The first time San Diego Police Officer Devin Whitney got hurt on the job, he and his partner were checking a noise complaint at a Mid-City apartment complex in July 2000. A muscular man met them in the courtyard and began to argue. The complex's residents, who Whitney says, “were not pro-police,” began to rain down rocks, bottles and even a hibachi grill while Whitney wrestled with the man, who later turned out to be a body-builder high on methamphetamines and amped up by steroids. Whitney's partner sent out a citywide alert for backup, and, eventually, a slew of officers subdued the man and pacified the complex. Whitney suffered a back injury so severe that he needed surgery.
Two months later, Whitney, back on the job, participated in the arrest of a woman who, reportedly high on meth, alcohol and PCP after a Snoop Dogg concert, was doing donuts in her car in front of police headquarters at 14th Street and Broadway. Whitney helped with the arrest, went back to headquarters to process another suspect and returned to the scene in time to see the woman kick out the window of the patrol car and try to escape. Whitney injured his back again wrestling her to the ground. It eventually took four officers, one holding each limb, to restrain the woman, he said.
Again, the aggravated injury wasn't enough to keep Whitney, a native of Missouri and former Navy sailor, off the beat, but 18 months later, a fleeing suspect finally ended his career. Whitney pulled the man off a chain-link fence, but the weight of the falling man caused Whitney's torso to twist awkwardly over the top of his service pistol, and he cracked two vertebrae as a result. He required bone-fusion surgery, and later he would have pins, rods and plates surgically installed to support his spine. He spent two years on light duty, but in 2005, he was granted disability retirement by the San Diego City Employees' Retirement System (SDCERS). Whitney received $36,000 a year tax-free—half his highest annual salary—and medical benefits in exchange for his eight years of service and a lifetime of pain.
“That's the handshake,” Whitney told CityBeat. “You know when you sign up to be a police officer or firefighter, if you're hurt, you know you will be taken care of financially.”
So he was rather surprised to get a letter from SDCERS a year later, asking him to provide information on his new employment, his medical condition and other “personal details.” Soon after he'd returned the letter, he received another one asking him to see a doctor hired by SDCERS to review his injuries. That doctor felt the hardware in Whitney's back and declared him still unfit for duty. But the incident was enough to alert the former officer to the danger: They could review him at any time and perhaps tell him that his disability benefits would be cut off. And he realized he probably wasn't the only one.
He connected with other officers, some of whom had been on disability for more than a decade. All of them had begun receiving letters from SDCERS. Several were sent to doctors for re-examinations and then summoned to appear before a SDCERS disability committee. At this stage, some of the retirees felt compelled to hire attorneys. Some of them lived far away and had to make long trips to San Diego. The expense of defending their benefits began to mount.
“This will easily cost me $30,000,” said one retiree, who moved to Florida because he could no longer afford to live near San Diego.
The retirees were also suspicious that they all received letters at the same time, in mid- to late-2006.
As it turns out, SDCERS has reinstated a program of reviewing disability retirees. City law entitles the agency to review disability cases and, where appropriate, end benefits and order the retiree back to work—though the city has no obligation to rehire them. But while the program of review began in 1976, it was ended, for reasons that remain unclear, in 1988. Then SDCERS found itself at the center of a scandal beginning in 2004, one that led to federal investigations, resignations, criminal charges and the loss of the city's bond rating.
In the scandal's wake, a newly reformed SDCERS board of trustees realized that disability retirees made up a substantial portion of the system's beneficiaries. SDCERS financial statements from 2007 show that disability retirees comprise 18 percent of the 6,679 beneficiaries, and they receive 14 percent of the $234 million the system pays out annually. These retirees also represent one the few areas, outside of administrative expenses, in which the system has the flexibility to reduce expenses. Whereas the system's 4,354 standard retirees are almost completely untouchable, the reviews create the possibility of taking disability retirees off the books, at least until they hit the minimum safety-officer retirement age of 50, when they, too, become untouchable. If SDCERS were successful in a very small number of cases, especially safety officers injured in the line of duty, who receive the highest benefits, the savings would be substantial.
“That's not really the focus of the program,” said SDCERS chief of staff Rebecca Wilson. “But if you look at it in straight dollar terms, then, yes, the cost of the program itself is miniscule as compared to the amount of money that would be paid out in a benefit.”
In 2006, the SDCERS board reinstated the so-called Affidavit and Re-Examination Project. It includes questionnaires, whose answers are legally binding, sent to every disability retiree every year. SDCERS looks for indications that an officer may no longer be disabled, and it sometimes receives anonymous tips that an officer may no longer warrant receiving benefits (one retiree told CityBeat his ex-wife notified the board that he was no longer disabled). The officer is then called in for a review before an SDCERS staffer, and then before a subcommittee of the pension board, which makes a recommendation to the full board.
Since 2006, Wilson said the board has taken benefits from one retiree and had another withdraw from the program due to the review—enough to cover the $250,000 she said has been spent on the program, and then some.
The retirees are no longer represented by their employee union, the San Diego Police Officers Association, but the union is keenly aware of the situation. President Bill Nemec said the question of review will likely find its way to the bargaining table in the next round of negotiations with the city.
“Here's the other side of the coin right here,” he said. “If you were disability-retired 15, 20 years ago, some of the medical treatments since then are phenomenal. So they get it done. What this does is penalize retirees who take advantage of that. I turn to the spirit, versus the letter, of the law.”
Whitney and his fellows respect the need for review, but they want to find a less burdensome way to go about it. He said the current system costs retirees enormously in financial and emotional stress
“We've had to make peace that we lost our God-chosen profession. We've made peace with our retirement,” Whitney said. “Now let us be.”