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WATCHDOGS: After decades on disability, cops are put back to work

John F. Tolley Jr., a disabled Chicago police officer playing Santa Claus, listens to the wish lists of two sisters from Rochester, N.Y., at the Marshall Field's State Street store in December 2003. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Twenty-six years ago, Officer John F. Tolley Jr. injured his back searching the front seat of a car that he and his partner had pulled over in connection with a suspected battery.

Tolley eventually landed on the disability rolls after undergoing spinal fusion surgery that kept him from returning to the Chicago Police Department.

To supplement his police disability checks and to support his wife and four sons, Tolley started his own business designing and selling glass ornaments. He worked as a Santa Claus at the Marshall Field’s State Street store. And he became a teacher for Easter Seals, working with autistic children.

Last December, police pension officials began reviewing his case as part of a broader effort to determine whether cops on disability are physically able to return to work in “limited-duty” jobs, so more officers could be available to work the streets.

Before they could hold a hearing on Tolley, he emailed the police pension fund, agreeing to come back to the police department and give up the tax-free disability payments he’d been getting since 1994 — more than $890,000 altogether.

John F. Tolley Jr., a Chicago police officer who returned to duty this year after 21 years on disability.

John F. Tolley Jr., a Chicago police officer who returned to duty this year after 21 years on disability. | Tolley & Sons

Today, Tolley, 51, makes $95,000 a year working in the department’s “court section.” It’s one of many administrative jobs that have been filled by dozens of injured cops whose disability payments were cut off by the Chicago Police Pension Board after the board’s doctor determined the officers were able to handle some tasks for a department that’s short several hundred cops and facing the city’s deadliest year in more than a decade, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. Tolley declined to comment.

Besides giving the police department badly needed officers, the moves are saving the pension plan — which is primarily funded by taxpayers, along with officers’ contributions — millions of dollars. The officers are once again are contributing to the cash-strapped pension fund, which no longer has to cover their disability payments.

“They are certainly terminating benefits more than they used to because the department now has jobs for these people,” says Thomas Pleines, an attorney who represents disabled officers. “While they can’t do full duty, they can answer the phones and do some light duty.”

For years, Chicago cops who were injured on duty weren’t allowed to return to work until they could walk without assistance, safely fire a gun and physically manage arresting a resisting suspect — rules that kept many officers on disability leave for decades, where they’d typically get 75 percent of their police salary, tax-free.

Over the past few years, though, the department has eased those rules so officers could hold desk jobs in offices, such as police headquarters, where they aren’t likely to have to arrest anyone.

Officer Michael Lappe. | Sun-Times files

Officer Michael Lappe. | Sun-Times files

As a result, there’s been a 20 percent drop since 2012 in the number of cops collecting disability pay from the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago, the underfunded pension plan that also covers disability payments for injured officers who’ve been unable to go back to work for more than a year.

“It’s long overdue,” says Officer Michael Lappe, a pension board member who has pushed to get disabled officers back on the job. “If I can help facilitate an officer getting back to work, so be it.”

Lappe nearly died in the late 1980s, when he was shot in the throat while on duty. He never went on disability leave, returning to work in a light-duty job. He continues to walk with a limp as a result of the shooting.

siedlickiThe sharp decrease in officers collecting disability pay comes four years after a Chicago Sun-Times investigation found the pension fund was spending about $18 million a year on disability payments to 347 cops, including three dozen injured while off duty. Some of them had moved on to other jobs — including Charles Siedlecki, who became a lawyer and a big-game hunter while he on disability leave for nearly 20 years because his doctors said he couldn’t safely fire a weapon.

In response, Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised to crack down on cops who were abusing the disability system, promising to find more limited-duty jobs for injured officers.

Today, pension fund records show, there are 274 officers getting disability pay, including 39 who were injured off duty. The payments total about $15.8 million a year — about $2.2 million less than in 2012.

Since January 2015, pension records show, 115 officers have been removed from disability — including 50 who returned to work, 53 who retired after their disability pay was terminated and four who died.

“It is our ethical and contractual obligation to provide continued employment opportunities to officers injured in the line of duty,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says. “Depending on their job function, they may or may not have to be retrained on policies and procedures, and they have to maintain their firearms certification and training requirements.”

Officer Timothy P. O’Brien, whose father has a long-running business relationship with Illinois House Speaker House Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago, had his disability payments terminated last November, about six years after injuring his left shoulder tackling a suspect in the Loop.

The pension board decided, on a 5-to-3 vote, that O’Brien isn’t completely disabled and might be eligible for a limited-duty job if he passed a firearms test.

Lappe advised O’Brien to apply for reinstatement. But he hasn’t done so.

Instead, O’Brien is now suing the pension board, arguing that the board had found him to be fully disabled the previous year when he failed the firearms test — a test he says his doctor has advised him never to take again because he might further injure his shoulder.

In September, Cook County Judge David Atkins rejected O’Brien’s case. “Although [O’Brien] could have retaken the exam in in 2015, he declined to do so, thus raising the possibility that he could have passed had he attempted it,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “At worst, it is unclear whether O’Brien was in fact disabled in 2015 . . .”

O’Brien, 39, is now asking the Illinois Appellate Court to overturn the pension board’s decision to cut off his disability payments. He has collected more than $290,000 in disability pay since 2010. He acknowledged to the pension board that he has been working other jobs, including a part-time position in California as a greeter for the San Diego Padres baseball team.

His father Terrence W. O’Brien’s company does real estate appraisals that Madigan’s law firm has used when seeking property-tax cuts for commercial property owners.

O’Brien told the pension board his father accompanied him to meet with a doctor who concluded two years ago that O’Brien isn’t able to return to the police department.

Officer Lynda Reid had been off work for 22 years when the pension board called her in for a hearing in January 2015 to determine whether she could return to work. She said she was worried about the lingering pain she felt in her legs since she fell down a flight of stairs trying to arrest a battery suspect in Rogers Park.

“I’m concerned with the fact that I haven’t done this work in 22 years,” Reid told the board, according to a transcript. “I would imagine having to be retrained. My concern also is with my weapon, not being able to protect it properly should the need arise, whether to protect myself or anyone else that I may be working with. . . . I have a lot of pain in both my legs. I can’t make sudden moves, whether it’s to bend down or turn.”

Despite Reid’s concerns, the pension board cut off her disability payments, which had totaled more than $820,000, and she returned to work last year in the police department’s information services division. Reid, 57, is paid $93,240 a year.

Like Tolley, Officer Lionel Dones also voluntarily returned to work. Dones came back in July after 22 years on disability leave for a back injury suffered when his squad car was hit by a car in Lincoln Park. He had collected more than $675,000 in disability pay.

“There’s a lot of people fighting” to stay on disability, Dones says. “I didn’t think I needed to fight anything.”

Dones, 61, says he had to go back to the police academy, mainly to learn computer skills.

“I’m working at headquarters,” he says. “I’m very happy with the position . . . The only part that is a little bit difficult is the technology. Everything is on computers. Everybody has a password.”

Dones says he doesn’t know how long he’ll stay on the job. He’s eligible to retire with full benefits in January, though he could stay on until December 2017, when he will turn 63 — the mandatory retirement age for a Chicago cop.