A Minneapolis police officer goes under police tape at Hennepin Ave near Lake St on June 15th, 2021. Photo by Chad Davis.
Nisswa City Administrator Jenny Max said a longtime police officer there retired early due to a disability, which will cost the tiny town $350,000 over 24 years for health insurance until the officer reaches age 65.
That will require a 14% property tax levy increase for taxpayers in the town of fewer than 2,000.
Max, who is a vice president for the League of Minnesota Cities, testified Thursday in favor of a bill (HF1234) aimed at stemming the tide of police officers retiring early due to post-traumatic stress disorder, contributing to a police staffing shortage.
The number of Minnesota police officers retiring early due to PTSD shot up after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The officers get at least 60% of their average salary.
The bill would require cops and firefighters who apply for disability retirement benefits due to a psychological condition to first complete up to 32 weeks of treatment with a mental health professional, who would assess whether they’re able to return to work. Their salary would continue with the state Department of Public Safety reimbursing the cost as long as the employer provides annual wellness training.
John Swenson, public safety director for Lino Lakes and representative of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said after 30 years as a police officer, he’s seen the toll the work takes on people, but PTSD is highly treatable.
Lindsey Rowland, a partner at an Eden Prairie law firm that represents three-fourths of first responders who apply for disability pensions, said the bill complicates an already-complex process. The bill was amended Thursday to impose what she considers “severe penalties” on officers who go back to work in a new profession.
In October, 887 police and firefighters under age 55 were getting disability retirement pension benefits. Of those, 465 had reported earnings from a new job in 2021, according to data from the state Public Employees Retirement Association.
Rep. Kaohly Vang Her, DFL-St. Paul, said police are being asked to do more, under difficult circumstances, but alleged “bad actors” work the system “for personal gain.” Vang Her said if policies aren’t changed, liabilities will continue to increase on current employees, jeopardizing the entire police and fire pension plan. The plan is underfunded by $1 billion, and the wave of disability retirements is expected to increase the unfunded liability by about $40 million annually unless members and employers put more money into it.
Rep. Walter Hudson, R-Albertville, pressed his colleagues on the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee to acknowledge that the “widespread demonization” of law enforcement may be playing a role in the wave of retirements.
As numerous uniformed police officers attending the hearing looked on, Hudson’s rhetoric escalated until the committee chair warned that he was on the verge of being called out of order. He continued anyway, concluding by saying, “I’m glad we’re doing something about the problem; maybe we should do something about the cause.”
Vang Her said that some of her family members are state troopers. She charged, however, that the profession has been infiltrated by white supremacists, saying there are good and bad people in every profession.
Rep. Elliott Engen, R-White Bear Township, said a former Minneapolis officer who lives in his district told him how after he unsuccessfully performed CPR on a 5-year-old drowning victim, he was verbally harassed on his way back to the station.
“That’s when he knew there was something seriously wrong,” Engen said.
Rep. Brion Curran, DFL-Vadnais Heights, is a former sheriff’s deputy who said she left law enforcement in 2018 due to PTSD. She witnessed people die, her uniform soiled with blood, with the expectation she return to work the next day without complaint, Curran said.
“These are people who are putting everything on the line and we should not be calling them bad actors,” Curran said.
Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said the bill helps get first responders the mental health resources they need, while lightening the burden on cities and counties.
“We still have to recognize the moment that led us here,” he said, referring to the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked international outrage and unrest. “We’re still working our way out of it… We can be a model for what the rest of the world does.”
The bill was advanced to the Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, and a companion bill is moving through the Senate.
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