The alarm clock pierces through the pre-dawn silence of the bedroom, summoning a groggy police officer from the slumber he felt like he just entered after his overtime tour ended just 8 hours before.
He gets up, kisses his daughters, puts the uniform back on and goes back to work; just as he did every day before the global Coronavirus pandemic struck our nation.
Just like his brethren in law enforcement, fire and emergency medical service from Seattle to Miami; this officer goes to work knowing he’ll be in close contact with the infected, and hopes that he won’t be the next in an unprecedented line of first responders becoming statistics of the virus.
Law enforcement officers and firefighters are keenly aware of the inherent dangers unique to their chosen profession. However, as COVID-19 continues to spread around the country,
America’s first responders have become increasingly vulnerable to contracting the virus. While most citizens are ordered to stay at home and socially distance, these men and women in the law enforcement and fire service communities have no choice but to make due with a paper mask and rubber gloves — and enter people’s homes during their worst moments. As a result, the death toll of law enforcement, fire and emergency medical service personnel is growing at an alarming rate.
What’s worse is that there is a growing battle amid the red tape and political leadership in states to classify these heroic casualties as "line of duty deaths" (LODDs).
Similar to the recent battle that played out in the House of Representatives over extending 9/11 first responder death benefits to the families of those who died of cancers and respiratory diseases due to their work at Ground Zero; the current COVID-19 crisis puts a spotlight on the costs and complexities involved with taking care of a hero’s family after they die in the line of duty, especially when their deaths are not as clear cut as having happened at the hands of a gunman, car accident or fire.
This question, which probably should have been memorialized into policy after the hundreds of first responders lost following 9/11 has caused local mayors, union presidents and first responder families to challenge representatives for immediate answers.
In order to declare a "line of duty" death, there are a lot of definitions that have to be met for the first responder in question. It has to be proven that they received the virus in the line of duty, which means you have to account for the calls for service they went on that may have exposed them to COVID-19, which is not easy for law enforcement as they contact numerous people for a variety of reasons each day.
This accounting proves important for the jurisdiction that employs the first responder because each line of duty death carries a lifetime budgetary responsibility.
Without an LODD designation, the family of a first responder receives that responder’s life insurance payout, which is normally three and a half times the salary of the last year worked.
Therefore, a police officer with an annual base salary of $65,000 would mean a one-time payoff of $195,000 with no health benefits included for the surviving spouse and no college funds for surviving children. Considering the numbers of dead in expensive states like New York and California, that money wouldn’t last very long.
However, if the death is deemed to be in the line of duty, the surviving family will receive, for their lifetime, between 45% and 75% of their first responder spouse’s salary and free benefits for between the remaining projected career length of the responder (normally 20 years) to life, depending on the jurisdiction.
In addition, unions and charitable organizations have funds for the families of those who died in the line of duty, which may include free college tuition for the children of fallen first responders. This is why it is vital for the government to cut through the bureaucracy to create a uniform policy to classify LODDs.
Like in many factors regarding first responder funding, the designation of an LODD is often based on the support given to the first responder community by the local political leaders in a particular jurisdiction.
For example, I personally recall a circumstance where a Police Sergeant I knew was murdered while trying to stop a carjacking off duty. Initially, the agency tried to get out of classifying the Sergeant’s death as LODD because it happened after his shift had ended.
Some agencies, during the HIV/AIDS crisis three decades ago tried to unlawfully ask their members who were exposed to blood borne pathogens while on the job if they were sexually promiscuous when these members required disability pensions for their affliction with the [then] deadly virus.
Meanwhile, other more supportive jurisdictions are looking at LODDs amid the COVID-19 crisis by simply asking, "If they weren’t on the job, would they even be out and exposed to this virus in the first place?"
Unfortunately, current policy in most jurisdictions puts the burden of proof on the survivors and unions to prove the first responder had likely contracted COVID-19 while on duty for the death to be classified as an LODD. Current state and federal legislation seeks to ease that burden of proof by survivors and make it automatically in the line of duty death.
As a former law enforcement officer with over five friends who have been infected and [luckily] survived COVID-19 so far, I personally hope our legislators can take care of our first responders in a far more expedient way than how they funded our brethren who perished from 9/11; as the stakes are now nationwide and can ripple throughout future recruitment pools for generations to come.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his two and a half decade career and own experiences on both sides the criminal justice system. Mannes has served in both federal and municipal law enforcement though the 9/11 attacks, DC-area sniper investigation, major homeland security exercises and natural disasters as well as having to face a charge for the later-ruled unconstitutional DC gun law. Thereafter, Mannes served for nearly 9 years as the Director, Office of Investigations for North America’s largest medical board, as a Chief Compliance Officer, consultant, expert witness, nonprofit board member and political adviser. Read A. Benjamin Mannes's Reports — More Here.
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