LONG BEACH — City officials have accused police officers of abusing their benefits by claiming an inordinate number of injuries, taking excessive amounts of time off work and taking early retirement by claiming disabilities.
So far this year, Long Beach police officers have claimed time off for injuries nearly three times more often than other officers in the state, according to a recent city report.
Last year, Long Beach officers took more than twice as long as the average officer to return to the job.
An increasing number of Long Beach officers are also taking disability retirements this year, according to the report by City Manager James Hankla.
"It's a reflection of a bad attitude," said Councilman Les Robbins. "Are our officers placed in more danger than other officers in other departments? Not in my opinion, they're not. The numbers are staggering."
In the first nine months of this year, about 30% of the Long Beach officers took a paid leave related to an injury on the job; the statewide average is an estimated 10.7%, according to a city report about crime, police resources and clearance rates.
The Long Beach rate has increased from 18.2% since 1986, while the statewide average has remained about the same.
Last year, injured Long Beach officers who took time off lost an average 51.7 days; the statewide average is estimated at 19.5 days, according to Hankla's report. Had the Long Beach rate been the same as the statewide rate, the city would have had about 25 more officers on the streets, city officials said.
"It's a pretty amazing number--25 more full-time officers per year," said John Shirey, assistant city manager. In a city where crime is increasing and the public complains about slow police response, 25 officers can make a difference, Shirey noted.
Hankla's report, which the City Council this month referred to a committee for review, followed a recent Times story that cited the Long Beach Police Department as the agency with the worst record of any major city in the state last year for solving serious crimes.
Mike Minton, a director of the Police Officers Assn., said some officers may be abusing the system, "but there aren't as many as management would like you to believe. I know of more people than not who said, 'I think I'm ready to go to work,' and the doctor said, 'No, you're not.' It's not the employee who's making all these decisions."
Minton attributed the high injury rate to inadequate staffing in the department. More officers are getting hurt because their colleagues are not arriving quickly enough to help out in dangerous situations, he said.
Minton said police were unable to respond quickly when he and a partner were badly beaten by 14 gang members about two years ago. He said knee and back injuries suffered in the beating kept him off the job for about a year.
But Minton conceded that low morale among the rank-and-file affects the amount of time some officers claim to be injured. If they're unhappy at work, they would be less likely to say they're feeling better, he said.
As of Nov. 30, the department had 39 injured officers off work, receiving full pay. Another 10 injured officers have light-duty assignments that exclude patrol work.
State law encourages abuse by making police officers eligible to receive full pay, tax free, up to a year while off work, Hankla's report stated. "The take-home pay for an employee in this status is more than for an employee who is at work. Legislative reform is needed in Sacramento to resolve this unacceptable practice."
At Hankla's urging, the council plans to consider adopting a policy in support of changes in state law regarding injury on duty, workers' compensation and disability retirements.
Hankla said that Long Beach officials also will begin asking current disability retired officers under the age of 50 to come back for a medical examination to determine whether they are fit to return to work. City officials are allowed by state law to request such examinations but until now have not used it.
As of Nov. 8, 22 officers had received disability retirement, which pays them 50% of their salary for life while allowing them to work other jobs. An average of 11.5 disability retirements a year were approved between 1975 and 1989, but the numbers varied widely from year to year. The number of such retirements ranged from three to 25 per year in that period. Thirteen officers were granted disability retirements last year.
Council members and some community leaders recently questioned the stress-related disability retirements of Officers Mark Dickey and Mark Ramsey, who were caught in a televised sting operation involving civil-rights activist Don Jackson nearly two years ago.