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Police, fire on-duty injuries decline Drop comes even as firehouses were closed and police went to one-officer patrol cars

The number of Buffalo police and firefighters injured on duty dropped steadily in recent years, and continued dropping even while the city switched to one-officer cars and closed firehouses, city records show.

In 2003, when Buffalo began phasing in one-officer cars, 256 officers were placed on duty disability.

The number dropped to 206 in 2004 and 162 in 2005, city data shows.

The number of firefighters placed on duty disability also dropped steadily in recent years, going from 307 in 2004 to 166 in 2005, according to Leonard A. Matarese, the city's Human Resources commissioner.

Matarese credits police and firefighters for the drop, saying they are "working smarter" even as their ranks shrink.

"It's a compliment to our police officers and firefighters that they are working smarter and safer in this reduced environment we are working in," he said.

Robert P. Meegan Jr., president of the Police Benevolent Association, who previously suggested one-office patrol cars lead to more officer injuries, said it's possible injuries are down because multiple cars respond to some calls.

"On serious calls, we don't go alone," he said.

But Meegan also said the numbers could be dropping because the city is sometimes reluctant to place officers on duty injury.

Fire union president Joseph E. Foley agreed.

"I have not noticed any significant decrease in injuries," he said. "Matarese is manipulating the numbers. He is carrying people out sick rather than injured. He's been forcing people to use sick instead of injured time."

Matarese denied manipulating numbers but agreed the city has taken a tougher stance over the years on approving duty disability. When officers are on duty disability, the city, rather than the insurance company, pays medical bills. Also, time off on duty disability does not count toward sick time.

"Our job is not to automatically pass out IODs [injured on duties]," Matarese said. "In case anybody didn't notice, the city is broke. Our job is to make sure people were injured on the job. Just because you say you are injured doesn't mean we are going to spend city money taking care of you. We make a call based on the documentation we have."

But Matarese said his office approves most of the requests police officers and firefighters submit for duty disability. In 2005, he said, 11 requests were denied; 162 approved.

"I am looking at the denials since January," he said. "In every instance, there is no medical documentation."

Whatever the reason, even while new duty disability cases decline, the city's duty disability costs continue to grow.

Payments to Buffalo police went from $3.26 million in 2004 to $4.07 in 2005, city payroll records show. Fire department disability payments hit $6.7 million in 2005.

The costs go up because those with older claims remain on the payroll even as new claims are added, Matarese said.

Union leaders blame Matarese's office for delaying medical bills and authorizing medical care.

Matarese denies that, saying that whatever delays exist reflect the cumbersome process of getting employees moved from the city to state disability system.

e-mail: sschulman@buffnews.com

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