It's a sobering thing when police have to be forced to obey the law, but that is what appears to be happening with certain members of the Buffalo Police Department.
Between a long-needed crackdown by City Hall and prosecutions by the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Police Department's roster of officers claiming disability payments for work-related injuries is suddenly down by 70 percent. Two officers have been charged with federal crimes and more will be charged, said Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda.
Before the city began focusing on the problem, it had one of the state's highest injured-on-duty rates. That may have been for a couple of reasons. One is the city's foot-dragging on processing claims. The other, more insidiously, is the fact that officers off work because they are injured on duty pay no income tax on their earnings. In effect, they get a raise for being off work.
Not just law enforcement, but any industry would be likely to see dishonest people abusing such a system for personal gain. Police are no more immune to the defects of human nature than anyone else. The difference is that police – who enforce the laws, carry guns and can deprive citizens of their liberty – must necessarily be held to a higher standard.
Until last year, when Mayor Byron W. Brown directed Derenda to correct the problem, the city at the very least tolerated what clearly was chronic abuse of the system. To its credit, the Brown administration moved on this problem on multiple fronts, not only investigating cases more closely and welcoming federal prosecutions, but also working to eliminate the delays that unfairly penalized officers who actually were injured.
Negotiating with the Police Benevolent Association, the city has crafted a new arbitration process that allows for injured-on-duty cases, particularly those involving conflicting medical opinions, to have a hearing before a neutral third party. In agreeing to the process, the union received a guarantee from the city that injured officers would receive quicker evaluation and treatment.
Indeed, the unseen victims of the old system were police officers who truly were injured while performing one of the most dangerous jobs in any society. Those officers deserve prompt, effective care. What is more, no one should care that they don't pay taxes on those earnings; that is little enough to make up for being hurt while protecting us.
But when the system is rife with players, the injured officers can be lumped in with the scammers. Their reputations can suffer and their benefits can be threatened under a system that has been corrupted.Police and the office of U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. have made a strong start on disinfecting the system. They should continue to pursue it, ensuring that injured officers get the care they deserve and that the phonies get the court dates they have earned.