The Golden Egg

Being a police officer is undoubtedly a stressful job, but no one knew exactly how stressful until Times staff writers Claire Spiegel and Robert Welkos this week uncovered and detailed the wholesale abuse of stress-disability pensions by police. The word has apparently gotten around the Los Angeles Police Department that if you're tired of being a cop, there's an easy way to get out with a generous pension to boot.

Stress, which is known to be harmful, can be difficult to diagnose, as stress-induced infirmities can be. It is also difficult to say whether stress is caused by one's job or by other factors. Faced with a doctor's letter that a police officer is suffering from stress, the Pension Board says that it has little choice but to grant a disability pension. It is outrageous that this scam has developed and flourished in the last few years and that everyone involved blames someone else for the current state of affairs, in which the public as usual is stuck with the bill.

The system by which police officers get disability pensions is rooted in the city Charter, which was adopted at the turn of the century before stress disabilities were considered. Since then the City Council, the pension commissioners and the courts have expanded the law to include stress pensions, which are granted essentially on the assertion of the police officer involved. There are certainly legitimate claims for stress pensions, and they should continue to be honored, but the startling increase in stress claims in recent years virtually guarantees that they are not all on the up and up. Nobody knows how many fraudulent claims have been granted and how much is being stolen from the pension system as a result.

What can be done to change things that would separate the legitimate claimants from the fakes? The entire system of police disability pensions clearly needs to be reformed in light of the lenient attitude shared by most of its participants. They should be more skeptical of claims and more careful with the public's money.

The financial incentives to fabricating phony claims are many. But there are immediate measures that can and should be taken, some requiring legislation or Charter amendment, to lessen or remove the incentives. No one should be able to make a profit from a stress claim. In some jurisdictions a retired officer will have his disability pension reduced if he subsequently finds work. Since the pension was granted in the first place in lieu of lost income, it is altogether appropriate to reduce it if the pensioner gets another job. The only question here is not whether this should be adopted in Los Angeles but why it hasn't been up to now.

It would also help if the Charter were amended to remove the minimum disability pension of 30% that is now written into the law. The city administrative officer, Keith Comrie, recommended in 1983 that the minimum pension award be lowered to 10% of an officer's salary, but no action has been taken. It's time that the City Council unbottled Comrie's report and recommendations, which have been stuck in committee.

A number of the officers identified in The Times' series as collecting stress pensions had been found guilty of departmental misconduct before putting in for retirement. It is shocking that this is allowed to happen, and it should be stopped immediately. In addition, officers who have received stress pensions in the past should be reexamined in the future to ensure that they still warrant them.

No one is to blame in all of this; in a sense everyone shares the blame. The overworked Pension Board is inadequately staffed to investigate claims. At the moment, it has one half-time city attorney. If Mayor Tom Bradley wanted to make this abuse of the pension system a real priority, he could assign more lawyers and staff members to the board and strengthen the screening process. The Police Department itself has not given enough attention to recognizing and treating job-related stress as it develops and before it becomes incapacitating.

Police pensions have been a thorny problem for years, made worse by revelations of growing abuse of an already generous system. Some things can be done, and the police should realize that unless they are done the displeasure of the public could kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

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