Idaho officers hurt in line of duty face uncertain future
By Cassidy Friedman
TWIN FALLS — Raising money in the Magic Valley for a wounded Idaho State Police trooper has proven successful.
But at the Capitol, getting more money and better coverage from the state has been anything but simple.
Since Trooper Chris Glenn was shot and paralyzed from the chest down in December, troopers, businesses and community members have raised more than $220,000 for Glenn and his family.
With two bills pending in the Legislature, Idaho law enforcement officers want Glenn to receive more help from the state, making him less dependent on homegrown solutions.
Once, those solutions would have been all Glenn could have counted on.
When Trooper Steve Hobbs was shot in 1991 alongside Interstate 84 — crippling his vision, his hand and eliminating a portion of his short-term memory — he did not qualify for the state's disability retirement. To qualify before 1993, a trooper had to spend five years on the force.
By 2000, Hobbs' impaired mobility and vision brought up too many safety questions and legislators, with a push from law enforcement, passed the informally dubbed "Steve Hobbs law." It ensured that officers with less than five years of experience who were injured on the job, such as Hobbs and later Glenn, would receive treatment equal to what a more-senior trooper would receive.
But in 1991, before he helped change state law, Hobbs relied on his friends at the Idaho State Police and Rupert Police Department for jobs as a school resource officer so he and his family would not go broke.
Idaho, like its six bordering states, negotiates settlements with seriously disabled troopers. Montana and Nevada give substantially more money to senior officers who are injured on the job. Washington state effectively keeps injured troopers on the payroll with all of their benefits and half of their salaries.
Expanding benefits in Idaho has brought up many questions. Why should troopers get breaks and not teachers or other state employees? And what on-the-job injuries should the state cover?
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said one bill introduced to a committee last week tosses together officers who slip on ice and officers shot in the line of duty.
Under the bill, the state would pay city, county and state law enforcement officers' salaries from when they are injured for up to one year when the officer is either deemed permanently disabled or until he goes back to work. Workers' compensation already pays a nontaxable 67 percent of an injured officer's gross wages until he resumes work or goes on permanent disability. Usually, that amount alone equals his full pay.
"Police officers intentionally put themselves in harm's way," said Brent Wright, president of the Idaho State Lodge for the Fraternal Order of Police and president of Twin Falls FOP Lodge 22. "Other work groups are not intentionally putting themselves in harm's way every day."
The bill, which singles out aid for law enforcement officers, addresses officers injured responding to a call, officers in hot pursuit, officers conducting an investigation and officers patrolling the community, Wright said.
A broad definition of who qualifies will end up costing taxpayers a lot of money for officers injured mainly in traffic accidents, according to Edward Connors, president of the Institute for Law and Justice, a Virginia-based nonprofit corporation dedicated to criminal justice research.
"In many big cities, it was very liberal 10 years ago to get out on disability leave with mental distress or a heart condition Ã¢â‚¬" it was very common," Connors said. "Most places that I work with have cracked down very significantly in the past years. They are starting to take this very seriously. I just don't think you are ever going to see legislators trying to make it more liberal. It just costs taxpayers too much money."
But Ted Deeds, a national spokesman for the Law Enforcement Officer Alliance of America, a Virginia-based nonprofit coalition of law enforcement professionals, said you cannot single out only officers who are injured heroically in the line of duty.
"A cop who is hurt is a cop who is hurt," he said. "Whatever your system is, it should be fair, uniform and consistent."
He said an example of an unfair system is the one Idaho State Police currently has that provides temporary compensation only to some of its officers.
ISP ensures a full paycheck only if the injury was "induced by the negligent, malicious, or intentional act Ã¢â‚¬- during a chargeable misdemeanor or felony," according to state statute.
Deeds said you cannot differentiate chargeable offenses from non-chargeable accidents.
"There is a very complex matrix of threats out there," he said. "If you are directing traffic, what's the difference between slipping on ice and getting a herniated disc and being slammed by a lead pipe? Is it as sexy? No. Is it going to affect him? Yes."
A second reason is it puts a bounty out for police to find a guilty party, he said.
"If that's the position of the state, it is going to get sued into oblivion," Deeds said. "If you have an employer that is saying to its officer that we are going to give you a bounty if you make the arrest, that's like paying for a corpse. That's not the way policing is done in the 21st century."
Wright said the ISP coverage is too restrictive.
"If an officer gets ran over, by the state's definition the guy lost control on a state road and did not get charged," Wright said. "The officer would not get covered."
Hobbs said Band-Aid solutions such as keeping crippled officers on the payroll no longer works.
"The ratio of officers getting wounded in the line of duty is getting worse," Hobbs said. "The incidences of officers getting shot are snowballing like an avalanche coming down on our state, as opposed to what it was in 1984 when I started. I think we are finally to the point where our officers are starting to be taken care of for putting their lives on the line every single day. And I hope it gets better."
Under current law, one year after an officer's injury, he can apply to workers' compensation to pay him up to $584 per month and pay for his medically necessary bills. Thirty months after the injury, long-term disability insurance may provide up to 60 percent of the officer's salary.
But haggling for these benefits can be a disaster.
"Here in Idaho, you have almost got to be in the grave to receive somewhat of a decent disability income at all," said Idaho State Police Sgt. Doug McFall, Glenn's supervisor. "If it can be shown that you can go out and do virtually any type of (job), it's pretty tough to get any kind of disability at all."
Rick Thompson, administrator of insurance and internal support for the Department of Administration, said the intent is to get people back to work.
That leaves McFall worried his trooper may not get the support he needs if he does not accept "reasonable work accommodations" Ã¢â‚¬" which could mean stamping tickets at the airport parking lot, according to Thompson.
A second bill would have the state pay full health-care coverage for wounded officers and their families.
Hobbs said the key issue is to ensure Glenn continues to find the support he needs. And that takes monitoring.
"Let's just keep an eye on him to make sure that five to 10 years down the road he is still being taken care of," Hobbs said. "Let's have an alert come on your Palm Pilot say: 'Go check on Chris. Make sure he's got everything he needs.' People have their pride and they don't want to go asking for help."
Although officers wounded in the line of duty are fairly rare in Idaho, Glenn will not be the last officer to be wounded. Nationwide, about 60,000 officers are assaulted every year, according to Deeds.
"It's happening more and more," said Cpl. Fred Rice, chairman of the board of directors for the Idaho State Police Association. "When a guy gets shot and paralyzed, it comes down to this: 'I am a 34-year-old officer with a wife and kid. I have no health insurance.' Why wouldn't we take care of that person for the rest of his life?"
Copyright 2007 Times-News
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