One Saturday about a year ago, Washington County deputy sheriff Greg Newman was called to quell a domestic battle in the little town of Ivins. When Newman arrived, the husband stopped fighting with his wife long enough to nearly rip the lawman's arm from its socket.
Newman's career ended that afternoon.He had been with the Sandy Police Department for a dozen years and had recently moved his family to Washington County. A full-time Utah peace officer for 14 years, he was 40 years old and six years shy of full retirement. Now his arm was virtually useless. Sorting out his options in the face of that reality, he figured he'd be able to retire on a medical disability. He was wrong.
Newman found out the hard way that his early retirement possibilities had ended two years earlier, when the 1987 Legislature amended the Public Employee Disability Act.
"It's a sad thing to say, but, financially, the officer's family is better off if he dies than if he's disabled," said Al Avila, Sandy Police Alliance spokesman.
Avila said police union officials were unpleasantly surprised to find out that a benefit they had understood as a given has been taken away. And even now, the rank-and-file officers are likely to be unaware that the benefit was lost.
"If you were to take a survey, you would find very few officers are aware they have no medical retirement," he said.
After the legislative action, public employers were left to establish their own disability benefit systems for peace officers. Most have opted for a two-year disability period at partial compensation that usually translates to about two-thirds pay.
At the end of the two-year period, the state determines the extent of the disability. Any officer completely disabled while on the job will continue to get disability pay until age 65, when other retirement benefits kick in.
But "completely disabled" doesn't just mean that the officer can't do police work. If the state retirement board decides the injured person could do a job - any job -that would pay half what the officer was making at the time of the injury, the officer is considered able-bodied. Disability payments would end.
State employee health program staffers say the new system allows larger payments in a shorter period of time than the old system. But police union officials claim that peace officers - whose day-to-day tasks expose them to physical danger and psychological pummeling far beyond what most people ever experience - are being hung out to dry if job-related disabilities force them to leave their jobs before they put in 20 years.
Avila said the two-year disability programs should be replaced with a system comparable to the military or firefighters' retirement. In Utah, firefighters with five years' service who are disabled on the job receive roughly 50 percent of their top pay until other retirement benefits start.
The police unions plan to find a legislator who will sponsor a bill to change the retirement laws once again.
That probably won't help Greg Newman.
After he absorbed the shocking news that his retirement plans were shot, he "stumbled on" the county's medical disability program that gives him partial pay for two years while he trains for a new career. But when the state sent a representative to counsel him about finding a new line of work, "the lady told me I had enough ability and training that I shouldn't need retraining," he said.
He disagrees. "I've been a police officer for all these years. It's kind of hard to do something else."
Some law enforcement departments, usually the larger ones, can shuffle personnel so that officers or deputies who can no longer work in the field are given light duty administrative or investigative jobs.
"If I'd still been with Sandy (police department) and gotten hurt, I'd have been able to go to a desk job," Newman said.
But accommodating injured or psychologically troubled officers by shifting them to desk jobs creates burdens in the departments. Smaller departments literally can't afford to be so sympathetic. In Washington County, where every deputy sheriff has to be able to function at full ability, "there isn't anything like a desk job," Newman said.
The Newman family of four returned to Sandy. For a while, Newman received compensation equal to two-thirds of his former $2,300-per-month pay. He said the court ordered $10,000 victim's restitution for him, but the state immediately put a lien on the award to defray his worker's compensation.
In August, the worker's compensation stopped because the state said the Newmans had accepted a settlement. They dispute this, and Greg Newman is now appealing the state's decision to halt payments, which his wife, Diane, said came completely out of the blue. Newman said he could file a civil suit against the man who injured him, but "it's not practical. The guy down there doesn't have any money."
Newman has applied for work with other law enforcement agencies, but because he can only perform light duty, "no one even wants to give him a chance," Diane Newman said.
Greg Newman has had two operations to repair the rotator cuff on the shoulder of his right arm, which he still can't use. He is right-handed. With therapy, "I may eventually be able to bring my arm up directly in front of me," he said.
In the meantime, Diane Newman has taken a part-time job with an oral surgeon to help support her family. "So we're sitting here with my little salary," she said. "We just don't know where to turn. We figured he'd have a medical retirement to fall back on."