A Justice Department program intended to financially assist law enforcement officers who have been injured or killed in the line of duty has an application process that is generating “absurd results” – and something must be done about it, Sen. Chuck Grassley says.
The Iowa Republican, in a letter sent to U.S. Attorney General William Barr this week, is asking for a review of the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program after officers say they have been denied help over wildly differing interpretations of the program’s requirements for compensation.
“My staff spoke with [an] injured officer who was denied benefits because, in an effort to fight through his disability, he would work around his home fixing old motorcycles and snowmobiles,” Grassley wrote. “A police officer who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury after an on-duty vehicle collision was denied disability benefits because he held several short-term part-time positions. In 2015, this injured officer worked at Home Depot, Inc., Garda Great Lakes, Inc., and the City of St. Paul and earned a combined total of $9,551.11 for the year."
The PSOB, which “provides death and education benefits to survivors of fallen law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other first responders, and disability benefits to officers catastrophically injured in the line of duty,” gives out lump-sum awards after reviewing around 900 claims each year, it previously has told Fox News, with funding for it approved annually by Congress. The lump-sum awards can be as high as $360,000.
But Grassley says vague language written into the program’s rules for approving or denying applications is getting in the way of some officers receiving that kind of help.
“According to statute, a public safety officer is eligible for benefits if they have ‘become permanently and totally disabled,’ as a result of a “catastrophic injury.’ The statute further defines ‘catastrophic injury’ as an injury which ‘permanently prevent[s] an individual from performing any gainful work,” he wrote. “DOJ subsequently issued regulations further defining ‘gainful work’ as ‘full-or-part-time activity that actually is compensated or commonly is compensated.’
Grassley goes on to say that the “lack of clear and reasonable guidance here can, and apparently has, led to absurd results."
“In theory, for example, the simple act of washing family dishes in the controlled, safe environment of one’s own house could qualify as a commonly compensated role because a dishwasher is a commonly compensated position—in restaurants,” he wrote to Barr.
Grassley concludes his letter by asking the attorney general to create a claims manual to “help remove ambiguity, establish uniform best practices, and ensure predictable results” and for the Justice Department to “thoroughly review its definition and interpretation of the PSOB requirements."
“If Congress had intended for any activity that could be compensated under some conditions that are likely totally irrelevant to a disabled public safety officer to disqualify that person from receiving benefits, then it would not have added the word ‘gainful’ in the statute,” he said.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication of this article.