In response to a recent Inquirer investigation, Philadelphia City Councilmember Allan Domb is to introduce a resolution Thursday calling for a hearing to examine how abuse of a generous medical benefits program is contributing to an existing manpower shortage within the Police Department.
The newspaper’s story, “MIA: Crisis in the Ranks,” published Feb. 1, found that at least 652 officers were labeled “injured on duty” on a 2021 list shared between the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office, a figure that had more than doubled since 2017.
Pennsylvania’s Heart and Lung Act ensures that cops, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters injured in the line of duty are able to collect 100% of their salaries, and don’t have to pay state or federal taxes, amounting to at least a 20% raise. The Inquirer found that multiple officers who were supposedly too hurt to do police work managed to simultaneously hold down second jobs, in violation of a police directive.
“We have to make sure that those abuses that you outlined in that article are looked into, and prosecuted if there’s a violation,” Domb said. “That hurts everybody. And it’s not just the police — it could be any other department. We have to make sure that we’re diligent. It’s taxpayer money.”
There is no cap on how long officers can stay out, or how many times they can submit a claim during their careers. During the 2021 fiscal year, the city spent $24 million on salaries for police officers who had been designated injured on duty.
Doctors selected by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 treat officers who file Heart and Lung claims. Last year, those doctors designated all but 65 of the 652 injured cops as “no duty,” meaning they were unavailable to handle even tasks such as filing paperwork, answering phones, or testifying in court.
Domb’s resolution calls for two committees — Public Safety, Labor and Civil Service, and Fiscal Stability and Intergovernmental Cooperation — to hold the hearings. It was cosponsored by Councilmembers Cherelle L. Parker, Curtis Jones Jr., Katherine Gilmore-Richardson, Mark Squilla, Cindy Bass, Derek Green, Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Isaiah Thomas.
“There’s no negativity here. No one is pointing a finger at anyone,” Domb said. “We just want to make sure [the police department] is properly staffed.”
Between unfilled positions and cops who were unavailable due to injury, the police force is short more than 1,100 officers. Roughly 14% of patrol cops — about one in every seven — are listed as injured on duty, according to an Inquirer analysis of internal police documents.
Compared with other cities, Philadelphia has a vastly higher percentage of its entire police force — 11% — out of work due to injuries. In Portland, about 1.9% of officers are out with injuries. In Chicago, that number is 3.3%.
“If an officer experiences an injury, they should be allowed to access medical leave,” Domb said. “However, the city must also be diligent to manage the program to avoid any kind of misuse, and to keep the public trust.”
The Inquirer identified four current officers who worked at other jobs while they were on Heart and Lung, and another who for months played on a traveling softball team.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said she immediately checked to see whether those officers had been the subject of prior Internal Affairs investigations.
“If not,” she said, “we initiated one right away.”
Domb’s resolution notes that staffing shortages leads to the use of more police overtime. During the 2021 fiscal year, the department’s overtime budget was exceeded by 127%.
Outlaw said she considers Heart and Lung abuse to be a “slap in the face” to cops who report to work everyday, especially those who continued to show up throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and during the civil unrest that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer, and the police shooting death of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia.
FOP president John McNesby has declined interview requests. The union, however, agreed last year to a provision in a three-year, $133 million contract with the city to limit Heart and Lung benefits to officers who are injured while involved in “the protection of life and property, enforcement of laws, and/or investigation of crimes.”
In 2003, a year before Heart and Lung benefits became available, just 19 cops in Philadelphia were listed as injured on duty. By 2008, the number of injured officers had climbed to nearly 300 and has since more than doubled.
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart has said she will review Heart and Lung as part of an upcoming audit of the Police Department that was requested by Council.
“We have to find out how much [of the Heart and Lung benefits] is being properly applied, and how much is being misused,” Domb said. “We have to put all eyeballs on this, because this is not right.”