Nearly two decades ago, when the Los Angeles Police Department was tainted by the Rampart scandal and struggling to attract recruits, city leaders cast about desperately for a way to keep veteran officers from leaving. Their solution was to propose a generous enticement to retirement-age personnel: If they worked an additional five years, they could collect their salary and their pension simultaneously. The salary they could spend right away, but the pension benefits would be paid into a savings account where it would grow 5% per year until they finally left the job.
What a deal! The Deferred Retirement Option Plan was pitched to voters in 2001 as a way to keep experienced police officers and firefighters on the job at no extra cost. (The proposal, which faced no organized opposition, was approved by a 3-to-1 margin.) But the program hasn't quite worked out that way.
A new Times investigation found that rather than keeping senior staff on the job, DROP seems to encourage people to perform less work — nearly half of its participants go out on injury leave after they enroll in the program. Some workers file claims within days of signing up for DROP. Some spend months and even years on disability, often for routine, age-related problems, including high blood pressure, carpal tunnel syndrome and bad joints. Under state law, such ailments are presumed to be work-related for public safety employees.
Sure, police and firefighters have physically demanding jobs, and they are more likely to experience cumulative ailments later in their careers. Still, there's clearly too little scrutiny to prevent workers from gaming the system. Former firefighter Thomas Futterer, an avid runner and Long Beach resident, injured his knee "misstepping off the firetruck" three weeks after entering DROP and stayed off the job for a year because of the injury. Yet Times reporters found that a Thomas Futterer from Long Beach ran a half-marathon in Portland, Ore., less than two months after the injury. Futterer didn't respond to requests for comment and his attorneys refused to confirm whether he ran the race.
Worse, there's a perverse financial incentive for employees to enter program and file for injuries. DROP participants who file workers' compensation claims continue to amass pension payments while collecting a full salary for up to 12 consecutive months. And while they're on disability for a job-related injury, their paychecks are exempt from state and federal taxes.
Capt. Tia Morris spent nearly two years on disability and sick leave for various ailments while enrolled in DROP. Her husband, Percy Morris, a detective, missed more than two years of work for similar injuries and ailments. While receiving their salaries and pension benefits, they spent some of their time recovering at their condo in Cabo San Lucas and starting a family theater production company.
The justification for the DROP program is that it keeps experienced veterans on the job longer. But is the city really getting the bang for its buck when so many workers in the program are on paid leave, and the city has to backfill their shifts? Who knows? No one in City Hall has seriously studied the financial impact of DROP, despite numerous warnings that the program has flaws.
Indeed, DROP was controversial from the beginning. There is no screening of applicants, nor any assessment of whether their skills are needed. In 2003 — just one year after the program began — a high-ranking LAPD official argued that the police chief should get to decide who can enter DROP.
"A chief needs the ability to decide for the good of the department. Yet as it stands, the chief doesn't have that ability," said then-Assistant Chief George Gascon. (He's now the San Francisco district attorney.)
Then-Councilman Dennis Zine also complained that some fire and police personnel were abusing the program by filing for disability shortly after enrolling in DROP. "This is a problem that could become a huge problem," Zine warned. And in 2006 the city administrative officer warned that police and firefighters filed "significantly" more injured-on-duty claims while they were in DROP and that the mayor and City Council should address the issue during contract negotiations.
That didn't happen. Los Angeles leaders have continued to parrot their support for DROP even as other cities around the state have canceled their programs. San Francisco suspended pension payments when deferred-retirement participants took disability leave. Yet even after that reform, the city still discontinued the program because it was too expensive.
Los Angeles is long overdue for a serious reevaluation of DROP. It's a pricey program that may not be necessary anymore and is ripe for abuse.