Ark. ex-sergeant says duty belt injured her

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Board disagrees at appeal

By Andy Davis
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Susan Watkins was working in her horse barn in June 2005 when she felt a pain in her leg that brought her to the ground. A doctor diagnosed her with a nerve disorder, a condition that eventually led her to quit her job as a sergeant with the Hot Springs Police Department.

Watkins' doctors said the condition was caused by the 20-pound duty belt she had been required to wear. But a medical examination commissioned by the Arkansas Local Police & Fire Retirement System found otherwise.

At an appeal hearing Wednesday, the system's board of trustees unanimously upheld the finding that the Watkins' disability wasn't caused by her job.

"We just didn't feel the evidence was there," said Lake Village Mayor JoAnne Bush, the retirement system board's chairman.

The decision means that Watkins' disability payments will be $29,000 a year - half her final salary of $58,000, according to her attorney, Robert Newcomb of Little Rock.

If the disability had been found to be duty-related, Watkins, who is 49, would have been eligible for 65 percent of her salary, or $37,700, he said.

Watkins said she was disappointed.

"If the doctors hadn't said it was work-related, I wouldn't be here," she said after the hearing.

Police officers carry the bulk of their gear on their belts. In addition to guns, Hot Springs officers carry radios, handcuffs, ammunition and pepper spray. Some also carry batons and cell phones.

"It's a lot of weight to carry around," said Cpl. McCrary Means, a spokesman for the Hot Springs Police Department.

But claims such as Watkins' are rare.

The Arkansas Municipal League's worker's compensation program, which processes about 3,000 claims a year, has only had about a half dozen belt-related claims since it was created in 1985, said Ken Wasson, the league's assistant director.

David Clark, director of the police retirement system, said he didn't know of anyone who has been granted duty-related disability benefits because of a belt-related problem.

When Watkins was struck with the pain, she was a communications sergeant in charge of officers who work in schools and housing projects.

Doctors gave her shots for pain relief. She returned to work about a month later - but without her duty belt. Her doctor said it would exacerbate her condition.

Instead of using a holster, she carried her gun in her purse. She briefly tried wearing the belt with her gun on her left side, but decided that wasn't practi- cal because she's right-handed. Her doctor also advised against it, she said. In February 2007, she decided to quit.

"It's a little ridiculous to wear a uniform without a gun," Watkins said. "It's dangerous for me, and more so for the people I work with." A doctor hired by the retirement system, neurologist Charles Schultz of Jacksonville, agreed that Watkins was unable to perform her duties, but he found that her belt wasn't to blame.

"There are multiple other etiologies from which this condition can arise," Schultz wrote, according to Rick Ramsay, an attorney for the retirement system.

Ramsay, the retirement system's attorney, noted that Watkins, a police officer for 23 years, had only been wearing a belt for about five months when she was struck with the pain. For most of the previous 14 years, Watkins had been a detective and worked in plain clothes.

In addition to heavy belts, other known causes of Watkins' condition - meralgia paresthetica - include obesity, pregnancy or diabetes. Watkins is about 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs 148 pounds. She doesn't have diabetes and hasn't had children, Newcomb said.

"We eliminated all the causes but the duty belt," Newcomb said.

But Watkins said she doesn't plan to appeal the board's decision to circuit court. For that to be successful, a judge would have to find that the board was "arbitrary and capricious," Newcomb said.

Copyright 2007 Little Rock Newspapers, Inc.

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