April 15, 2014

Officer battling cancer leaves Fort Worth POA pushing for policy change

Fellow Fort Worth police officers rally to help officer D.D. Willingham, who has lung cancer and is trying to arrange to retire early and keep health care benefits.

Donations continue to pour in for a Fort Worth police officer with terminal cancer who plans to “purchase time” from the city so she can retire early with full health benefits.

Officer D.D. Willingham had been working in a light-duty job after being diagnosed with lung cancer, with hopes of making it to September, when she becomes eligible for retirement.

But she was forced to take leave this month because of a city policy that previously was not enforced in the Police Department.

Friends say she has been forced to take out a sizable loan with plans to pay forward some $32,000 into the retirement fund, which would allow her to retire early but still receive full benefits.

“The problem is she needs to get to [retirement] to have her health care taken care of,” said Richard Van Houten, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers’ Association. “Obviously, in her condition, health care is extremely important.”

To help their co-worker, Detective Charla Smith and others recently held a fundraising luncheon and bake sale and created a website for donations.

“She literally walked into the bake sale the other day and offered to donate, not realizing it was for her,” Smith said. “This is who we’re fighting for. She is the most incredibly sweet, Godly woman that I’ve ever known. She has held her head high with disease and everything, smiling, encouraging other people, saying ‘God is going to get me through.’ ”

By Tuesday, the website alone had garnered more than $17,000 in donations.

“Due to the overwhelming response from our fellow officers, friends and family, our community and officers and supporters from around the country, the retirement issue has been resolved based on contributions from this site and other fund-raising events,” an announcement posted on the website Monday afternoon said.

Any additional donations, the post said, will assist Willingham with pending medical expenses.

‘She’s incredible’

Willingham, who has been with the department since 1990, did not share her cancer diagnosis and treatment with several of her fellow officers and continued to work full time as a neighborhood patrol officer.

At one point, Smith said, “we saw her collapse getting out of her patrol car. Even while she was undergoing all that, she was trying to keep it quiet but that’s the type of lady she is. She’s incredible.”

With the collapse bringing her secret to light a couple of years ago, Willingham transferred to the south sector’s criminal investigation division, working to file cases for detectives.

“Her doctor has been telling her that she shouldn’t be coming in but she was desperate to stay with it,” Smith said. “This lady has struggled to fulfill every duty until she gets too ill and even then, she would come in when she could.”

Fellow officers donated some of their own vacation time — 5,171 hours in all — to help Willingham when she was too ill to work.

“We have been able to donate time to take care of D.D.,” Van Houten said. “We all felt that was the right thing to do.”

But city policy also forced officers to stop donating vacation time to Willingham.

Noncompliance with the rules

Van Houten said that though city rules regarding light-duty work and donated vacation time are nothing new, the department previously had “the capability of taking care of our own.”

But a special order in October, approved by Police Chief Jeff Halstead, states that in accordance with city regulations, limited-duty assignments for employees with nonwork-related illness or injuries could not last longer than six months. Those unable to return to full time after that period will be referred to participate in the “employment options process” and no longer be able to receive vacation leave donations.

A second officer, Billy Gray, has also become ensnared in the recently enforced policy, Van Houten said.

“Here’s a rule that’s been on the books for probably 15, 20 years or more and why is it that, as of October 2013, that the Police Department is just now being forced to comply with it?” Van Houten asked.

Halstead said he had asked his staff to conduct an internal audit three or four years ago because of the number of officers on injury leave.

“It was a concern to me because I knew with the budget situation, I needed every police officer position staffed and answering calls or … helping to solve crime,” Halstead said.

Through that audit, Halstead said, he learned that the department was not in compliance with city policy, which he said bothered him because officers are tasked with upholding and enforcing laws.

Halstead said he formed a task force to work with human resources in bringing the department into compliance. He said the special order issued in October was to alert officers that “these are the rules and these are how the rules are going to be applied from this day forward because they were not being applied in the past.”

Exploring her options

Because Willingham had been on light duty longer than six months, an “employment options” meeting was held among April 9 with Willingham, human resources and police personnel.

“At these meetings, employees who have come to the end of their time on limited duty are informed about their employment options going forward,” city spokesman Bill Begley said in an email.

Begley said employees are informed about both city and non-city sources of assistance, including the employee assistance program, alternative employment within the city, and disabilities and reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He said Willingham has until June 8 to decide which option she’d like to pursue.

Van Houten scoffed at what the city considered “options” and lashed out at the city’s attempt to take away Willingham’s and Gray’s guns and badges. He commended Halstead for getting involved and returning the items to the officers.

“The ‘options’ that have been laid out for these employees are all negative with life-changing consequences,” Van Houten said. “Any employee meeting with a sworn police officer that begins with the confiscation of their badge and gun is very negative and seen as punishment. To a sworn officer that has put their life on the line upholding their oath of office, the badge and gun are a part of their identity and a source of pride. To strip them of that for nothing more than being stricken with a serious illness is incomprehensible.”

‘The human factor’

Van Houten said the association hopes to work with city leaders in developing a policy that allows department heads to manage employees as they see fit and help “salvage the careers” of the affected officers.

He said he wants the new policy to take into account “the human factor.”

“Here you have a person fighting for their life, and she has put over 20 years of service, putting on the badge, strapping on her gun, putting on her bulletproof vest and serving the public,” Van Houten said. “And now, at her greatest time of need, we abandon her?”

In the pre-council meeting Tuesday, Councilman Jungus Jordan asked for a briefing from the city staff on policies affecting Willingham and the details of her case.

Halstead said he agreed that city leaders should discuss the policy but also cautioned that creating a policy that is fair and consistent to all employees across every department is a complicated matter.

“We also have to remain very consistent,” Halstead said. “Every personnel issue is going to bring a new issue to light maybe we haven’t considered in the past. Without a doubt, D.D. was a very challenging decision for us because she worked so long and hard to serve the city. I don’t think the intent of the policy was to harm someone like D.D.”

Staff writer Caty Hirst contributed to this report.

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