Chesterton Tribune                                                                                   Adv.

Injured county officer not getting full pay; elected officials differ over why

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It’s unclear how it happened, but it indisputably has happened, that a Porter County Sheriff’s Police officer injured in the line of duty has been placed on Worker’s Compensation and is currently receiving two-thirds of his salary.

That, despite a Sheriff’s Merit Board policy which explicitly states that an officer injured in the line of duty “is entitled to sick leave with full pay and benefits for a period of one full year from the date of his disability.”

Sheriff Dave Lain says that Merit Board policy is trumped by Porter County Council policy and that—sometime in the last two years—the County Council replaced the Merit Board policy on disability with one requiring an injured officer to be put on Worker’s Comp.

Auditor Jim Kopp—who cuts the checks to all county employees—says that he is only implementing a policy which was communicated to him by then County Council President Bob Poparad, D-1st.

Poparad says that—while he is philosophically opposed to the Merit Board policy, on the ground that it’s unfair to other county workers injured on the job—he communicated no such thing to Kopp and that he simply hasn’t the authority, on his own, to reverse, overturn, or ignore Merit Board policy.

Current County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, says that he is unalterably opposed to an injured officer’s being put on Worker’s Comp and will do everything in his power to see that the Merit Board’s policy is applied retroactively to the officer in question.

Past County Council Attorney Dave Hollenbeck and current one Scott McClure did not return calls to the Chesterton Tribune, which has been unable to determine (1) when exactly the Merit Board policy on disability was last in effect, and (2) how that policy came to be not in effect.

On Aug. 28, 2009, Officer Roger Bowles sustained a serious injury to his leg while scuffling with a suspect who had taken his Taser. Bowles was placed on Worker’s Comp per the County Council policy, Lain told the Tribune, missed some work, and was then put on light duty, a PCSP policy under which officers “can be at work, be productive, and contribute to the department” and earn their regular salary.

Bowles was in fact about ready to return to active duty when some “more tests” were conducted, Lain said. But the results of the tests were not good and Bowles has been forced “to start from square one, medically speaking,” meaning that professionally speaking he’s been placed once again on Worker’s Comp.

What about the explicit Merit Board policy? “A couple of years ago the Porter County Council came to us and indicated that, since the county’s been paying into Worker’s Comp, any officer injured on the job needs to go on Worker’s Comp,” Lain said.

“I disagreed and cited Merit Board rules,” Lain noted. But those rules are more like intra-departmental regulations and are not binding on the County Council, he said. “We can put anything into the Merit Board rules but the County Council doesn’t have to abide by them. That was the end of the discussion. We didn’t have any relief.”

Kopp, for his part, gave this account. “We were told that all county employees got Worker’s Comp,” he said. “Bob Poparad told me that, when he was president of the council.”

In any case, Kopp added, “if you pay people for hours they have not worked, it’s approaching ghost payroll. All other county employees have to go on Worker’s Comp. What’s fair for one is fair for everyone.”

At the moment, Kopp also said, there is no “vehicle” anyway in the county’s legal apparatus to pay an officer his full wage while he’s off the clock convalescing. “I can’t find one and no one else knows of any vehicle. I’m trying to find a way to make Roger Bowles whole but it will take a resolution or ordinance from the County Commissioners.”

Poparad, however, states absolutely and unequivocally that at no time did he give Kopp such marching orders, and that more to the point he simply could not have done so. “I did not change that policy. I do not have the authority to change that policy, despite all the misinformation out there.”

Any change in Merit Board policy, Poparad said, must been approved by the Merit Board itself, the Sheriff, and the County Council acting in unison.

Whitten—who is himself a former police officer—appears not to care too terribly much why Bowles, at this point, is on Worker’s Comp. He just wants the officer off it and right now. “It seems asinine to me that a police officer who’s injured in the line of duty should have to go home and not be able to make his mortgage payment. When a police officer, who’s not in law enforcement for the money, is asked to defend your life and property and in doing so is hurt, how could you possibly want him to lose his house, his livelihood? I’m not going to allow it.”

Whitten has accordingly directed a memo to Kopp instructing him to follow the Merit Board policy on disability. “I was under the impression that fixed the problem,” he said. “We don’t have to get into philosophy. Just follow the Merit Board rule. I’m not going to let this go.”

“I can’t imagine the other side of the argument,” Whitten said. “You expect a guy to take a risk and he’s injured and then you say ‘Hey buddy, you’re on your own.’ I’m really angry what they did to this guy. I want it fixed. I won’t rest until it’s fixed.”



Posted 3/17/2010




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