Whenever Samuel Benitez, who now lives in Portland, Ore., even thinks about his old job as a Los Angeles policeman, he says he starts coughing.
And the closer he gets to Los Angeles, the worse the hacking gets. Benitez, 35, claims that the cough is caused by stress from working for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Complaining that the cough disabled him, he recently won a lifetime tax-free disability pension of $1,480 a month, plus $51,390 in back benefits.
Traffic Officer Kenneth Osmond, 41, better known as Eddie Haskell in the 1950s television series "Leave It to Beaver," claims that he too has been disabled by stress, citing two shooting incidents four years ago. He filed for a pension last August--the same month his acting career took off as filming got under way on a new cable television series he's involved with, "Still the Beaver."
Former Patrolman Ronald Barnard, 33, was awarded a stress pension in 1982, after claiming that he had been disabled by harassment from fellow officers due to a suspension for engaging in sex with a teen-age female Explorer Scout.
Although the Los Angeles Board of Pension Commissioners denied his application on the ground of "moral turpitude," Barnard got the pension through a court ruling and today lives comfortably at Big Bear Lake, selling real estate and dabbling in the stock market.
Richard Warren, 38, a motorcycle officer who was awarded a stress pension in 1981 after a judge ruled that Warren had been harassed by superiors over a back injury, said there is nothing wrong with him now. But his monthly pension checks of $1,695 continue, adding to the income from his electrical contracting firm that grossed $500,000 last year, he said.
Where police officers once claimed that bad backs and weak hearts forced them to surrender their badges early, an increasing number of young officers are now going off the job complaining of upset stomachs, irritable bowels, headaches and nightmares caused by stress.
Once scorning psychiatric counseling as an unmanly admission of weakness, officers are now winning stress pensions in growing numbers.
In the Los Angeles Police Department, 175 officers won tax-free lifetime pensions for stress-related disorders during the last five years, accounting for almost half of the disability pensions awarded.
$823,000 in Lifetime
An officer awarded a stress pension today will receive an average of $823,000 in current dollars over his lifetime and up to $2.7 million if cost-of-living adjustments are included.
Although other major police agencies in California have also experienced a rise in stress pensions, the phenomenon is particularly acute in the Los Angeles Police Department, which has one of the most generous pension systems in law enforcement.
The Times has found, after a review of more than 100 stress pension cases filed during the last five years in Los Angeles, that applicants are typically officers in their 30s who have reached dead-ends in their careers, often after run-ins with their superiors. Some have been subjects of disciplinary action and even criminal charges.
Among those receiving monthly pension checks are a former vice squad sergeant convicted and fired for shoplifting, a former patrolman fired after sending threats to a police commissioner, two former officers sentenced to probation in connection with a 77th Street Division bookmaking scandal and a former patrolman fired after his alleged involvement in an extortion plot.
In most cases, officers seeking stress pensions have developed an aversion to police work, even though they may still be many years from the department's 20-year service requirement for normal retirement.
Often, they have started outside jobs or businesses that demand more and more of their time. Some of those receiving disability benefits have embarked on careers in real estate, law, private security, construction, photography, entertainment and even law enforcement.
Defending the pension system's generosity, Fred Tredy of the Los Angeles Police Protective League said, "We're a hell of a lot more progressive."
'A Golden Goose'
But Lt. Ed Gagnon, the Police Department's medical liaison officer, contended that the pension system in Los Angeles has become "a golden goose." The vast majority of stress disability claims filed by officers are "totally unjustified," he said.
Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Matthew Hunt, who conducted a study in 1982 of the department's "disturbing" increase in stress pensions, said: "We know for a fact there are people (officers) who are genuinely under stress. There's no doubt about it."
But, "once the word got out . . . there were opportunists," Hunt continued. "It's difficult to fake heart disease or a physical problem, but rather easy to fake--or exaggerate--that you're stressed."
Police Chief Daryl F. Gates acknowledged that there is a recurring problem with phony stress claims, especially from officers who have "run afoul of the department."
"We have incredible situations where we have officers who do something that's improper . . . and then suddenly they get stressed. But then to go and win a workers' compensation award and then, perhaps, a pension after that, is insane. But that's what's happening."
Attorneys who represent officers in stress cases acknowledge that there is abuse of the system, but they say that the vast majority of claims are legitimate.
David Bow Woo, president of the Los Angeles Board of Pension Commissioners, agreed that abusers make up a very small percentage of the total and equated the problem to welfare fraud.
Pension commissioners last year granted 80% of the stress applications they considered, pension department statistics show.
The number of pensions granted for disabilities where job stress was a primary factor has jumped sharply during the last 15 years: 11 were granted from 1970 through 1974, 55 were granted from 1975 through 1979 and 175 were granted from 1980 through 1984, according to city statistics.
The total for the last five years rose to 230, including those officers who won lower pensions for stress that was not job-connected, Police Department statistics show.
By comparison, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, with about 6,200 sworn deputies compared to the Police Department's 6,900 officers, reported that 58 pensions were awarded for job stress during the last five years. And the California Highway Patrol, with about 5,000 uniformed officers, reported 71 pensions for job stress during the same period.
The totals for these two agencies may actually be considerably higher if stress-induced cardiovascular cases are included, officials said.
"California probably has more stress disabilities than all the other states combined," said Ed Donovan, president of the nonprofit International Law Enforcement Stress Organization in Massachusetts. "In Los Angeles, you probably have more stress pensions than anywhere else in the country."
Pensions Are Rare
This is unlike other major cities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Miami, Kansas City and Houston, where stress disability pensions are rare, authorities say, even though police work there is no less stressful than in Los Angeles.
A more likely explanation of why these cities have fewer stress pensions is that most of them offer less-lucrative benefits to police officers and make it more difficult for them to win pensions for stress disorders.
The Los Angeles Police Department--the largest in the state--has one of the most generous pension systems in law enforcement. Disabled officers hired before 1980 are guaranteed between 50% and 90% of their salaries, tax-free, plus cost-of-living increases.
Assuming a stressed-out officer lives to age 72, he would get $2.7 million, according to an estimate by Gary Mattingly, pension department general manager.
These officers--found to be incapable of handling even light-duty police desk work--are free to go get other jobs and still collect their pension checks.
This is unlike some other cities, where a pensioner who gets another job has his benefits reduced.
City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie concluded in a 1983 report on stress pensions awarded to Los Angeles police officers, "It is very likely that individuals who receive such a pension will find employment following retirement."
34 Cases Examined
Comrie's report, which examined 34 stress pensions awarded during a one-year period, found that the officers had an average of 11 years on the force and were typically 36 years old. It was estimated that their benefits would total a combined $63 million over their lifetimes.
Comrie described stress pensions as a "new growth industry" that is further straining the taxpayer-supported system, now $3.5 billion in debt. The city's annual contribution to the pension fund reached $220 million for this fiscal year.
The generous benefits that have become the hallmark of the Los Angeles police pension system were established in the early 1900s under the City Charter, which provides a pension for any officer who "becomes physically or mentally incapacitated."
The payment levels were set long before stress became a common complaint, at a time when most injuries were physical and so severe that "it was presumed that most officers who were injured would be unable to obtain employment elsewhere," Comrie's report said.
'Just as Lucrative'
"It was not contemplated at that time that there would be stress-related disability pensions wherein the member was basically found to be unable to perform his current duties as a police officer but could very easily undertake a second career which would prove to be just as lucrative as his employment as a police officer," the report said.
The city's pension system, which gives higher disability benefits to policemen than to other municipal workers, was designed to ensure that disabled officers could comfortably retire from duty instead of remaining on the street, carrying guns and posing a danger to themselves and the public.
Officers seeking stress pensions usually claim that their stress was caused not so much by field work--shootings, wild chases and stakeouts--but by disillusionment with the job and problems relating to the paramilitary structure of the Police Department.
Some attorneys claim that insensitive and antiquated management practices are to blame.
Harvey Goldstein, a police psychologist in Silver Spring, Md., and former president of the police section of the American Psychological Assn., described the stress pension as "an opportunity of escape" for police officers feeling so trapped and powerless because of rigid management, arbitrary discipline and job burn-out that, "when they see an opening, they're going to take it."
'I Can't Sleep'
Los Angeles attorney Edward Faunce, one of a growing number of attorneys specializing in pension work, said that, for whatever reason, more and more Los Angeles police officers are coming to him and saying:
" 'When I go to work I get a knot in my stomach. I have irritable bowel syndrome. I throw up. I can't eat. I can't sleep.' They're having an actual psychophysiologic reaction to their environment.
"You take them out of that environment and they're fine. They can go get another job. They simply cannot be a policeman anymore."
Ronald Schyvynck, a Devonshire Division officer and Medal of Valor winner who has a stress claim pending, said that since he has been off sick, he does not like even going back to pick up his checks. So Schyvynck, who runs a private investigation business on the side, said he calls ahead from the phone in his company Jaguar "to have somebody bring the check out."
Former vice officer Samuel Benitez has testified that he cannot get close to Los Angeles without coughing--the residual effect of a bout with pneumonia in 1977 and a symptom of his nervousness about police work. Since moving to Oregon, he has established and briefly run a restaurant and has worked in private security, according to his attorney, Mary Ann Healy.
'A Feeling of Tightness'
The pension board concluded in 1983 that Benitez was not disabled, based on six conflicting psychiatric reports.
But the officer took his case to Superior Court, swearing in a declaration last year:
"No one seems to take into account the fact that one of the symptoms of stress I experience, even coming within the city of Los Angeles, because it reminds me so much of the Police Department, is a feeling of tightness, which results in gagging to the point of regurgitation."
Superior Court Judge Julius Title sent the case back to the pension board, asking specifically what light-duty job Benitez would be assigned to do. The board then requested another round of psychiatric examinations, this time by a panel of doctors who concluded that Benitez "may likely lose control and become violent" if assigned to do even light-duty work in the Police Department.
Commission President Woo, who voted with the board's majority to give Benitez a pension, conceded: "I just don't think this is the type of pension that is properly within the system that the voters of Los Angeles intended to grant . . . but I don't think we have any choice."
Difficult to Verify
Ken Staggs, who voted against the pension, said at the hearing that Benitez "must have gotten rid of all the mirrors in his house. . . . I know if I made the statements he made in here . . . I couldn't look at myself forever."
Stress cases are often controversial because it is hard for the pension board to verify the officers' claims. The officers themselves sometimes cannot explain what causes their stress.
When asked at a recent pension hearing what was particularly stressful about his job, Larry Rumple, 38, a Valley Traffic Division officer, said: "I can't really answer that. . . . All of a sudden one day I started getting these headaches and chest pains. I don't know whether it was from supervision or maybe laws that came down in roll call that . . . I objected to."
Other officers are able to cite specific incidents at work that prompted their stress pension applications.
Former officer Robert Burns, 43, said that he was under pressure from processing heavy paper work and releasing PCP suspects from jail, according to psychiatric reports filed with the city. He also said he was being "driven bananas" by a lieutenant who falsely accused him of stealing transistor radio batteries from the station.
Burns, who raised champion show dogs on the side, said he reached his breaking point one day in 1983 when he brought a pedigreed Weimaraner into the police station and was ordered by his boss to " 'Get that goddamned dog out of here!' "
Burns, who had planned to deliver the show dog to a client later in the day, said he felt trapped because the only place he could put the dog was in his Porsche, parked in the hot sun.
"I grabbed the dog, and felt that if I didn't leave I would kill him (his boss)," Burns told a psychiatrist. "My stomach was all tied up in knots. I was going off sick. I was so upset I couldn't drive. . . . I was seething."
A doctor who examined Burns' gastrointestinal system before his pension hearing said Burns should be able to perform any type of duty. But Burns was retired by the pension board and received a $1,610 monthly disability pension after a panel of psychiatrists concluded that, although he was only slightly impaired, police work would significantly aggravate his condition.
Like Burns, many officers claim to have been disabled by stress caused either by overbearing superiors or jeering peers.
Lurid Rumors Cited
Randy McCourt, 39, a former Hollywood Division sergeant who receives a $1,818 monthly pension, said he was stressed out by ridicule and lurid rumors that circulated after he was stopped by police for picking up a transvestite he thought was a hitchhiker.
McCourt said that after the off-duty incident in 1979, he was falsely branded a homosexual and indirectly accused of deviant behavior by a superior during roll call.
Somebody scribbled "Sergeant Fag" on his truck--finally provoking him, in a drunken rage, to riddle his own garage with gunfire.
In 1982, the state 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that McCourt was entitled to a tax-free pension because his stress was caused by the job.
In an interview, McCourt said he could never go back to work as a police officer but that his psychiatric stress--the main reason he got his pension--is now gone.
Works in Security
"A psychiatrist told me I'm the sanest man he ever met," McCourt said, adding that he now works as an internal security analyst handling classified material for a major Southern California aerospace company.
"I advise all policemen it's a simple thing to take advantage of the pension system," McCourt continued. "I advise them that when they get in a jam with the LAPD . . . go for a pension and leave the department. It's not like you're stealing anything."
Less than two years after joining the department, former officer Jeanette Stegen, 25, told an incredible tale that investigators said was apparently cooked up in preparation for a stress pension application:
One late night in 1981, an old high school chum from Montana visited Stegen and her husband in Van Nuys. She claimed that he offered them $3.5 million to assassinate Defense Secretary Casper W. Weinberger. They refused, and he returned the next day at dusk with a Uzi machine gun, whereupon they fled at top speed along a Los Angeles freeway, chased by carloads of Mafia hit men.
When finally stopped by the California Highway Patrol, Stegen repeatedly emphasized that she must be crazy and ended her account, according to an investigator, by asking whether the story would be good enough for a "psycho pension."
Husband Already Retired
Internal Affairs Division investigators concluded that Stegen's story was prompted by her hope of retiring in Idaho with her husband, who had already retired on a disability pension from the Police Department. Stegen was fired after a police trial board found her guilty of perjury in 1983.
She still has a pension claim pending--not for stress, but for injuries she allegedly received while wrestling and doing chin-ups at the Police Academy.
"I still believe that what happened that night happened," said Stegen, who now works in a delicatessen. "How could they not believe me?"
Police Department officials do believe that some officers, in attempts to win pensions, have not only concocted outrageous stories but have gone so far as to stage phony attacks on themselves.
Former Hollywood Division Sgt. Eugene Ingram, 38, sought a stress pension, claiming that he was shot in the back in 1980 as part of a Police Department plot on his life. Ingram's own attorney said at a pension hearing that some police officials "believe the shooting was self-inflicted." The matter was never resolved, but the board denied Ingram his pension.
Car Fired Upon
In another case, former undercover organized crime Detective Michael Rothmiller, who has a stress claim pending, contended that his unmarked police car was fired on in 1982 by a gunman on a motorcycle. The department branded Rothmiller a faker and claimed that he shot up the car to simulate an attack.
Fire Department Assistant Chief Sam Diannitto has served as a pension board commissioner for more than a decade, watching what he described as an "avalanche" of stress-related claims hit the Police Department.
The case that started it, Diannitto recalled recently, was that of a former sergeant who filed a stress claim as he prepared "to step out into a $50,000-plus job."
The sergeant, John Furay, filed his claim April 1, 1976. Having passed the California Bar exam several years earlier, he was working for the department as an officer-attorney defending policemen at disciplinary proceedings.
He also had an outside job doing public relations work for a law firm that represented police officers at state workers' compensation and local pension hearings.
Cited Early Incidents
To buttress his stress disability claim, Furay cited various traumatic incidents that occurred as much as 13 years earlier--like the time he saw "small particles" of a teen-ager's brain floating in a gutter after a shoot-out and when he entered a collapsing building during the 1971 Sylmar earthquake and was afraid that he would "get squashed."
Stating that his most recent problems were a three-year-old back injury and friction with department top brass, Furay contended at his pension hearing that he could not function as an attorney in the Police Department but that he could work in a private law practice.
Four pension commissioners sided with doctors who said that Furay was disabled from police work. Diannitto and two others concluded that Furay was in fact capable of working for the Police Department.
Today, Furay is receiving his monthly pension checks of $1,818 while practicing civil probate and business law in Encino. He said that he has appeared on two occasions before the city pension board to represent clients.
"Sure, being an attorney is a stressful job," Furay told The Times. Asked whether his law practice is more stressful than working for the Police Department, he replied, "I don't want to get into it."
Richard Warren, a former motorcycle officer who receives a $1,695 monthly stress pension, is a prosperous electric contractor.
"Mentally, I'm better off now than 80% of the people on the job," Warren said. And physically, he added, "There is not a thing wrong with me except my bones are getting a little old."
Warren's pension application was initially denied by the board in 1980, primarily because he claimed to be disabled at the same time he was working as a pilot. He later won his pension through the courts.
Superior Court Judge Robert Weil ruled in 1981 that Warren had suffered emotional trauma after he was harassed by the Police Department over a legitimate back injury. He was even placed under house arrest--a practice that was later ruled unconstitutional. The judge ordered the board to give Warren his pension, concluding that he was "permanently disabled on a psychological basis from returning to duty."
Warren said he is doing well today in his new career, with a home in Hawaii and a Mercedes-Benz.
Like Warren and Furay, other police officers over the years have sought stress-related disability pensions and then have gone on to successful outside careers.
TV Career Blossoms
Officer Kenneth Osmond of "Leave It to Beaver" fame applied for a disability pension in August, and two weeks later his acting career blossomed anew when filming began on a new "Beaver" television series.
Osmond, with nearly 15 years' service as a traffic officer, said his stress claim arose from "lingering medical problems" from two shooting incidents in 1980. The first time, he was shot at point-blank range by an auto thief and a bullet-proof vest saved his life. A month later, he was almost shot in the head during a chase.
Ron Barnard, a former Rampart Division officer caught up in an Explorer Scout sex scandal, said he is building a new career selling real estate in Big Bear.
"I'm much more relaxed now," he said. "I'm not the paranoid person I was at one time."
Barnard said his problems with the department began in about 1976, when he received a six-month suspension for having sex with a 16-year-old girl at an Explorer Scout party. After that, his problems multiplied to the point where he thought his phone was tapped by the department and he received threatening letters from fellow officers.
Sees a 'Conspiracy'
"There was a conspiracy to remove me from the job or to have me killed," he told the pension board.
The board denied his stress claim in 1982, but Superior Court Judge John Cole reviewed the case and ordered the board to give Barnard a pension, now amounting to $1,367 a month.
Cole gave virtually no explanation in his ruling, incensing Commissioner Bert Cohen, who unsuccessfully urged that the board "subpoena Cole to come and testify in front of us . . . and to give us his reasons."
Diannitto, also outraged by the court ruling, warned, "There are many more of them (with disciplinary records) coming down the pipeline and there is going to have to be some type of drastic steps to prevent it."
Cole said that he could not remember the case and that even if he could, "I would not want to express my views on any particular case anyway."
A year earlier, Barnard's partner also won a stress pension through the courts after he had been fired for sending threatening letters to a police commissioner.
Told of Prior Lives
The psychiatrists who examined the officer, Eduardo Jiminez, 34, believed that Jiminez was truly psychotic because of the tales he told about his prior lives in which he "wrote the legends on the great pyramids" of the Aztec Indians and defended the Count of Monte Cristo.
Jiminez, who receives a $1,522 monthly pension, contended that his problems were caused when he was ostracized by fellow officers who called him a "faggot" and "militant Puerto Rican."
The board decided that Jiminez's stress was not job-induced, but Superior Court Judge Thomas Johnson disagreed, saying in a brief ruling only that Jiminez deserved a tax-free stress pension because his disability "was caused by the discharge of his duties as a department member."
Johnson said he does not remember the case, but he recalled: "It didn't take an awful lot to show that the stress was work-induced to entitle a person to a pension."
Increasingly, attorneys representing police officers in trouble--with the department or with the law--are arguing that the police environment is to blame.
'It's a Cry for Help'
Orange County attorney Seth Kelsey said: "If the officer is engaged in an alleged illegality, it's because of stress at work. It's a cry for help. . . . I've never had a case where an employee has committed a crime and it has not been the product of a stress-related (job) injury."
Kelsey helped win a stress pension last year for Stephen Rasmussen, 36, after he was fired for various offenses, including drunk driving and the alleged extortion of a Calexico jeweler.
It was not disputed that Rasmussen's history of disciplinary problems stemmed largely from alcoholism. But although at least one doctor said that Rasmussen was predisposed to drinking, Kelsey successfully argued that his alcoholism was caused by police work.
"The majority of pension disability applicants have some disciplinary background," Mattingly of the pension department said. "It just seems to go hand in hand."
Former Sgt. Thomas Freeman, 45, recently won a stress pension of $1,780 a month after he had been fired for shoplifting. Freeman claimed that he stole some clothing from a department store because he was under stress from working on the vice detail four years ago.
He told the pension board in December that he had set himself up to get caught in an unconscious attempt to punish himself for visiting adult bookstores and also because he was depressed over the plight of his paraplegic brother-in-law.
Freeman, who until his firing had an exemplary record, told board members only minutes before they awarded him a pension that he now feels "great" about himself and is no longer seeing a psychiatrist.
Gary Lammers was a super-achiever and SWAT team leader until he ran afoul of top brass in 1977. He filed for a stress pension after his career suddenly collapsed.
Lammers had been assigned as a bodyguard to Los Angeles City Councilman Arthur K. Snyder, and he wound up being accused of having an affair with the woman who was then Snyder's wife.
After long closed-door conversations with Gates, then the department's assistant chief, Lammers was bounced from the prestigious SWAT team to a beat in Watts.
Judge Orders Pension
Soon thereafter, Lammers applied for a stress pension. The board finally granted him $1,700 a month on orders of Superior Court Judge Vernon Foster. The judge ordered that Lammers be given a pension if the department could not give him a job. And the department said there was no police job that city psychologists would give him clearance to do.
Now a licensed general contractor, Lammers declined to discuss his case, saying only, "The pension the city gave me is not that great an amount of money."
Brian Weld, 34, took sick leave the day after he was advised by the Police Department's Internal Affairs Division in 1980 that he was one of several officers in the 77th Street Division being investigated for protecting bookmakers. He later pleaded no contest to a charge of filing false arrest reports and received two years' probation.
But before the case was resolved, Weld persuaded the pension board that his stress stemmed from three shooting incidents that predated the misconduct allegations. The board awarded him a pension that now amounts to $1,444 a month.
"I got 10 years of service in the department," Weld said. "I feel I paid my dues. If the city felt I didn't deserve it (a stress pension), they wouldn't have given it to me."
Assistant City Atty. Siegfried Hillmer, who has been the board's legal counsel for 15 years, said that whenever an officer's career ends in discharge or discipline, "the potential of filing a stress disability claim is great and there's an equally good chance for an award."
"Why not go for it?" Hillmer asked. "It's tempting. The stakes are high. The risks are minimal. And the proof appears to be easy."
NEXT: The pension board.