Police Department, officers, at odds over medical leave 2 veterans hurt on duty cited for 'excessive' time off

December 30, 1991|By Roger Twigg

By her own words, Officer Sharon A. Sheckells is "no John Wayne."

She said she did her job well during her 11 years with the Baltimore Police Department, well enough to earn written praise from her immediate supervisors, deputy police commissioners and even Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods.

"I wasn't a super cop," said Officer Sheckells, 35. "I didn't get a bronze star."

In September, police officials decided they didn't want Officer Sheckells around. Though she was never accused of abusing her medical leave, they decided the leave she had used because of a back injury received while chasing a suspected car thief was excessive.

On Dec. 17, a Police Department trial board heard testimony about the foot chase, Officer Sheckells' two subsequent bouts with surgery -- a third is planned for next month -- and her painful physical therapy. They heard that her pension requests, suggested by the department's chief physician, were later denied by a hearing examiner from the Police and Firemen's Pension Board.

The board recommended that Commissioner Woods terminate Officer Sheckells' employment with the department.

That decision and the events that led to it have put the department at odds with its officers. At issue is whether or not officers who are denied pensions can take unlimited medical leave after being injured in the line of duty.

Sgt. Gary C. May, of the department's legal division, said that while the department allows medical leave for officers to recover from illness or injury, there comes a point when the leave becomes excessive.

"It's a very liberal leave policy, and the police commissioner has to have the power to control the conduct of his officers," he said.

"It's really not our fault that [the officers] were denied a pension. We didn't try to unload them before they had an opportunity to make a claim [for a pension]."

But Michael Marshall, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, said the department's actions are a breach of contract and violate the 1973 federal rehabilitation act, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for the handicapped.

Officers are entitled to what amounts to unlimited medical leave because of the hazardous nature of their profession.

Two days after Officer Sheckell's hearing, another disciplinary trial board recommended that Officer Mark A. Biscoe, 32, be terminated for using an inordinate amount of medical leave.

Officer Biscoe, an 11-year veteran, injured his ankle in 1988 when his patrol car was broadsided by a drunken driver. With emergency lights flashing, he was responding to a reported holdup at the time of the accident.

In addition to the ankle injury, he suffered a concussion and a bruised chest when his car caromed off two parked vehicles and a utility pole before slamming into a house.

"I had no feeling in my lower extremities for several hours and my jaw was out of place for months," Officer Biscoe said.

But it is the ankle injury that disabled him to the point that the department's chief physician suggested he apply for a pension. His request was rejected because the pension board felt that he, like Officer Sheckells, could still serve the department in some capacity.

"Now I'm behind a rock and a hard place. I can't even play with my two children for very long without aggravating the ankle," said Officer Biscoe.

"When I joined the department, they told me about this great unlimited sick leave and how they were going to take care of me."

Commissioner Woods has 30 days in which to make a decision on the recommendations regarding the officers, who have been suspendedwith pay.

Frateral Order of Police officials have said they will appeal to the Circuit Court any final decision to terminate the officers.

Police records show Officer Sheckells took 806.5 days of medical leave between March 28, 1988, and Sept. 10, 1991, while Officer Biscoe was cited for missing 552 days between March 18, 1980 and September 10, 1991.

Commissioner Woods' decision also could determine the fate of about two dozen other officers the department intends to try and fire for using excessive medical leave. Those officers cited for excessive medical leave lost anywhere from 66 to 1,169 days.

The extent of the officers' leaves was discovered when the department computerized its medical leave list. Through that process, the department learned that officers took an average of 16.5 days each year in medical leave -- about double the number taken just 10 years ago, said police spokesman Dennis S. Hill.

Mr. Hill said many of the officers were found to be taking 55 to 60 medical-leave days a year for several years.

"At first glance this [termination of officers] may seem horrible. But it's important for us to keep as many officers on the street as possible," said Mr. Hill.

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