Heat stroke isn't usually the most lucrative turning point in a person's career. But when Donald Barnes Jr. collapsed during a jog on his 10th day of police training, he went on long-term leave, picking up almost $500,000 in tax-free disability over the following 15 years, with the promise of another $1.2 million in pension when he retires, despite never actually working a day.
Barnes was a 30-year-old trainee when he was hit with heat stroke five blocks into a three-mile jog, reports the Chicago Sun-Times, and suffered kidney and liver failure. He had surgery, went through rehab, and has walked with a brace and a slight limp ever since.
After a year of sick leave, Barnes began collecting monthly disability checks, totaling $46,343 a year, while working a second job managing car parks at the city's two largest airports. Police officers are the only public employees in Chicago allowed to work other jobs while on disability, the Sun-Times reports.
Despite less than two weeks in training, Barnes has technically been a disabled officer for 14 years. So he will retire at 63 with full pension.
The police department's disability policy is intended to support officers who sustain injuries in the line of duty. That's been a particular risk in Chicago recently, where the gang war has been heating up with dozens of people shot each week. The policy is set up to keep officers financially secure if an on-the-job trauma derails their career.
But Barnes and one other Chicago officer were just trainees when their dreams of policing were prematurely thwarted, leaving them free to pursue other work, while at the same time receiving sizable taxpayer-funded checks in the mail each month. There are currently 347 police officers on disability in Chicago, and it costs the city $18 million a year, reports The Associated Press.
Police departments in other parts of the country have similarly generous disability systems -- which can be ripe for exploitation. An investigation in Bell, Calif., in January found that seven of 13 disability retirements awarded to officers there were "not justified based on existing medical evidence." In Montgomery County, Md., officers have been able to claim disability, and then leave the force, get a new job, and still keep two-thirds of their annual salary for life. Not surprisingly, in the last eight years, disabilities counted for 77 percent of public safety employee retirements, reports The Washington Post.
Montgomery County introduced a new system on July 1, however, in the hope of curbing abuse. From now on, lightly disabled officers will only be eligible for 52.5 percent of their annual salaries.
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