MINNEAPOLIS – More than 150 Minneapolis police officers are filing work-related disability claims after the death of George Floyd and ensuing unrest, with about three-quarters citing post-traumatic stress disorder as the reason for their planned departures, according to an attorney representing the officers.
Their duty disability claims, which will take months to process, come as the city is seeing an increase in violent crime and while city leaders push a proposal to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new agency that they say would have a more holistic approach.
While Floyd’s death in May and the unrest that followed are not the direct cause of many of the disability requests, attorney Ron Meuser said, those events and what Meuser called a lack of support from city leadership were a breaking point for many who had been struggling with PTSD from years on the job. Duty disability means the officer was disabled while engaged in inherently dangerous acts specific to the job.
“Following the George Floyd incident, unfortunately it became too much and as a result they were unable to, and are unable to, continue on and move forward,” Meuser said. “They feel totally and utterly abandoned.”
He said many officers he represents were at a precinct that police abandoned as people were breaking in during the unrest. Some officers feared they wouldn’t make it home, he said, and wrote final notes to loved ones. People in the crowd ultimately set fire to the building.
Mayor Jacob Frey issued a statement saying that COVID-19 and unrest following Floyd's death tested the community and officers in profound ways. He said cities need resources to reflect the realities on the ground.
“In the meantime, I am committed to supporting those officers committed to carrying out their oath to serve and protect the people of Minneapolis during a challenging time for our city," he said.
Meuser said in recent weeks, 150 officers have retained his office for help in filing for duty disability benefits through the state’s Public Employment Retirement Association, or PERA. So far, 75 of them have already left the job, he said.
Police spokesman John Elder questioned Meuser's figure of 150, though he does expect an increase in departures. The department currently has about 850 officers and will adjust staffing to ensure it can do its job, he said.
The city said it has received 17 PTSD workers compensation claims in the last month, but when it comes to PERA duty disability, officers are not obligated to notify the Police Department that an application was submitted. Meuser said the city isn’t being transparent about departures, and the numbers it sees will lag as PERA benefits take months to process.
Doug Anderson, executive director for PERA, said 150 officers seeking duty disability from one department would be high. PERA approved 105 disability applications from both police and firefighters statewide in all of 2019, including 60 claims for duty-related PTSD and 20 for other work-related injuries.
PERA is primarily a retirement plan, in which members and employers contribute funds. Members who become disabled can receive a disability benefit until age 55, at which time retirement benefits kick in.
A high percentage of those on duty disability do not return to the job, Anderson said.
"It’s a disability that as a general rule is a permanent designation entitling them for benefits for the rest of their life,” Meuser said.
A high number of people taking PERA disability likely won’t impact the city budget immediately, as the city’s rate of contribution to the plan is fixed, though the Minnesota Legislature could increase contribution rates. The city can incur significant costs if the leave is classified as “duty disability,” because the city would continue to pay for the officer’s health insurance.
To apply, an officer needs supporting documents from two physicians. A third-party administrator ensures applications are complete. If there is a discrepancy, PERA can require an independent medical evaluation. The Police Department could also challenge an application, and there is a process for appeal. Denials and appeals are uncommon, Anderson said.
Meuser made his announcement amid an increase in violent crime. From Thursday night to Friday morning alone, nine people were shot in Minneapolis, including one fatally. Police data analyzed by the Star Tribune show that at least 243 people have been shot so far this year, compared with 269 in all of 2019.
Asked about his timing, Meuser said he believes Minneapolis officers are being unfairly tarnished, and it’s time to call out “decades of failed leadership” in the city.
Meuser opposes calls to dismantle or defund the Police Department, and said he hopes the news that veteran officers are leaving will make the public reassess the city's current trajectory.
“The men and women in public safety who give their heart and soul to serve Minneapolis and keep it safe deserve to have Minneapolis leaders to step up and supporting them," he said. "Instead of spending time plotting the dismantling of the force, let’s come together to improve community trust and work towards a safer city for all. “
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