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Police injury claims soar, raising malingering issue

A lot of Buffalo police officers are ailing these days.

Five years ago, the city paid $5.7 million for salaries of officers injured on duty.

Two years ago, the same expense climbed to $7.3 million.

And last year, that figure approached $10 million.

That's because the number of officers on extended injured-on-duty, or IOD, has increased dramatically.

While there is no question that police work is dangerous, the city believes that some officers have become professional malingerers.

Consider these numbers and situations:

* In a recent two-week pay period, 105 of the department's 789 officers were classified as injured on duty. That's 13 percent of the force unable to work.

* Department officials say that many of the officers gravitate to a handful of sympathetic doctors who will allow them to remain on extended sick leave.

* In a recent two-week pay period, female officers, who currently make up 24 percent of the department's sworn personnel, represented 35 percent of the injured on duty.

* Injured-on-duty officers are exempt from paying state and federal income tax on their salaries, making it more tempting to remain at home. Also, some injured officers with private disability insurance hit a financial bonanza, able to collect a salary from the city and proceeds from their insurance policy, department officials say.

* In the mid- to late-1990s, when the department had more than 900 officers, the number of injured on duty was about 40 to 60 cases during pay periods and, at one point, dipped to 14 cases.

So what happened?

The short answer is that monitoring of these cases shifted from the department's Internal Affairs Division to City Hall's Human Resources Department six years ago.

"No one is willing to be the enforcer, and it doesn't take a brain surgeon to see that the numbers have gone up," said former Lt. Robert L. Calabrese, who before retiring 12 years ago was credited with keeping the number of injured-on-duty cases to a minimum.

Calabrese, who worked in Internal Affairs, had a reputation for being relentless in requiring cops without serious injuries to return to limited duty.

He and an independent nurse and case manager, Nancy Forrest, were continually in touch with the physicians caring for injured officers, requesting updates on their medical conditions.

When the doctors refused to fill out forms asking what type of limited duty the officers could perform, such as answering phones and filing paperwork, Calabrese hit the physicians where it hurts.

"We would deny payment of the officer's doctor fees until the doctor filled out the forms," he said.

In some cases, officers were justifiably unable to work in any capacity, but for those certified for limited duty, it often put them on a quicker path to full recovery.

"They hated being inside all day without having any freedom," Calabrese said.

Department officials also pointed out that some officers work an entire career and never take a sick day. The department continues the practice of limited duty for injured officers, with several assigned at any given time. But it may not be having the same effect because the number of cases remains high, despite regular criticism by Mayor Byron W. Brown, who is pushing to reduce the numbers.

City officials, in trying to explain the high numbers, argue that times have changed since the days of Calabrese and Forrest.

There are now one-officer cars with increased distractions, such as mobile computer terminals, and many younger officers are unable to handle all of the in-car tasks as they race to 911 calls, the officials said.

As a result, there are more patrol car accidents.

At present, about 20 officers are on extended sick leave because of accidents.

And with one-officer cars, police are more likely to suffer injuries when they arrive at calls of a violent nature, according to Lt. Robert P. Meegan Jr., president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, the union representing officers.

"Since we went to one-officer cars in 2003, we have better than 200-plus less officers, so we have less backup, as a result, and injuries are more prevalent," Meegan said. "The city was told there would be more officers injured on duty before we switched to one-officer cars."

City officials had argued that many urban departments successfully utilized one-officer cars.

Meegan also says that many officers are eager to return to work, and he blames city Human Resources managers for delays, saying they are slow to authorize medical tests and treatment for officers.

"We had one officer who'd injured his shoulder and wanted to come back, but needed an MRI first," Meegan said. "When he finally received authorization from the city for the MRI so that he could be re-evaluated, his doctor told him he could not treat him because the injury had healed incorrectly and that the officer needed the services of an attorney. That's how long it took and that is just one of many cases."

But the eyebrows of city officials are raised when they look at injured-on-duty figures showing that about 20 officers have slipped on ice in the parking lots of district police stations, or when they see officers out and about, though they are not well enough to work.

Two injured officers were noticed earlier this year with a group of other officers and firefighters protesting lack of new contracts outside the Buffalo Convention Center as the mayor gave his 2010 State of the City speech, police and city officials said.

"You can go out and march for an hour, but you can't sit at a desk?" a city official asked.

Calabrese, who remains in contact with current department members, says that it is his understanding that the type of scrutiny he brought to the job is absent these days.

During his tenure, he said, he made use of the city's contractual right to have injured officers undergo an independent medical examination.

When the injury was severe and it was unlikely the officer would ever be able to return, the city automatically filed for a state disability pension that, depending on the circumstances of the injury, would result in half or three-quarters pay, also exempt from state and federal income taxes.

Anytime injured-on-duty cases rise above 10 percent of the work force, it is cause for concern, said Mary Lou Conrow, a Binghamton attorney who has done evaluations of sick-leave abuse for about 40 police agencies in the last 15 years.

Through effective scrutiny, she said, those numbers are often reduced.

She cited a police department of about 600 members that had 30 injured-on-duty cases.

"We brought their long-term IOD down to approximately three a year," she said.

How?

"We did it through nurse-case management, a very strong light-duty program, and exercising our ability to file state disability retirement paperwork."

Forrest, the former Buffalo nurse-case manager, agreed with Conrow.

"I believe you need an on-site nurse-case manager to monitor all the IOD claims," Forrest said. "You don't need to strong-arm officers. You need to treat them with respect and make them accountable."

In recent days, the Buffalo Police Department and City Hall have made attempts at stronger measures to make injured-on-duty status less appealing for those who would abuse it.

Rather than keep injured officers with more than a year off in their current assignments in the five police districts, all have been transferred to the police commissioner's office. By doing that, the department can fill district openings and avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime.

In addition, injured-on-duty officers no longer will receive uniform allowances or vacation, longevity and holiday pay, which is expected to save the city $1.6 million yearly.

Meegan says the PBA is fighting that move in court.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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