Texas LE still waiting for order guaranteeing LEOs COVID-19 death benefits
Members of the state's largest police union are asking Gov. Greg Abbot to ensure officers who die of coronavirus complications will be eligible for line of duty death benefits
AUSTIN, Texas — Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar will always remember the cheerful deputy who went out of his way to greet him.
Timothy De La Fuente had been a sheriff's employee for 27 years, working most recently at the county jail, the site of a COVID-19 outbreak in April.
"If I would walk through, he would stop what he would be doing and run over to me and shake my hand," Salazar said. "Just a great guy."
On April 30, De La Fuente became what is thought to be one of the first law enforcement officers to die of the virus in Texas. Given his long hours and the dozens of inmates diagnosed with the virus, Salazar and other supervisors are certain De La Fuente contracted COVID-19 on the job.
Now they have joined the state's largest police union and others in a concern that Gov. Greg Abbott hasn't done enough to ensure that De La Fuente's family will receive $500,000 in line-of-duty death benefits for fallen officers.
"All first responders — they can't stay home," said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. "They can't shelter in place. They have to go out."
Wilkison said based on information he has received, nine Texas law enforcement officers have died in the pandemic. De La Fuente was the only CLEAT member.
John Wittman, an Abbott spokesman, said, "A police officer who contracts COVID-19 on the job would be eligible for $500,000 in death benefits."
But CLEAT and other law enforcement officials say they have been asking since the outbreak for Abbott to sign an order that would make clearer that if an officer becomes ill with the virus, it is "presumed" he or she got it at work unless other information exists, such as international travel.
The organization has gotten dozens of lawmakers to write or sign letters pressing the governor to do so.
"I pray that no first responder will die in Texas due to COVID-19, but if they do, they should receive full honors and benefits, as any other line of duty death," Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, wrote to Abbott on April 23.
"An executive order will bring swift clarification and provide our first responders with much-needed protection in the event they are diagnosed with COVID-19," Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, also wrote April 23. "It is critical that we ensure our first responders are covered in regard to line of duty deaths."
Wilkison said CLEAT will take the issue to lawmakers in the spring Legislative session if necessary.
Last year, the organization persuaded lawmakers to pass a law that extends line of duty benefits to officers who suffer heart attacks.
In the past, if an officer died on duty while performing a law enforcement function such as a foot pursuit, many departments deemed it a work-related death. Under the new law, however, it is presumed that the heart attack was connected to an officer's job, allowing the family to qualify for line of duty death benefits.
When the pandemic reached Texas in March, Abbott's office issued a statement saying that he had "waived certain statutory provisions to ensure public safety employees who contract COVID-19 during the course of their employment will be reimbursed for reasonable medical expenses related to their treatment of COVID-19."
"These brave men and women are on the front lines and risking potential exposure to keep our communities safe," Abbott said.
Since then, CLEAT and others have stressed to Abbott that they believe his order fell short.
"We aren't quite sure the governor has gone far enough, but we will certainly fight this fight when and if it comes," said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, which represents 29,000 first responders.
Wilkison said he doesn't know why Abbott has appeared resistant but wonders if he is concerned about increasing financial liability to the state.
The issue is of particular concern because early in the pandemic, many law enforcement officers did not have access to adequate personal protective equipment, Wilkison said. Others were told by supervisors not to wear it because "it would scare people."
"If you are not going to be prepared for the pandemic — and you weren't — and if you are not going to have proper equipment to protect your first responders — and you didn't — then let's at least be presumptive," Wilkison said.
He said his organization would not be so insistent had it not wrestled with the state over death benefit payments in years past.
"Words and guarantees and promises are one thing, but the marriage license matters. And so in this case, we want it on a piece of paper, Governor," Wilkison said.
Salazar said he considers De La Fuente's death a loss in the line of duty and hopes the state will quickly process benefits to his family without resistance.
"I'm going to assume, and I'm going to continue to assume, that he contracted this virus at work," he said.