Disabled police urged to retire Commissioner wants change in pension law that governs disability

August 06, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

With 210 disabled Baltimore police officers sitting behind desks instead of fighting crime, the police commissioner and union president want to make it easier for those unable to patrol city streets to retire early.

The proposed change is aimed at eliminating a list of officers who are too hurt for the rigors of street patrol but can handle more sedentary chores. City pension laws bar those officers from retiring early.

Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said his 3,200-member department cannot afford to carry hundreds of officers who are taking up slots that could be filled by new, able-bodied hires.

"We need police officers in patrol cars and in neighborhoods," Frazier said yesterday, adding that he is running out of desk jobs. "Cops pushing paper that doesn't need to be pushed doesn't help."

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union representing city officers, supported a bill in the City Council to revise retirement laws two years ago. But the bill, sponsored by Councilman Martin O'Malley, died before a vote could be taken after objections from the city's former pension administrator, who expressed concerns about cost.

Officer Gary McLhinney, union president, met with police colonels Monday. He said his union is willing to pay several thousand dollars for an actuarial study on how much it would cost the pension system if hundreds of officers retire early.

McLhinney said he and Frazier agree on changing the pension law. "We're confident we can resolve this to the satisfaction of everybody," he said.

Three weeks ago, Frazier ordered all officers assigned to light duty for more than two months to be stripped of their badges and guns in an effort to encourage those who could patrol to return to street duty.

The reduced number of available officers has hurt the force's ability to answer some 911 calls. Officers assigned to foot patrols and burglary squads in the Southwestern District have been placed on patrol to shore up the front-line ranks.

Relief won't be on the way until early next year, when the next class of academy graduates is ready to hit the street. Police commanders are worried that even additional hires can't keep up with injuries and the dozen officers who leave the force each week, most through retirements.

Changing pension laws, police officials say, would go a long way toward bolstering the city's crime-fighting force. It would require a relatively simple word change in city law.

The rules say that any injured officer who is able to return to "duty" cannot retire early. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled in 1984 that the law required that any employee who is able to perform desk work cannot be considered incapacitated, and cannot retire early.

Frazier wants to change the wording to "full duty," so that any officers unable to permanently work the street would be considered incapacitated.

The disability problem is exacerbated by officers who suffer injuries early in their careers and spend years behind desks waiting until they reach their 20th anniversary, allowing them to retire with full benefits.

Common incapacitating injuries include back and knee problems, but officers are sidelined for a wide variety of ailments, from the lingering effects of being shot to hand injuries that prevent them from firing their guns.

"If an officer tears up a knee, he is never going to be back in a police car," Frazier said. "I need police officers in patrol cars. I can't have people on moderate duty year after year after year."

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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