Chicago cops reap pay for permanent injuries, but many go on to other jobs

Charles T. Siedlecki, 57, is one of 347 Chicago cops on disability, records show. Their disability checks cost $18 million a year — money that comes out of a cash-strapped police pension plan that’s subsidized by city taxpayers.

Nearly 20 years ago, a 37-year-old Chicago cop named Charles T. Siedlecki slipped and fell while chasing a group of teenagers in Beverly, injuring his left shoulder.

Siedlecki went on disability and never returned to work for the Chicago Police Department.

Since then, his disability payments have risen to $51,672 a year. In all, he has collected more than $715,000 in disability pay — all of it tax-free.

It isn’t that Siedlecki can’t work. He can, and he has, though not as a cop.

After getting hurt on the job, he went to law school and opened his own law practice. He also went to work for his family’s funeral home.

As a lawyer, he has even sued the city. He handled a high-profile case filed on behalf of Edward Altman Jr., the former Chicago fire commissioner’s son who was forced to resign his fire department job in 1998 in the fallout of the release of a video showing firefighters using racial slurs.

Siedlecki, 57, is one of 347 Chicago cops on disability, records show. Their disability checks cost $18 million a year — money that comes out of the cash-strapped police pension plan that’s subsidized by taxpayers.

It’s called disability leave, but few ever come back to work for the police department once they go on disability.

A fraction of them never return because devastating injuries — in some cases, paralysis — have left them unable to work again.

But others, like Siedlecki, whose injuries were less severe, have gone on to new careers while on disability. They include cops turned lawyers, small-business owners, a car salesman and a construction worker, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.

Police officers are the only employees in city government who, while on disability leave, are allowed to work outside jobs, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

For them, disability pays.

It allows them to keep collecting substantial paychecks for bad shoulders, hands, backs and other line-of-duty injuries.

It allows them to keep city health benefits for themselves and their families — at no cost to them.

It allows their disability checks to rise as the pay for their old jobs with the police department goes up through raises.

And it guarantees them a city pension when they turn 63 — often based largely on their years on the disability rolls.

Many of these officers appear to be capable of returning to the police department in “limited-duty” desk jobs or handling jobs in other city departments, according to a Sun-Times’ examination of court and city records, doctors’ reports, interviews with city and police union officials and visits and interviews with some of the officers themselves.

For the officers, though, there’s little incentive to return.

Some don’t want to come back if it means they’d be on limited duty, stuck at a desk. Others have moved to the suburbs or out-of-state and would balk at having to move back to Chicago. All would have to give up their disability checks if they returned to the city payroll.

At City Hall and even within the police union, officials acknowledge there are officers who take advantage of the system.

“It is shameful that any individual would be dishonest about their disability to take advantage of the system, and we will continue to be as vigilant on behalf of the taxpayer to prevent cases of abuse and fraud,” says a written statement from Emanuel’s top financial advisers — Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott and Comptroller Amer Ahmad, who also sit on the police pension board.

Disabled cop, big-game hunter

For Siedlecki, a disability paycheck has helped him take up an expensive hobby: big-game hunting.

On one monthlong safari to Africa, he spent more than $100,000 with his son. He has bagged animals including a hippopotamus, an impala and a wildebeest. A hunting newsletter once chronicled how he had shot a brown bear in Alaska “after a 1,600-yard stalk.”

Two years ago, Siedlecki’s doctor signed a two-page report stating that Siedlecki isn’t “capable of safely discharging a firearm.” The report said he is too weak to resume working for the police department, which doesn’t allow injured officers to return to duty until they can shoot their handguns and walk without difficulty.

Asked how he’s able to shoot a rifle but not safely fire a handgun, Siedlecki says, “Traveling on safari with your son doesn’t equate to discharging a weapon on your hip as a police officer on the streets of Chicago.”

The son of a retired police commander, Siedlecki says he plans to stay on disability until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 63 in six years.

By then, he will have collected about $1 million in disability pay, all of it tax-free, records show. His annual pension will be no less than the $51,672 a year he gets now — and that figure will grow with cost-of-living raises given to all police retirees.

The 347 Chicago officers collecting disability pay have all been off the job for at least a year and for as long as 33 years, city records show. They get between 50 percent and 75 percent of the current salary for the job they held when they got hurt — payments that range between $32,631 and $78,764 a year.

Those disability checks total $18 million a year — money that comes out of the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago, the cash-strapped pension plan for all city police officers. Officers contribute about 9 percent of their salaries to the retirement fund, and city taxpayers are set to kick in $210.2 million this year.

Free health insurance, too

Beside contributing to the pension plan, taxpayers spend an estimated $3 million a year to provide free health insurance to the vast majority of the disabled officers and their families.

Of the 347 officers on disability, only 19 have been classified as having catastrophic injuries that bar them from ever returning to the police department and make it unlikely they could do most any other job.

They include Jim Mullen, who was left quadriplegic after being shot in the face in 1996. Five years after Mullen’s shooting, then-Gov. George Ryan and the Illinois Legislature amended state law to increase disability pay for disabled officers from Chicago — a measure supported by City Hall and the Fraternal Order of Police, the union for most of Chicago’s 12,200 cops.

These changes were expected to cost the city police pension fund $141 million, largely because they increased minimum disability payments for most officers and created a more generous “permanent and total disability” benefit for officers as seriously injured as Mullen.

Only a fraction of the officers on the disability rolls ever return to duty, records show. Over the past 18 months, only five have returned to work.

City Hall and police union sources acknowledge that some officers on disability leave have abused the system, collecting disability checks though they are physically able to patrol city streets or work stationhouse desk jobs.

Each side points the finger at the other. Pension and union officials say the police department doesn’t want the disabled officers back. Emanuel’s administration says it has plenty of limited-duty jobs the officers could take — as long they can walk without assistance and shoot and protect their weapons.

Told of some of the Sun-Times’ findings, Emanuel aides said they are now urging the police pension board to crack down on abuses. Among the suggestions: Hiring more investigators to check up on disabled officers to determine whether they are able to return to work; increasing the frequency of medical exams, and devising stiffer penalties for any police officers or doctors who commit fraud.

Emanuel also is assessing the eligibility requirements for officers to return to work in limited-duty roles.

“Mayor Emanuel has instructed his finance and legal teams to conduct a thorough evaluation of Chicago Police Department’s Limited Duty Program, as well as the disability benefits program overall to assess the areas in need of reform,” a mayoral spokeswoman says. “The mayor is also urging the police pension board to take immediate steps to prevent additional cases of fraud and abuse.”

The police pension board also includes Fraternal Order of Police President Michael Shields, elected as one of four police representatives on that panel before his fellow officers elected him union president.

Shields says Emanuel’s administration “wants officers off the city payroll and onto the pension payroll, instead of allowing them to have a limited-duty position on the department.”

He also says he would support a program to find disabled police officers jobs in other city departments — but only as long as they would be paid no less than they made as cops.

“If the officers are medically capable, I think it’s a good idea for everybody involved — the officers, the pension fund and the city of Chicago,” Shields says.

But he adds: “There’s no discussion by the city of Chicago about this whatsoever. I don’t know what would be stopping the city from trying to work something out like that. The ball is in the city’s court.”

The police department and the Chicago Fire Department are the only two city agencies in which workers get disability pay from pension funds. Other city employees get disability pay from the City Council’s Committee on Finance.

Siedlecki and several other officers are collecting disability checks while working second jobs, according to records obtained from the police pension fund under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Those records show:

◆ One officer on disability leave owns a bodyguard service in Florida. One sells guns online from his Arizona home. One — from Munster, Ind. — does construction work. One works for an inspector general’s office in Virginia. One invested in a business that sought to sell medical marijuana in Arizona. There’s no longer a limitation on how much money officers can earn while on disability. The General Assembly eliminated those limitations in 2001.

◆ Disabled cops are city of Chicago employees, but they don’t have to live within the city limits — unlike all other city workers. Fifty-seven officers — 16 percent — have moved out of state. Others have moved to the suburbs, though the pension fund won’t say how many. They include Daniel Tovo, the mayor of Monee. If any of the officers were called back to work, they would have to move back to Chicago.

◆ Car accidents are the biggest cause of injuries among disabled cops. One in five officers was hurt that way. Another 11 percent ended up on disability after slip-and-fall mishaps.

◆ The disability rolls include a police cadet who was hurt on his 10th day at the academy, though he never graduated; another who was hurt in a car accident when Michael Bilandic was mayor; and two brothers who’ve each been on disability for more than 10 years.

◆ Disabled officers make no contributions to the police pension fund, and most have already recouped the pension contributions they’ve made when they were on duty.

◆ On top of their disability payments, the pension fund pays officers injured in the line of duty an extra $100 a month for each child they have. That costs about $200,000 a year.

◆ Disabled cops lose their police powers and must turn in their guns and badges, known as stars. In 2004, the department began issuing “disability stars” to those on disability leave. About 260 officers have them.

Lawyer and funeral director

Siedlecki’s mother, Celene McInerney Siedlecki, owns one of Chicago’s oldest funeral homes, called Thomas McInerney’s Sons, with locations in Canaryville and Scottsdale. Her husband, Charles, was a police commander in the Austin District, and her brother-in-law, William J. Barry, served Mayor Richard J. Daley as deputy director of the Port of Chicago.

Charles Siedlecki joined the police department in February 1982 — about 17 months after his father retired. The younger Siedlecki was a patrol officer when he fell on his left shoulder on Sept. 19, 1992. Siedlecki underwent surgery and rehabilitation, but the police department’s doctor determined that Siedlecki was “unable to perform unrestricted police duties.”

While injured, Siedlecki obtained a funeral director’s license from the state of Illinois on April 9, 1993.

He had exhausted all of his sick and vacation days from the police department when the pension board put him on disability leave in February 1994.

“I didn’t want to leave my job,” Siedlecki says. “The city told me I couldn’t come back to work.

“For a while, I just walked the kids to school and watered the grass. My wife was working [as a Chicago police officer]. I wasn’t that old, so I went to law school.”

He graduated from the IIT-Chicago Kent College of Law in 1997 and set up his small law office in Beverly. When his wife, Maureen, retired from the police department in 2007, Siedlecki and his family moved to LaPorte, Ind.

When Siedlecki’s wife retired, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) introduced a resolution in the City Council thanking her for 21 years of service. Burke has received about $2,000 in campaign contributions from Charles Siedlecki, records show.

Despite his passion for hunting, Siedlecki says he “can’t do everything you want to do around the house” because of his shoulder. He says his range of motion is limited, and he still experiences pain and tingling and takes anti-inflammatory medication.

Siedlecki says he doesn’t think the city will ever call him back to work — even to work as a lawyer in the city’s police department.

“I think they’d rather have a young policeman doing that, rather than have an old guy like me sitting behind a desk,” he says. “I don’t think they’ll make any of the guys on long-term disability come back.”

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