August 11, 2014

Fort Worth police officers hope to extend line-of-duty benefits

City staff recommends denying the extensions for two critically injured officers.

Officer Lisa Ramsey hasn’t been able to patrol Fort Worth’s streets since a line-of-duty shooting in 2003 paralyzed her from the chest down, but Ramsey contends she can still function as a police officer.

“I can’t make typical patrol calls, but there are so many other jobs within the department that I can do,” said Ramsey, who has worked on light duty, or less physically intensive jobs given to officers healing from injuries, since 2005.

But Ramsey, now an investigator in the backgrounds unit, has a fight ahead of her at Tuesday’s City Council meeting to stay an officer.

Police Chief Jeff Halstead said light duty is meant as a temporary solution for officers to heal, and not meant to be permanent because officers should be able to make a forcible arrest. In addition, Halstead said keeping Ramsey and other permanently injured officers employed as police officers takes up positions in the patrol budget, which is already stretched thin.

As of last week, the Police Department had 20 officers injured in the line of duty working limited duties and an additional 25 officers who are not allowed to work at all.

“That is 45 positions that could be filled, but we have to respect the fact that they were injured in the line of duty,” Halstead said, optimistic that many of those officers will heal enough to get back to their full job description.

City staffers recommend that the Fort Worth City Council vote against extending Ramsey’s leave-of-absence benefits because her injury is permanent, but Halstead said they hope to offer Ramsey a civilian job in the Police Department. The council will also vote on extending the leave-of-absence benefits for officer Richard Lambing, who was critically injured during a high-speed chase in 2010.

If the council does not extend the benefits like they have each year since 2004, Ramsey said she will be forced to medically retire, since periodic surgeries require her to take leave of absences, and then she will make about 70 percent what she makes when working. She has been out since mid-March because of surgery and hopes to go back to work next week.

“I am an officer. And I don’t feel I should be punished for being injured in the line of duty. I did my job. I promised to serve and protect the community. I did what I promised to do, and I expected them to do the same,” said Ramsey, 52.

‘Less than an officer’

Ramsey, who was shot while undercover as a narcotics officer trying to arrest a suspected drug dealer, said it is frustrating that she has to ask for the extension of benefits each year.

“It is just like they are constantly kicking at me, just everything they can do to make me feel less than an officer,” she said.

Ramsey, the single mom of a 16-year-old, said she cannot afford to lose her work salary because she incurs extra expenses stemming from her injury. For example, she must take her service dog, who is trained to help with her mobility, to a veterinarian. She can’t wash her own dog, so he needs to be groomed.

“There are just all sorts of little expenses that I think most people take for granted,” Ramsey said.

If Ramsey continues to work as an officer in addition to receiving Lifetime Income Benefits, she makes about $114,000 annually, according to city documents. If she takes a disability retirement, her income shrinks to about $86,000.

Lambing, who was critically injured while assisting the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department on a high-speed chase, is not able to work for the department, but he said he hopes to return to the Police Department “in some capacity.”

Lambing, 41, cannot hear after the crash and requires a walker with wheels or a wheelchair, but he said in an email that that he would like to work at the training academy.

“I would like to complete my career. I only have a few years left,” he said.

“I have 15 years of street experience, and three months of undercover experience from working in the vice unit. I have a wealth of knowledge and experience that I'd love to share,” Lambing added.

Lambing’s current salary is $78,000 and includes a Lifetime Income Benefit of $41,400. He would make $102,170 in disability retirement, according to city calculations.

‘Tough situation’

Despite what Assistant City Manager Susan Alanis called a “tough situation,” she said the city has to apply a broad and fair policy to all employees injured in the line of duty and that they have to ensure there is a “sufficient number of able-bodied police officers to respond to the citizens.”

“These obviously are two very serious incidents of officers who have been injured, but we have a number of people injured who are unable to work full-duty or are unable to work at all, and that has an impact on our ability to deliver services,” Alanis said.

“It is easy to focus on a couple of officers who have particularly catastrophic situations, but we really do have to think about the policy and how we manage our workforce.”

Halstead said Lambing, because of his disabilities, “is not coming back to light-duty status, so it would not make sense to continue that extension when we know he isn’t going to get better.”

“Continuing to extend the benefits doesn’t solve the greater problem, which is that we are going to have police officers injured in the line of duty who may not be able to return to work,” Halstead said.

He said offering the civilian job to Ramsey is a “great opportunity for us to come to a positive conclusion to something that is very complex and personal to a lot of our officers.” It would also free up an officer position to hire, he said.

Ramsey, however, said she has not been offered a civilian position, and that she does not want one.

Rick Van Houten, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, said the city has more than a financial responsibility to its injured officers, but a moral and ethical one as well.

“We go out on a daily basis and suppress the criminals so the citizens can live in safe environment, but in order to that, you have to get in the trenches and fight a war everyday. We get shot at. … We get injured chasing after the bad guys,” Van Houten said.

Setting precedent

Van Houten said the fight to extend the benefits is not just for Ramsey and Lambing, but it is for the entire police force, because it sets a precedent for how the city will handle officers critically injured in the future.

“Do you give them the peace of mind knowing they are going to be taken care of if something that bad happens?” he asked.

Ramsey said it was a “dogfight” last year to get her benefits extended. She plans to present her case to the council tonight.

“Last year, they sat there and talked about all the money they have spent on me, openly discussed it in the session — this much on home health, this much on medical bills, this much on medical equipment. Gosh, are you saying that you would rather I not survived? I would give anything for you not to have to spend that money,” she said of the city.

This report includes information from Star-Telegram archives.

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