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Editorial: Put to work every cop who can work

Chicago Police investigate four people who were shot 79th   Paulina. Friday May 11 2012 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Police investigate four people who were shot on 79th & Paulina. Friday, May 11, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: August 18, 2012 6:12AM

If a Chicago cop is healthy enough to chase down and kill a hippopotamus in Africa, you’d think the city could find some kind of job for him to do here.

Instead, the city is paying the cop, Charles Siedlecki, who has not worked for the city in almost 20 years, more than $50,000 a year in disability payments.

If you’ve kept up with the headlines, you already know: Chicago needs every able-bodied police officer it can find to fight an alarming summer crime wave. Yet dozens of officers who may be physically fit enough to do desk work or other light duty — freeing up other officers for the streets — are drawing disability checks while working outside jobs.

So much for the City That Works.

It’s time for City Hall to work a whole lot harder to put some of these cops back on the job — for the police department or, for that matter, any other department.

Consider the case of Michael R. Ander­son, who is drawing $53,485 a year in disability while employed as an “investigator special agent” for an East Coast inspector general’s office. City Hall here has an inspector general’s office, doesn’t it? Why can’t Anderson work there?

Or consider Samirah Day, who is drawing $50,224 a year in disability payments while working as an attorney in Tennessee. Last we looked, Chicago’s City Hall employed lawyers, too.

All of this has come to light in the last three days in a Chicago Sun-Times investigative series by reporters Tim Novak and Chris Fusco, who found that 347 Chicago police officers are on disability, often for many years, though only 19 have been classified as having the kind of catastrophic injuries that bar them from ever returning to the force.

Their disability checks cost the city $18 million a year, money that comes out of a cash-strapped police pension plan subsidized by taxpayers.

Some of those officers have suffered devastating injuries, to be sure. But others have gone on to careers in the law, small business or other fields.

The big-game hunter, Siedlecki, for example, went to law school after he fell and injured his left shoulder nearly 20 years ago while chasing teenagers in Beverly. He opened his own law practice and also went to work for his family’s funeral home.

Under state law, Chicago Police officers and firefighters are the only workers exempt from Illinois’ workers comp system. In the state system, very seldom does a worker remain on disability for 10 or 15 years. Long before that, a judge or another claims professional steps in to resolve the case.

City Hall needs something similar. All these disability cases should be reviewed, and those workers who can should start punching a clock again.

Other reforms to consider:

† Penalties for fraud should be stiffer.

† The city should identify jobs, in advance, that could be handled by officers who are slightly disabled — perhaps, for example, at the 911 emergency call center.

† The city should consider imposing a residency requirement, as it does for working cops, on officers who are off on a disability. Moving to Florida makes it all too easy to escape prying eyes.

† Require more frequent medical exams.

† Hire more investigators to check up on disabled officers.

The city blames the police union for this mess. The union blames the city.

We blame them both.

Let’s just fix it.

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