This article is a product of many mistakes that I and others have made with respect to the issue of permanent light-duty assignments. Based on my decades of service in multiple agencies, I have come to the very strong conclusion that all personnel who have a duty limitation that is deemed to be “permanent and stationary” should be retired. In reviewing this article, I encourage the reader to set aside the often-strong affection and loyalty for the individual employee and place primary emphasis where it belongs: the best interests of the community, the department and the overall workforce.
The situations typically arise with a common theme; a solid and valuable employee develops a job-related physical disability that prevents him or her from performing one or more of the tasks deemed essential for a full-duty assignment. However, the employee is still able to perform one or more limited tasks. Then, because of fondness and loyalty to the disabled employee, we essentially remove that employee from the full-duty workforce and place him or her in a position where their physical limitations can be accommodated.
Complicating this situation is that in some instances, those positions are sometimes occupied by full-duty personnel who rotate through those assignments, such as front desk duty, youth services, evidence processing or other similar duties, and which are occasionally occupied by personnel who have temporary duty restrictions.
It is very tempting to permanently move a valuable employee who has a permanent physical duty limitation into an assignment where the duty limitation can be accommodated but to do so is terribly unfair to the organization as a whole.
Whether the department has 10 or 10,000 employees, permanently accommodating a light-duty officer results in a multitude of serious issues. Included among these issues are reducing the full-duty workforce by a person who could and should be replaced by a new hire, reducing the ability of other employees from being able to experience that assignment, eliminating a position where you can assign a temporarily disabled employee and sending out a message to the workforce that employees with permanent physical limitations will be retained in their present job classification.
Another factor is some degree of organizational paralysis stemming from an inability to move personnel throughout the organization based on changing needs and circumstances. This can be an especially serious problem in smaller agencies. The argument that some organizations are large enough to accommodate these types of duty-restricted individuals is hollow; every department entity is critical, and the above-described consequences are equally applicable, just on a larger scale.
I have served in multiple agencies, and because of my teaching and coaching activities, I’m familiar
with a great many more. I can say with confidence that most of the agencies with who I am familiar have some degree of difficulty with the issue of accommodating long-term light-duty employees. While recognizing that some things have changed in the involved agencies, I hope that my experience in transitioning among agencies described below will be helpful in bringing additional understanding and clarity to this issue.
At the time that I retired from the Los Angeles Police Department, the mindset (I know, as I was the personnel director of human resources!) was basically to accommodate just about every officer who was considered permanently light duty, which included opposing most applications for medical retirements.
At the time of my retirement, the department was accommodating several hundred permanently light-duty officers in various assignments. We had light-duty personnel not only in conventional positions, but in various specialized positions that had been essentially created for them. Unbelievably, an appreciable percentage of the sworn workforce lacked the ability to perform one or more of the essential tasks required for the position of the police force!
Without questioning the legitimacy of the majority of officers with medical limitations, there was little doubt that some of the “disabled officers” manipulated themselves into light-duty status by “gaming” the disability system. Because of the issue of disparate treatment, LAPD did not have the flexibility of picking and choosing who to accommodate. Marginally productive employees were typically accommodated, as well as the harder workers. At the time, the consistent legal advice from the City Attorney’s Office was basically to “accommodate” employees who were deemed either temporarily or permanently unable to perform the typical role of a peace officer. Over time, this “safe advice” morphed into a monstrous personnel situation. I understand this situation has been mitigated.
An additional consideration of great importance is the suitability of any employee that we place in any assignment — a factor that can be of special importance when we place someone in a potentially sensitive position for which he or she may be ill-suited. Some of my abundant scar tissue is related to several personnel actions where I placed light-duty officers in positions where they did not do well, including an explorer scout advisor whose attraction to explorer scouts was beyond what I had envisioned! There are positions where no person is preferable to the wrong person, and “finding a position” for a disabled officer should not be a consideration.
My first day as a law enforcement executive for the county of San Bernardino followed my last day in Los Angeles, and among my first observations was the total absence of permanent light-duty personnel — there were none!
As the county marshal and later as a deputy chief on the Sheriff’s Department, there was no accommodation for employees who did not possess the full range of essential law enforcement physical requirements. Certainly, injured employees were given time to recover from medical situations, but upon the determination of “permanent and stationary” with respect to the inability to perform any essential task, they were processed for medical retirement.
Among the most profound of my observations was the issue of miraculous recovery! In the case of some medical situations, there is little room to question the need for a medical retirement. However, I have long and continuously perceived quite a lot of discretion and subjectivity in the process of determining whether or not an employee is permanently disabled. Sickening is the best description of my frustrations involving troublesome employees who game the system and manipulated themselves into limited assignments reflecting when and where they preferred to be assigned; an especially difficult situation for me as the then-personnel director of the LAPD. In San Bernardino County, just the opposite was the case; given the reduced seniority pension amount of disability retirements, coupled with the department’s policy of either full duty or no duty, people got well and worked hard to stay well. In fact, I am aware of situations where some employees likely minimized physical disabilities to avoid being forced into retirement!
My remarks should in no way be seen as insensitive to our great workforces and to the wonderful men and women we are honored to lead, and at the top of that list, I would place our personnel who incur duty-related disabilities. On the contrary, we have both a legal and ethical responsibility to do everything within our power to support our disabled employees and their families and to do so within the letter of the law, in conjunction with the spirit and guidelines of labor agreements. As we are all aware, the disability journey can be long, lonely and complicated. It is essential for injured employees to have support, guidance and assistance as they deal with the medical, legal, rehabilitative, retraining, potential reclassification and related issues. Among these activities, however, efforts to retain a physically unqualified employee in a position that calls for a full-duty officer should not be a consideration.
In everything we do, including our actions in support of disabled employees, the primary factors must be the best interests of the community, the department and the overall workforce.