Retirement board rejects injured officers' claims ANNAPOLIS/SOUTH COUNTY -- Davidsonville * Edgewater * Shady Side * Deale

December 24, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

For three years after she was slammed against a wall by a mentally ill man, Katharine Wheeler has tried to retire from the Annapolis police force with disability benefits. Yesterday, she learned that she had failed again.

The city's Public Safety Disability Retirement Board unanimously turned down her appeal, concluding that there was not enough medical evidence to prove that her back injuries were job-related.

"I couldn't believe it," Ms. Wheeler said. "They agreed I was disabled but ruled it was nonoccupational. I've been fighting for three years to get benefits, and we are financially strapped."

Two other city police officers who were hurt in the line of duty also were denied disability benefits, sources said. The board's decision, which was given to City Attorney Jonathan Hodgson on Tuesday, was not made public.

Officers Scott Collins, who suffers from a degenerative spinal injury, and Anthony Davis, who has an immobile thumb, have sought for two years to persuade the board to retire them with benefits. They could not be reached for comment last night.

Joel L. Katz, a lawyer for Officers Collins and Wheeler, argued earlier this month that they can no longer fire a gun or pass the basic physical exam to be a police officer.

Yesterday, he criticized the board's decision to deny Ms. Wheeler benefits, saying he presented evidence that her injuries were job-related.

"It's real nice to sit behind closed doors and make decisions," he said. "It's just the continuing saga of this board. The players on the board have changed somewhat, but the results are still the same."

Ms. Wheeler said she plans to appeal the board's decision in Circuit Court. She has been struggling to pay her bills since former police Chief John C. Schmitt retired her without benefits on Jan. 1, 1990.

At the time, she thought she might be suffering from a degenerative muscle disease. But after paying for extensive medical tests, she says she discovered that a scar on her spine was caused by police work. Her most serious injury was in the summer of 1989, when she was slammed against a wall while trying to stop a mentally ill man from committing suicide.

The board ruled previously that the three officers' injuries were not job-related or not severe enough to prevent them from police work.

But Mr. Katz has argued that the board substituted a new clause in the police contract that requires officers to be "permanently disabled" instead of "permanently incapacitated from active service" to collect benefits.

The five-member volunteer board has come under fire for frequent delays and problems in the three officers' cases.

A panel of city lawmakers is studying ways to reform the retirement system.

A few years ago, the city's pension fund was steadily drained because police officers were being retired with disability benefits at a record rate. But critics charge that the board's zeal in preventing false claims has left injured officers with nowhere to turn.

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