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The dirty secret of law enforcement: ‘My family would have been better off if I had died!’

There is no magical system that kicks in to take care of officers hurt on the job — and that needs to change

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Just as with combat-wounded military veterans, better armor and better trauma care mean more officers who survive catastrophic, life-changing wounds. How is it acceptable to call these officers heroes when they get hurt, and then turn away when the next story breaks?

Kick ‘em when they’re up, kick ‘em when they’re down, kick ‘em when they’re stiff, kick ‘em all around” — Dirty Laundry by Don Henley

The news-reading public rejoiced at the triumphant story of a double-amputee Marine who made it through the police academy and onto the streets with a badge. None of them realized that if the same guy had lost his legs on duty as a police officer, he may have been forced out of the job long before completing his recovery and rehab. In fact, he’d have had to brawl for the bare basics from workers’ comp. It’s possible that he’d have had his benefits denied entirely while the bills piled up, and if he wasn’t simply terminated (a formal word for “fired”) he could be granted a pension of as little as a quarter of his former pay. There are exceptions but the norm is a life-altering battle by officers who were heroes until the headlines faded.

If wounded combat veterans were treated the way wounded cops are, every legislator in the country would spontaneously combust in the rush to fix that abomination. It’s a legislative problem and an ethical and moral failure on the part of those who employ officers to do the hard things, and then treat them as fiscal liabilities when they break.

That’s the dirty secret of law enforcement: there is no magical system that kicks in to take care of officers hurt on the job. Despite popular perceptions, every single state is different and most agencies are making it up as they go along.

Real life is messy

Most people think they know what happens when officers get hurt, but they get their information from TV and the movies. They see Jamie from “Blue Bloods” get shot, be in jeopardy of death and paralysis, and then walk out of the hospital and off to Sunday dinner, all in 42 minutes minus commercials. If you asked them, viewers would say they know that’s not real life, but magical thinking is sticky.

In real life, coming back from a TBI, a spinal cord injury, serious illness or an amputation takes months, maybe years. When a PIO says “the officer is going to be okay,” that could mean a full recovery, or it might mean the officer will need wider doorways, ramps, an accessible van and a roll-in shower. All of that costs. Very little of it is covered by insurance, workers’ comp or otherwise.

In real life parents and spouses become caregivers. Careers are put on hold, sometimes forever. FMLA will protect a position for a while, but it doesn’t pay anything; bills pile up anyway.

In real life, a rural officer who needs advanced trauma care or rehab may be transported a thousand miles away to find it, creating a whole new set of financial and logistical complications for their families. Urban or rural, they deal with unplanned travel expenses, meals out, surprise childcare and criticism over fundraisers. (“That happened at work. Aren’t all expenses getting paid? Isn’t he still getting paid?) The irony is that no one wants to need a fundraiser, the monetary equivalent of duct tape on an arterial bleed.

Real life means families paying out of pocket for therapy and making call after call, begging for something their officer has already bought with blood. Before officers get hurt, few realize that real life could mean they can’t pay their heat bills, or might develop pressure sores because they live alone and home health care isn’t what you think it is when you’ve never needed it. Many discover they no longer have health insurance within a few months of getting hurt, leaving dependents adrift as well.

Dealing with an injury is a full-time job

Even officers who work for supportive departments and communities, with comparatively comprehensive benefits, can find themselves overwhelmed. For example, I talked at length with a federal officer (I’ll call him Officer Doe) stationed in the intermountain west. He was critically injured while training with his “patrol unit” in preparation for the search-and-rescue season.

“It was just bad geometry,” Doe said, of his wreck on a bucking horse. “I was coming down when the horse came up.” The kind of injury he sustained required immediate life-saving care at a small regional hospital. Once stabilized, he was evacuated hundreds of miles away to the nearest Level I trauma center and rehabilitation facility.

Family, friends and fellow officers went far out of their way to help, literally. A game warden drove the officer’s truck for 12 hours, to make sure he’d have it when he was ready to come home. Others gathered donated materials from local businesses and built a wheelchair ramp for his house. One friend flew out to keep his wife company while she was far away with her injured husband. Yet another, a nurse, traveled from out of state to help with nursing care while he was in a hotel room for weeks during outpatient rehab.

Nevertheless, dealing with workers’ comp and disability became its own full-time job. There was no specific information available on medical retirement, should it become necessary; every source said something a little different and no one knew which was right. The hotel stay, food and fuel were all out of pocket, eventually reimbursed after navigating an arcane and baffling system. The initial injury was covered by workers’ comp, but the related internal injuries discovered at the trauma center were not. Each one required individual proof that it, specifically, resulted from the same incident.

“‘We need a letter’, they’d tell me,” Doe said. “I’d ask, saying what? ‘Well, we can’t tell you exactly what it needs to say.’ So, what, I’m supposed to read minds now? I’m supposed to connect the dots for them, how a lacerated femoral artery and injured bladder is the result of an open-book pelvic fracture? It was a mess. I don’t know, maybe they do better when you die.”

Even worse, workers’ compensation uses Medicare reimbursement rates, making it extremely hard to find the specialists Doe needed to treat his complex injury; the ones he could find were often a long drive each way.

Doe’s wife is a cancer survivor who had run out of paid time off between her illness and her husband’s injury; she had to go back to work before he was out of the wheelchair. They bought first a binder, and then a laptop, to organize all his medical records, claims documents and bills. Proving that he met eligibility requirements for continued sick pay became an infinity loop of time cards, waiting periods and documentation. Meanwhile, though a percentage of his wages dribbled in, other benefits stalled.

“I was still an employee. But because I couldn’t return to work yet, employer-provided medical benefits fell behind. Social security wasn’t taken out of disability payments, so that account falls behind. Time off while you’re hurt doesn’t count as time toward retirement. TSP (thrift savings plan) contributions aren’t paid,” he said. It was suspended animation, with a side of stress and debt.

Doe sought out experienced people to fill the void where a case-management system should be. “I needed resources, so I went to others who got hurt, and asked them what they did. The Wildland Firefighters Foundation out of Boise was hugely supportive. Their intake process is super clear and super organized. They had attorney referrals, immediate financial help, ongoing contact and support for firefighters,” he said. “Why isn’t there a similar system for law enforcement?”

Law enforcement advocacy

It’s a fair question. Heidi Paulson, wife of a disabled officer, author and legislative advocate, asks it often herself. She’s worked for years with nonprofits and legislators alike to improve the situations of officers hurt in the line of duty. She’s had legislative successes and also disappointments as bills stall, or languish amid political infighting. She serves on the Public Safety Officers Benefits stakeholder group, bringing a first-person perspective to Washington. Paulson is on a first-name basis with senators sympathetic to wounded law enforcement, and she makes sure they know of bureaucratic obstacles to treatment, wrongful tax penalties on disability retirements, agencies that slow-roll paperwork while officers suffer, and unintended consequences of laws restricting access to effective pain medication. Even so, practical progress is glacial.

“Even if workers’ comp were standardized, that would help,” Paulson told me by phone. Solutions have been proposed over the years, like allowing disabled officers and retired officers without health insurance to buy into Medicare before 65, or even making the VA (Veterans Affairs) system available for disabled officers.

“That system is already in place,” Paulson said. “A lot of our guys (wounded and disabled officers) are already veterans. I’d like to pursue it further. These are our homeland security. They deploy every day. They have the same problems - PTSD, gunshot wounds, orthopedic injuries. They could use the same help.” While that seems like a wishful-thinking solution, it’s worth acknowledging that, however dysfunctional the VA system appears to the general public, cops have none at all.

“People don’t understand,” Paulson said. “Most law enforcement agencies don’t participate in Social Security. When those officers get hurt, they can’t get SSDI. Ladd (her husband) tried to buy private disability insurance before he got hurt. He was denied because it’s a high-risk profession.” The only way for cops to access disability insurance or medical retirement is if their department provides it as a job benefit.

What, then, should families of wounded officers do? Paulson said, “Get an attorney. We should have. We didn’t.”

I have had more than one officer tell me bluntly, “My family would have been better off if I had died.” The problem is that overwhelming: it’s not that they wish they were dead, but that if they were, the entire future wouldn’t look like an unending, financially draining, exhausting fight.

As Officer Doe told me, “I got hurt. It didn’t just happen to me. It happened to my wife, my family, to other officers.” Those other officers are watching. Leaving wounded officers to fight alone when they’re at their lowest is a sucker punch to a profession that’s already bruised and battling low morale.

Just as with combat-wounded military veterans, better armor and better trauma care mean more officers who survive catastrophic, life-changing wounds. How is it acceptable to call these officers heroes when they get hurt, and then turn away when the next story breaks? How is it acceptable for them to be abandoned without financial resources, left to struggle with obstacles to basic benefits, and denied access to medical care and rehabilitation therapies?

It’s not. It’s a betrayal. It’s the dirty laundry of the law enforcement profession. Now that it’s been dragged into the sunshine, let’s clean it up.

NEXT: The battle for parity for park rangers and game wardens

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.