Working The System

REPORT: A common program to compensate public safety workers for job-related disabilities is to grant them a tax exemption, whereby 50% of their retirement pension is exempt from state and federal taxes. While it is virtually impossible to collect data from pension fund administrators on exactly how many retired public safety workers have retired with this benefit, a 2004 investigative report by the Sacramento Bee found that among retired members of the California Highway Patrol, 66% of the rank and file officers, and 82% of the chiefs retired with service disabilities. Similarly, a 2006 investigative report by the San Jose Mercury found that two-thirds of San Jose Firefighters retired with service disabilities. Neither of these reports remain available online, although a Google search on the term “Chief’s Disease” (a term coined by the Sacramento Bee) will find dozens of secondary references to these studies.

REPORT: September 11, 2004

SACRAMENTO – Fifty-five of the 65 high-ranking officers who retired from the California Highway Patrol since 2000 filed workers’ compensation claims within two years, entitling them to lucrative disability settlements and medical pensions with tax-free income.

The practice is so widespread among the roughly 150 CHP chiefs and captains that rank-and-file officers have dubbed it “chief’s disease,” boosting costs in a department that pays the highest rate in state government for injuries and medical pensions.

The payments are in addition to routine pension benefits that let CHP officers retire at age 50 with up to 90 percent of their pay.

Nearly 70 percent of CHP officers retire on disability, and the department pays among the highest percentage of workplace injury claims, The Sacramento Bee found. The combination cost taxpayers $75 million two years ago.

“It turns out we need to be policing the police,” said state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Daly City, chairwoman of the Select Committee on Government Oversight.

CHP Commissioner D.O. Helmick, who is being nudged into retirement next week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has asked the Public Employees’ Retirement System to determine if he, too, should be granted a disability pension because of injuries from vehicle accidents in the 1970s and 1980s, said spokesman Tom Marshall.

“Some of these people have pushed the envelope on this and it’s just grown and grown and grown,” Helmick told the Bee. “The system is so lucrative, I’m afraid people are going to take advantage even if they’re 100 percent ethical.”

It’s not unexpected for CHP officers to suffer injuries over the years while patrolling highways and pursuing criminals. And experts say it’s difficult to prove fraud because an officer unable to continue at the CHP may be qualified to work another job.

But then they’re no longer disabled, said Speier.

“If someone has a miraculous recovery, then they’re not eligible for a lifetime tax break. It’s an insult to the taxpayers of the state that they continue to draw a disability pension if they’re not disabled,” she said.

More than 80 percent of the chiefs who retired in the last four years claimed a debilitating injury as they prepared to retire, the Bee found, although many of the alleged medical problems had been building for years and were common for those in any field who are nearing retirement.

In one case, a deputy chief who suffered episodes of racing heart was described by a doctor as a danger to the public. In another, one chief’s skin cancer was attributed to years of patrolling the highways, although he found a new career as a scuba instructor in sun-soaked Hawaii.

One captain was found to be 61 percent disabled from knee injuries, ulcers, high blood pressure and hearing loss and took a medical pension from the CHP, then became assistant sheriff of Yolo County.

“What the Legislature and the courts have said is that the aging process is compensable,” said Frank Floyd of the State Compensation Insurance Fund.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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