Posted on Nov 10, 2014

Logo of Milwaukee Police DepartmentWhen a police officer is accused of serious misconduct, the only fair thing to do is carry out a thorough investigation. But in Milwaukee, officers are using the “stress” of these investigations to collect duty disability retirement benefits.

The reoccurring narrative goes something like this: When a police officer is accused of misconduct, an investigation ensues. During the investigation, local media will invariably portray the officer in an unflattering light. Then, the officer claims the stress from the investigation has rendered him or her unable to continue working.

If the Milwaukee Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) approves their claim, they receive retirement benefits identical to officers who suffer debilitating physical injuries. Even though these officers could be assigned desk jobs, they get paid to do nothing instead, courtesy of the Milwaukee taxpayers.

These “disabled” officers receive 75 percent of their salary tax-free (so their take-home pay is about the same) and even get raises as if they’re still working every day. Since 2006, five officers who’ve faced investigations have received over $1 million dollars, according to the ERS.

Such benefits are certainly appropriate for officers seriously injured in the line of duty, but should Milwaukee taxpayers be so accommodating to officers accused of criminal conduct? It gets even more controversial when you consider the circumstances.

In 2011, Officer Jason Bleichwehl was one of three officers who denied medical attention to a suspect who was gasping for air in the back of a squad car. Although an inquest jury recommended criminal charges, none were filed.

The decision not to file charges was controversial in and of itself. Granting disability benefits to Bleichwehl only makes it worse.

Another officer receiving benefits is former Sergeant Jason Mucha, who was involved in the strip search scandal. Mucha supervised four officers who were later charged in connection with illegal strip searches, though Mucha himself was never charged.

Still, Mucha claims the publicity from the scandal left him paranoid, depressed and suicidal. Interestingly, he was still able to reclaim nine guns taken from him due to his mental health. Somehow, he’s mentally stable enough to own nine guns, but not quite stable enough for a desk job.

As if the disability benefits weren’t enough, Mucha has recently filed a lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee and others. Who knows how much this will cost taxpayers when it’s all said and done?

While Bleichwehl and Mucha both eluded criminal charges, even a felony conviction wouldn’t necessarily have denied them their benefits.

By law, any officer convicted of a felony must be fired. But if an officer’s disability claim is approved before the felony conviction, he still receives the benefits. Essentially, the current system could force Milwaukee taxpayers to pay convicted felons to do nothing for the rest of their lives.

Take recently fired Officer Christopher Manney for example. After shooting and killing Dontre Hamilton in a public park, Manney was fired six months later after much public outcry. Despite shooting Hamilton 14 times, he wasn’t fired for using deadly force, but for patting him down beforehand.

Though Manney could still be criminally charged, he has already applied for duty disability retirement benefits. Even if he’s convicted for murder, he’ll still collect retirement benefits if they’re approved.

These payouts put the public in precarious situations. On one hand, investigations and public scrutiny are two of the best mechanisms for holding police accountable. Unfortunately, it’s backfiring as officers are using it to get paid to do nothing.

Jill Erin Wellskopf
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