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WHILE Buffalo residents clamor for more visible police protection and calls for assistance go unanswered, evidence shows some city police officers are abusing sick leave at an increasing pace.

Some police men and women whose job it is to enforce society's rules are breaking a rule themselves by reporting sick when they are well. They contribute to manpower shortages that bedevil Buffalo's precincts and leave city neighborhoods unduly exposed to crime.

Police officials are saying that an average day finds some 90 of the department's 1,000 officers and detectives out sick. Even conceding that police work is stressful, frustrating and unnerving, that's an excessive number -- one more believable for a work force of puny weaklings than for supposedly robust police officers.

Police sick-leave rights come in two packages. Officers hired before July 1, 1984, are governed by City Charter Section 238, which provides that officers "disabled by sickness" can get up to six months of paid sick time a year.

Officers hired after that have sick leave governed by their union contract. It is less generous, but generous enough.

First-year officers accumulate paid sick time at the rate of eight hours a month. Others accumulate at a rate of 11 hours a month. An individual can accumulate as much as 2,400 hours. Accumulated time up to 1,440 hours can be "sold back" to the city upon retirement at a rate of one-third salary.

Whatever the provisions, sick leave has but one quite obvious purpose -- to protect the individual from loss of pay when illness prevents work. But the high-ranking police official in charge of internal affairs is saying that some police personnel are taking sick time as if it were personal leave, skipping work when they don't like their assignments.

The public (which pays for police protection) has no reason to put up with this nonsense. Police want the respect of the community, but if individual officers are going to develop sudden illnesses when it's convenient, they are more deserving of scorn.

At one time, the city required officers on sick leave to stay at home, making it easier to check up on malingerers. But several years ago, to settle a union grievance, the city dropped the requirement. Abusers are making a strong case for reinstating it.

Clearly, the department needs to fight this abuse. It might will develop of practice of ordering officers with a pattern of apparent abuse to undergo -- on a sick day -- an examination by a physician of the department's choice.

Sick-leave issues seem to be tied up in union-management confrontations. All involved should start from the premise that the Police Department exists to provide quality public protection, not to be a haven for people who are unwilling to work.

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