By Jack Dolan and Gus Garcia-Roberts Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and key members of the City Council have agreed to give police officers raises of up to 5% with no change to a controversial retirement program that pays veteran cops and firefighters nearly double at the end of their careers.
A new, one-year contract overwhelmingly approved by police union members this week gives pay increases of up to 5% for patrol officers and up to 4.5% for detectives, city officials acknowledged.
Robert Harris, one of the police union’s directors, said the raises are necessary to ensure the LAPD “remains competitive” and can fill all of its open positions.
The deal places no new conditions on the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, which allows veteran officers to collect their salaries and pensions simultaneously for up to five years before they retire.
The DROP program was approved by voters in 2001 with a promise that it would keep veteran officers on the job a few years longer with no additional cost to the city.
A Times investigation published last month found the program had issued more than $1.6 billion in early pension payments since 2002, and nearly half of DROP participants in the last decade entered the program and then took injury leaves at twice their usual pay; typically for bad backs, sore knees, carpal tunnel syndrome and other ailments that routinely afflict aging bodies.
More than 1,200 police and firefighters took such leaves, the Times found; their average absence was 10 months, and hundreds stayed out for more than a year.
Among them were two married LAPD officers who joined DROP, then went out with carpal tunnel syndrome and other cumulative injuries. They missed about two years and spent some of that time starting a family business and vacationing at their condo in Cabo San Lucas, The Times found. They collected nearly $2 million in salary and pension while in the program.
A firefighter in DROP who filed a claim for a bad back and a sore knee worked part-time as a longshoreman at L.A. Harbor while on injury leave from the department, according to one of the doctors who examined him in the course of his workers’ compensation case.
On Thursday, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck announced the first arrest for workers’ compensation fraud in the history of the program. Former officer Terry Johns joined DROP in July 2014 and filed a claim for cumulative trauma to his back a month later, public records show.
He received nearly $250,000 in salary and pension payments for the time off, but internal affairs investigators observed him engaged in activity “inconsistent” with his claimed injuries, Beck said. He declined to offer further details.
Johns could not be reached for comment. Records show he retired in 2016.
Days after the Times published the first story Feb. 3, Garcetti joined City Council members Mitch Englander, Paul Krekorian and Paul Koretz — all members of the committee that negotiates contracts with the city’s politically powerful employee unions — in demanding a thorough investigation of the DROP program.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 23, the committee voted behind closed doors to approve the new contract for police.
While they did not demand any changes to DROP as part of the contract, Garcetti asked Los Angeles Police Protective League president Craig Lally for a letter promising to meet and confer about the program after the investigation is complete.
The letter, which a Garcetti aide speaking on background said was a condition of the contract’s approval, arrived on Feb. 20.
In it, Lally thanked Garcetti and others for their “continued support” of DROP and indicated the union might be willing to consider “potential amendments to ensure there is no abuse of the program” in the future.
Police union director Harris said the organization has been open to reform of the program since the publication of The Times investigation and denied that the letter was a requirement for the contract extension.
“Obviously these two issues are occurring simultaneously, but one doesn’t inform the other,” Harris said. “Everybody on all sides is invested in sitting down to make sure that DROP is doing what DROP is supposed to do, and rooting out anybody who abuses that system.”
The unusually short one-year agreement will allow for negotiation of a multiyear contract in 2019, at the same time that the firefighters’ union will be negotiating its own deal, Harris said.
Garcetti has said he still supports the DROP program but that he’d be willing to suspend pension payments to employees while they’re out with injuries. In that case, they would receive only their salaries until they returned to work.
Under state law, salaries for police and firefighters are tax-free while they are on injury leave.
Nothing will change until the new study is complete, Garcetti said.
Garcetti and the council ignored a report from former City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana in 2016 warning the program was not, and never had been, “cost neutral” as promised to voters.
Santana’s report also said DROP was no longer necessary to retain veteran police officers and had never been needed to retain firefighters.
Santana urged city leaders to eliminate the program, as had dozens of other government agencies across the country, including San Francisco and San Diego.
Instead, city leaders did nothing.
Koretz, who received more than $98,000 from the police and fire unions for his successful March 2017 reelection, including expenses incurred for mailers and telephone calls on his behalf, said he disregarded the report’s recommendations partly because Santana “wasn’t a particularly pro-labor CAO.”
This week, Koretz praised the new police union contract, calling it good “for both the rank and file officers as well as for the city.”
In addition to the bumps in salary, the new contract provides an increase of more than 8% in the monthly subsidy officers get for healthcare and a 2.5% increase in subsidies for dental care.
The union agreed to “zero takeaways — zero concessions” in the deal, according to a flyer distributed to members outlining the terms of the deal.
The previous police contract covered four years with an average raise of 2% per year.
©2018 the Los Angeles Times