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Controversial retirement program for L.A. police and firefighters would be reformed under new proposal

Controversial retirement program for L.A. police and firefighters would be reformed under new proposal
Mayor Eric Garcetti Garcetti has proposed changes to the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, which would suspend pension payments for police officers and firefighters who miss significant time due to injury or illness. (Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Friday announced reforms to the city’s controversial retirement program that pays veteran police officers and firefighters their salaries and pensions simultaneously for the last five years of their careers.

Under the plan, Garcetti said pension payments would be suspended for officers who miss significant time due to injury or illness. Those officers will still collect their salaries while they are off work recovering from their ailments.

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A Los Angeles Times investigative series this year found that nearly half of the officers who have joined the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) since its inception in 2001 have taken injury leaves, typically for bad backs, sore knees and other conditions common with advancing age, regardless of profession. The average absence was about 10 months, but The Times found hundreds of cases of individuals who had taken off for more than a year at essentially twice their usual pay.

The list includes a married couple — a police captain and a detective — who joined DROP at around the same time and collected nearly $2 million while in the program. They both filed claims for carpal tunnel syndrome and other cumulative ailments about halfway through the program. She spent nearly two years on disability and sick leave; he missed more than two years, according to a Times analysis of city payroll data. The couple spent at least some of their paid time off recovering at their condo in Cabo San Lucas and starting a family theater production company with their daughter, The Times found.

A former firefighter hurt a knee “misstepping off the fire truck,” three weeks after entering DROP, according to city records. The injury kept him off the job for almost a full year. Less than two months after the knee injury, he crossed the finish line of a half-marathon in Portland, Ore., The Times found.

“These improvements will prevent abuse, and help us make sure we’re putting every available resource into making our city safer for Angelenos,” Garcetti said in a news release announcing the measure.

The proposed reform would suspend pension payments to any officer or firefighter in DROP who does not work at least 112 hours on active duty in any given month — that’s about two weeks for a firefighter and nearly three weeks for a police officer. The rule would be waived for anyone who sustains an injury in the line of duty that puts them in the hospital for three days or longer.

The change, which has support from leaders of the politically powerful police and firefighters unions, is scheduled to go into effect early next year pending approval of the City Council.

For years there have been rumors that officers were turning the program — which has issued more than $1.7 billion in extra pension checks — into extended leave with twice the pay. But city leaders never studied the rate at which DROP participants take injury leaves after joining the program or the cost of those often prolonged absences.

The Times reviewed thousands of pages of workers’ compensation files and tens of millions of computerized payroll and pension records from July 2008 to July 2017 and found that police and firefighters in DROP were nearly twice as likely to miss work for injuries, illness or paid leave.

DROP participants have missed more than 3 million hours of work for leaves and sick time and been paid more than $276 million for the unexpected time off, The Times found.

Any officer or firefighter who is 50 years old with 25 years on the job is eligible for the lucrative program, which was billed as a way to keep senior officers on the job a few years longer. There is no screening of candidates based on job performance or attendance.

A previous effort at reform in 2008 required police and firefighters to be on active duty on the day they joined the program.

In the decade since that rule was implemented, nearly 300 police and firefighters took injury leaves within six months after entering DROP, records show. Two people started leaves on the very next shift, and many didn't wait much longer.

An LAPD detective who had filed at least nine workers' compensation claims and taken a year off for a knee he hurt standing up from his desk before entering DROP worked three shifts after joining the program. Then he took off another year for cumulative trauma to his hips, buttocks and tailbone. He came back to work briefly, then began a third yearlong injury leave after hurting his back lifting a case of paper at the office.

He was paid nearly $500,000 for the time, records showed.

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A fire captain had taken long leaves for ankle injuries suffered playing volleyball on-duty and horsing around with co-workers while washing dishes at the fire station before she entered DROP in 2012. She worked three shifts before taking half the next five years as paid time off. In April 2017, she went on leave after she said a computer hard drive fell off a desk injuring her right ankle, left knee, left hip and lower back.

The city paid her more than $1.3 million while she was in DROP, including $645,000 for the time off, according to the payroll data.

The reform Garcetti and the unions proposed Friday affects only people in the program who take long or frequent injury leaves; it does not address the central question of whether DROP — which was sold to voters as a no-cost way to retain veteran officers — makes financial sense.

Many other cities, including San Diego and San Francisco, experimented with DROP programs before abandoning them because of the expense. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who initiated the program as a way to appease the police union during a tumultuous period in city politics, recently told The Times it was a mistake.

In 2016, Garcetti and leaders of the Los Angeles City Council ignored a confidential report from former Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana urging them to eliminate, or drastically amend, the program.

Basing his conclusions on an actuarial study of the program, Santana warned city leaders that DROP "is not and has never been cost neutral.”

The original rationale for creating the program, a feared exodus of senior Los Angeles Police Department officers after a corruption scandal within the department in the late 1990s, was no longer a threat, the report showed.

And there had never been a reason to include firefighters in the program because the city has no problem retaining them, Santana added. On the rare occasions when the city has job openings for firefighters, the department gets far more applicants than it can possibly hire.

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Garcetti and leaders of the City Council committee that negotiates labor contracts — all of whom receive significant financial support from the police and fire unions — ignored Santana’s recommendations.

After the Times investigation this year, Garcetti and the City Council leaders called on the police and fire pension plan to commission a new actuarial report of DROP’s cost-effectiveness. That report is expected to be completed in about a month, according to Ray Ciranna, general manager of the fund.

Jack Humphreville, a frequent critic of city spending, said the double-dipping allowed by the DROP “stinks,” but he does not expect the program to be eliminated anytime soon. “I think the odds of that are about zero, I don’t think Garcetti is willing to take on the unions.”

Top administrators of the police and fire departments also have a strong incentive to preserve the program, which deposits the extra pension payments into a special account that the employee receives when he or she formally retires.

Since 2008, 61 members of the departments with “chief” in their title — assistant chief, deputy chief, battalion chief — have completed the program. Of those, six have walked away with more than $1 million, according to a Times review of city data. Their average payment was $794,000.

Newly appointed LAPD Chief Michel Moore’s DROP payment was $1.27 million. His retirement began at the end of January and lasted only a few weeks, before he returned to his old job at the same pay through an unusual arrangement approved by Garcetti.

After his promotion to chief in June, Moore now collects nearly $600,000 a year from city coffers — about $350,000 a year in salary from the Police Department and $240,000 a year from the police and fire pension fund

4:50 p.m.: This story was updated with additional reporting.

This article was originally published at 10:50 a.m.

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