phones or testifying in court.

[RELATED: Continuing care for injured officers: What police leaders need to know]

The Inquirer identified four current officers who worked at other jobs while they were on Heart and Lung, and another who for months played on a traveling softball team. Outlaw said she immediately checked to see whether those officers had been the subject of prior Internal Affairs investigations.

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

During the 2021 fiscal year, the city spent $24 million on salaries for officers who were on the Heart and Lung list. The department simultaneously grappled with record numbers of murders and shootings, and a massive personnel shortage; between unfilled positions and cops who were unavailable due to injury, the police force was short more than 1,100 officers.

Roughly 14% of patrol cops are listed as injured on duty, according to an Inquirer analysis of internal police documents — about 1 in every 7 officers.

Compared with other cities, Philadelphia has a vastly higher percentage of its police force out of work due to injuries. In Portland, for example, where Outlaw previously served as chief, about 1.9% of officers are out with injuries. In Chicago, that number is 3.3%.

Outlaw said she considers Heart and Lung abuse to be a “slap in the face” to cops who report to work every day, especially those who continued to show up throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and during the civil unrest that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer, and the police shooting death of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia.

“Of course I’m pissed about it,” she said. “It goes against everything that we say we are in this profession, and it goes against the values of this department.”

Outlaw said the Police Department will work closely with the city’s Office of Risk Management to identify officers who are abusing the Heart and Lung benefits, and will take swift action against them.

“This [abuse] does nothing but hurt the department,” she said.

Kevin Lessard, a city spokesman, said Mayor Jim Kenney “is very concerned about the abuses alleged in [The Inquirer’s] story, and the administration is reviewing potential steps to address it and hold individuals accountable for what amounts to fraud.”

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said she will review Heart and Lung as part of an upcoming audit of the Police Department that was requested by City Council.

Councilmember Kendra Brooks said she hopes the audit’s findings will give city and state lawmakers a road map.

“This is a complete abuse of power and mishandling of money, city money, and it’s completely unacceptable and it needs to end,” she said. “What we have to have is real oversight and accountability.”

While officers are on Heart and Lung, they continue to accrue vacation, unlimited sick time and years served, so they can retire with a full pension.

“We need to clearly identify ways to fix this because it’s something we have to fix,” Brooks said. “We’re getting ready to go into budget season and this will come up. People are saying we need more funding for the Police Department, but if they can’t be accountable for the misuse of funds that are already being funneled into the department, we need to take a deep look at that.”

Any meaningful changes to the Heart and Lung benefit would likely require state legislation.

George Kenney, a now-retired Republican state representative from Northeast Philadelphia, introduced legislation in the mid-1990s to give city police officers and firefighters access to the tax-free benefit, formally known as the Enforcement Officer Disability Benefits Act.

In 2003, just 19 cops in Philadelphia were listed as injured on duty. Heart and Lung benefits became available a year later; by 2008, the number of injured officers had climbed to nearly 300.

That same year, a new top cop arrived in town: Charles H. Ramsey, who complained when he noticed that officers missed months of work after claiming they’d tripped on a stairwell, stumbled in a parking lot, or turned a steering wheel with too much force. He’d later describe the system as “the biggest scam going.”

Since 2008, the cost of the taxpayer-funded program has nearly quadrupled.

State Rep. Donna Bullock, a Philadelphia Democrat who has pushed for changes in Harrisburg to the union arbitration process that often protects Philadelphia police officers accused of wrongdoing, said on Sunday: “This is another example of why we need police reform that balances labor protections with appropriate oversight. The public demands it. This kind of abuse and misuse of a benefit intended to support injured officers requires it.”

When asked whether she would like to see state legislators address some of the benefit’s flaws, Outlaw said: “Absolutely. ... It’s in everybody’s best interest to figure out how we can fix this.”

FOP president John McNesby declined interview requests. But the union did agree last year to a provision in a three-year, $133 million contract with the city to limit Heart and Lung benefits to officers who are injured while involved in “the protection of life and property, enforcement of laws, and/or investigation of crimes.”

District Attorney Larry Krasner wouldn’t comment Friday on whether his office expected to lodge charges against any officers. But he called the abuse of Heart and Lung “extremely concerning at every level especially in the middle of a devastating spike in gun violence.”

“Fraud is a crime,” he added. “Any city employee, including a police officer, who thinks they can get away with a crime better think again.”

Outlaw, who served as a deputy chief in the Oakland Police Department before her tenure in Portland, said neither city had disability benefits that were as open-ended as Philadelphia’s.

She recalled learning about Heart and Lung — its loose rules, the large number of cops listed as too injured to work — soon after she was hired here in 2019.

“It blew my mind,” she said. “I said, ‘You guys know this isn’t normal, right?’”

(c)2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer