It wasn’t that long ago when one of every seven Buffalo police officers was out on leave because of on-the-job injuries.
Even worse, some were suspected of scamming the system.
Eighteen months later and after a crackdown of sorts that included the high-profile prosecution of two Buffalo cops, the number of officers on leave is down 70 percent.
What that means in numbers and bodies is that 82 officers have returned to work or retired. All told, those officers represent more than $6 million in pay and benefits.
“Something was wrong,” said Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda. “There was a time when we had no idea why people were off or when they were coming back.”
In July of last year, Derenda, at the direction of Mayor Byron W. Brown, set out to correct what city officials say was one of the highest injured-on-duty rates in the state.
It was an effort that resulted in a series of reforms within the department and an ongoing FBI investigation into officers suspected of abusing the system.
“There was a temptation to just remain injured on duty,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., “but if officers are fit for duty, they should report.”
Even more important than the prosecutions, perhaps, is a new arbitration process that allows for injured-on-duty cases, especially those involving conflicting medical opinions, to go before a neutral third party.
The Buffalo Police Benevolent Association agreed to the process and in return received a guarantee from the city that injured officers will receive quicker evaluation and treatment.
In the past, it wasn’t unusual for officers to wait months for the city to order diagnostic tests and begin medical care.
“The PBA stepping up to the plate helped to block the logjam on this issue, and I think both sides are now moving in the right direction,” said Thomas H. Burton, a lawyer for the union. “But in my eyes, what’s even more important is ensuring that officers who are injured promptly get the treatment they need to get back on the job.”
In Hochul’s eyes, one of the biggest causes behind the sky-high caseload was New York State’s benevolent approach to officers injured on the job.
Not only do they get a paycheck, their pay is untaxed.
Hochul says the extra income – an officer injured on duty can see his paycheck increase by more than 30 percent – has served as incentive for mischief and abuse.
He also thinks his office’s prosecution of officers accused of falsely posing as injured cops – two are facing charges, and Derenda says more are coming – has sent a message to every officer on leave and helped to drive down the number of injured-on-duty cases.
“There’s a strong correlation,” said Christopher M. Piehota, special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office. “People now know this is a problem the Buffalo Police Department wants to address, the FBI is willing to investigate and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is willing to prosecute.”
Of the 82 officers who are no longer on leave, more than half have retired, some of them with disability pensions.
The rest have either returned to full duty or been assigned to light duty, such as desk work.
Derenda and Brown are careful to note that not all officers are abusing the system and that those who are legitimately injured on duty deserve everything the department can do for them.
“We understand it’s a very dangerous job,” Brown said, “and in no way, shape or form do we believe that all officers on IOD are doing the wrong thing,”
He and Derenda, however, draw the line at those who are cheating the system.
“Some are probably nervous and should be,” Derenda said of the officers who are retiring.
The high number of officers injured on duty came to light last year and took on an even greater urgency when federal prosecutors charged Robert Quintana and Patrick S. O’Mara with fraud in May.
The two officers – O’Mara is now retired – are accused of faking their injuries as part of scheme to cheat the city. O’Mara and Quintana, a former Common Council member, had been out on leave for seven years.
“He has indicated he is not guilty of any of these charges,” Barry Covert, Quintana’s attorney, said at the time of Quintana’s arrest, “and he looks forward to being able to defend himself.”
Hochul thinks the Quintana and O’Mara cases sent a clear message to rank-and-file officers that Derenda is serious about cracking down on injured-on-duty abuse.
Even more importantly, he said, that message contributed to the dramatic drop in officers on leave and the corresponding increase in officers on the street. He also thinks it will save the city money in overtime.
“This is a win for taxpayers,” Hochul said. “It’s also a win for the other officers who patrol the streets and for the residents who depend on good police protection.”
Derenda said Brown had those goals in mind when he directed him to review the injured-on-duty system with an eye toward reforming it.
The result was a new case management system that emphasized quicker evaluation and treatment for officers on leave, as well as a new system of handling conflicting medical opinions.
The city also is using a new doctor, as well as a Buffalo police officer who is a nurse, to monitor cases.
Brown says the results – the numbers of officers on leave is down to 34 from a high of 116 – speak for themselves.
“From a public safety perspective, to get those officers back on the job is critically important,” he said.
Burton is quick to point out the police union brought about the biggest reform – an arbitration process that has so far resulted in at least 30 cases being resolved.
The process, he said, has helped put an end to a treatment and evaluation system that was haphazard at best.
“In the past, how you were treated with an on-duty injury was whimsical,” he said.
Burton said the next logical step is for the city and the union to work together so they can better understand why these injuries take place.
“The fact that these cases are being resolved is good,” he said. “The next step is to look at what causes these injuries and how to prevent them.”