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Fighting for their lives, then pensions


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  • Fighting for their lives, then pensions

    link to article: http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dl...AL18/808310392

    Fighting for their lives, then pensions
    When Hoosier officers are injured in the line of duty, they often have trouble collecting payouts

    Deputy Tony Huffman was shot, beaten and run over with his own squad car. Still, he had to fight for a pension.

    Officer Tim Conley survived one of the worst gunbattles in Indianapolis history. Now, he struggles to pay his bills.

    Huffman and Conley are among the estimated 2,100 officers injured in the line of duty each year in the Midwest. What happened to them after their life-changing injuries exposes how capricious pension plans for disabled officers are in Indiana, and what some think is callousness toward those who risk so much.

    "It's like, 'You know what? We've gotten what we can out of you. Now get out of here as cheap as you can,' " said state Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, a former LaPorte County sheriff.

    "If they would have died in the line of duty, (lawmakers) would have been in the front row at the church, at the grave sites," Arnold said. "But when on the other hand something happens and (the officer) doesn't get killed, they've got to turn around and fight to get a disability pension. It's inherently unfair."

    In Indiana, city police departments and county sheriff's departments work under different sets of pension laws.

    County officials decide how much, if anything, to give Hoosier deputies injured in the line of duty. Unlike in Ohio and Kentucky, which have statewide plans, pensions can vary based on the county.

    City police have the security of a statewide pension plan and the guarantee that their pension will be between $12,400 and $49,200. But the state officials who set that payout can ignore the recommendations of local authorities and even the state's own doctors.

    Arnold said he would be willing to sponsor a law increasing protections for officers. But state Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Pensions and Labor Committee chairman, said the pension system was adequate and suggested that police who disagree find another occupation.

    "Don't be on the front lines," said Kruse, R-Auburn. "When you get hired, you know what the benefits are and what the pensions are, and so you say, 'OK, I'll take this job doing this.' "

    Fight for a pension
    In August 1993, Huffman was a Henry County deputy finishing a night shift when he spotted what he thought was an abandoned vehicle on the side of a county road.

    He was face to face with a sawed-off shotgun by the time he realized someone was in the car.

    When Huffman turned to get out of the line of fire, Kevin Ward, a teenage car thief, shot him in the back and beat him over the head with the gun.

    Then Ward climbed into the deputy's seat and ran over Huffman with the patrol car.

    Ward was arrested and sentenced to 33 years in prison. He is scheduled for release in 2017. Huffman was paralyzed from the breastbone down.

    Henry County's worker's compensation program covered Huffman's medical and rehabilitation costs, but he had to fight for a pension.

    "When it actually came to releasing the money, they said no," recalled Huffman, now 50.

    Huffman's attorney castigated Henry County in a letter for giving Huffman "nothing whatsoever for the tremendous suffering he has endured and will continue to endure." Nancy Brown, the attorney for Henry County, said officials tried to do their best for the deputy, a father of four.

    After several months, Huffman settled, with the county agreeing to pay his $1,800 monthly salary. By law, county officials did not have to pay him anything.

    Indiana does not mandate benefit plans for deputies injured in the line of duty.

    Most of the state's 92 counties choose to adopt such plans, said Yolanda Moore, an attorney with McCready and Keene, an actuarial and benefits consulting firm that works with sheriff's departments. But the plans tend to be general, and authorities interpret them on a case-by-case basis.

    "It's tailored to fit the monies available in each individual county," said Indiana Sheriffs' Association Executive Director Doug Gosser. "It should be universal."

    Some Indiana lawmakers would rather not tell counties how to spend their money. Kruse and state Rep. David L. Niezgodski, D-South Bend, pension management oversight commission chairman, oppose forcing smaller county governments to pay for costly pension programs.

    "There are people who like that, who want to be a policeman, who want to be a fireman," Kruse said, arguing that emergency response jobs attract people with a high tolerance for risk. "I don't know that because you're a public employee, that makes your life worth more than somebody else's."

    Texas treats deputies' pensions similar to the way Indiana does, leaving funding decisions to local authorities. Kentucky and Ohio take the burden off poor counties by covering deputies under a uniform statewide system.

    That sounds like a good idea to state Sen. Thomas J. Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, who said that because of the Jason Fishburn case -- the Indianapolis patrolman shot in the head July 10 while pursuing a homicide suspect -- he would research how to enact and fund a statewide plan.

    But a statewide plan does not guarantee financial security, according to some city police who fall under such a system. The Police Officers' and Firefighters' Pension and Disability Fund, which covers municipal departments, has more money for pensions than a rural county sheriff's department. But fund administrators have the authority to dole out whatever amount they think is proper.

    That is what happened with Conley, the first Indianapolis Police Department officer to arrive at the 2004 gunbattle in which Patrolman Timothy "Jake" Laird died.

    Post-traumatic stress
    It was a muggy August night, and Conley was answering a 911 call on the city's Southside.

    Driving down Dietz Street, he barely caught a glimpse of a gun barrel before, as he puts it, "all hell broke loose."

    Kenneth C. Anderson, heavily armed and mentally ill, had killed his mother and was firing an assault rifle wildly into the street. Within 16 minutes, Laird would be dead and four other officers wounded.

    One bullet plowed through Conley's car door and exploded his knee. A second bullet ripped open his abdomen.

    The handgun in Conley's belt was useless against a shadowy assailant with an assault rifle. His shotgun was in his overhead rack.

    Wedged between the seats and unable to see out of his squad car, he backed down the block from memory, swerving around two parked cars as dozens of bullets flew. Before Conley began to fade in and out of consciousness, he radioed the gunman's location to fellow officers.

    The bullet wounds healed, but the psychological ones did not.

    Panic attacks plague Conley, a powerfully built 6-foot-2 officer whom fellow cops once nicknamed "Dozer" for his ability to bust a door off its hinges. When he tried to return to police work as an auto-theft detective, he flashed back to the long minutes he spent bleeding in his squad car as bullets whistled past.

    He was rushed to the hospital several times with symptoms of a heart attack. A routine confrontation with an armed suspect left him concerned that his panicked responses would endanger other officers. Doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Conley left the department.

    A city police pension board voted to make Conley eligible for the higher range of line-of-duty pensions, which at the time amounted to as much as about $49,200 a year.

    But state officials ignored the advice of their medical consultant and the police board, reclassifying Conley into a lower pension bracket. A state lawyer argued that Conley's physical wounds had healed and that he had taken the auto-theft detective job. The state shaved his payout down to about $24,000 a year. Conley was crushed.

    "You don't do it for the money anyway," he said about the dangers of police work. "But when you get hurt and you almost die, and then the state comes and slaps you in the face like that, it's almost like they didn't really care.

    "You think if you get hurt in the line of duty, you're going to get taken care of," he said. "And that's just not the case unless you fight for it."

    Conley appealed the state ruling. He offered to go to another psychologist. His lawyer and a state attorney went before an administrative judge. Eventually the state bumped his annual payout up to about $32,900, which is exempt from federal taxes.

    Even that sum makes it tough to make ends meet, said Conley, a married father of four. He was disappointed to find no civilian jobs available for him at the Police Department. Other applications yielded few responses. Conley was 18 when the Indianapolis police hired him as a property room clerk; at 47, he says, "all the skills I have are police-related."

    He misses the $50,000 a year he estimates he used to earn. He's also lost the several thousand dollars a month he brought home from security work.

    Other options
    State and county officials say they hear few concerns about line-of-duty pensions. But few officers try to live on them. Most go back to the police department as civilian employees or forgo pensions and return to their regular law enforcement jobs.

    Officer Peter Koe, who ultimately killed Kenneth Anderson, is back on the SWAT team. He calls the entrance and exit bullet wounds in his leg his "femoral piercing" and says the shrapnel in his head bothers him most when it sets off airport metal detectors.

    It is not clear whether Fishburn, the officer most recently shot, will be able to go back to work. The 29-year-old has made medical progress, but his ability to move his right side remains limited, said his uncle Alan Fishburn.

    Darin Fishburn, another uncle, said his nephew's long-term memory is improving, as is his speaking ability, though his speech is still somewhat slurred and delayed. He is well enough, Alan said, to recently visit his home for a few hours before returning to his rehabilitation facility.

    The city pays to treat officers injured in the line of duty -- treatment that Alan Fishburn said could include two or three months of rehabilitation and subsequent in-home care. But if Fishburn cannot return to work, what will happen afterward is less clear.

    The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has no policy on paying for in-home care after an officer retires because of an injury in the line of duty because the situation has never come up, said Sgt. Gina Jones, who handles medical billing. Fishburn would almost undoubtedly land in the state's top pension bracket for city officers -- which now amounts to a federal-tax-exempt sum from $25,300 to $49,200 a year -- but that guarantee is not enough to allay his family's concerns.

    "It's something, and he'll need it," Alan Fishburn said before worrying that his nephew might get the minimum payout.

    "You know," he said, "you're not going to be able to do back flips on that."

    Call Star reporter Heather Gillers at (317) 444-6405.
    "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."
    John Adams, April 15, 1814

  • #2
    Anyone with thoughts of becoming a police officer should read this article. All of us, including myself, never had this information before raising our right hand. In fact, I didn't realize after a healthy career and retirement, that my pension amount was only 60% of my salary. And health insurance is so-o-o high. Thanks for posting this important information...the fine print no recruit will see. Hopefully, those officers can receive the needed and mandatory support they deserve.
    The views/opinions expressed here are solely mine. I'm retired and I don't care. I truly do not want to offend anyone, but if you are thin skinned and have no sense of humor, you better find another line of work. Therefore, I don't have to be politically correct and I will exercise my freedom of speech, until it's taken away. May God bless all retirees. We've done our duty and earned our peace.


    • #3
      Well, I was told, and even given a copy in writing. We had classes on it, hours spent that first week of orientation actually. I knew what the benifits were from near day one ... and well before the first week and any bridges were burned. Retirement, disability, the whole thing. They have improved since. Could be better, could be worse as well.

      I think that while what CPD7297 says may be true in some places (maybe the whole midwest even???), the simple truth is that many young men and women just fail to attempt to grasp the information ... they push it asside, they look at it as something they will not have to deal with likely ... and so they don't look at it closely. They don't take it seriously. They assume.

      If they take a career not knowing or having benifits spelled out in writing, they have little recourse when they need them. "I thought" is pitiful little to hang onto when suddenly the whole world is turned upside down.

      Sad stories ...........
      Last edited by t150vsuptpr; 09-01-2008, 04:46 PM.
      "That's right man, we've got mills here that'll blow that heap of your's right off the road."

      "Beautiful Daughter of the Stars."(it's my home now)

      >>>>> A Time for Choosing <<<<<

      Retired @ 31yr 2mo as of 0000 hrs. 01-01-10. Yeah, all in all, it was good.


      • #4
        I guess I know what my FTO and I are gonna talk about tomorrow...


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