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Milwaukee Officers too Stressed to Work Cost Taxpayers Millions

MILWAUKEE --

There are nearly 100 Milwaukee police officers receiving monthly payments for job-related disabilities most of them earned doing legitimate police work. But 12 News has learned a small percentage have found a way to parlay performance problems into a disability retirement.

The officer said they are too stressed to work. Apparently, they qualify for lifetime disability payments. It's a troubling issue in Milwaukee's retirement system, and it is costing taxpayers millions.

One early morning in March, firefighters were called to a burning West Side night club. Just inside the door, they found the body of a retired Milwaukee police detective. He was the club's owner.

WISN 12 News has learned the city granted Scott Benton a stress disability retirement three years ago. The source of his stress was repeated disciplinary problems and a recent investigation into cheating the department out of overtime. Later, said some in the department, Benton was bilking the city out of disability payments.

"This is a pattern that developed, that officers would be investigated for criminal matters, internal matters, and this is what would cause them the stress, which would ultimately get them the duty disability retirement," Milwaukee police inspector Kurt Liebold said.

Police said Benton is not alone. Currently, the city of Milwaukee is paying 27 officers for stress disability. The payments total nearly $110,000 a month. That's $1.32 million a year, and since the benefits can last until retirement age, they will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. While many of those are legitimate stress claims, the department believes too many are not.

"The system for duty disability retirement is flawed. We believe the officers are manipulating that system," Liebold said.

Stress disability awards are governed by police contract.

Two doctors -- one picked by the police union, a second chosen by the city -- assess the patient. If they disagree, a third is called in as a tiebreaker. If two of the doctors find an officer disabled, the city pension board must approve the award.

In 2002, Officer Robert Henry made headlines after a camera captured a booking room confrontation. The department fired him for throwing a suspect against the wall, wrestling him to the table and then flexing his muscles.

"It's been very stressful on me," Henry said shortly after the 2002 incident.

Henry won his job back and then he claimed he was so stressed out he could no longer work as an officer.

Milwaukee's pension board granted Henry a lifetime disability after two doctors agreed. Since 12 News tracked Henry to his waterfront retirement retreat in Florida in 2003, he's collected more than $300,000 in stress disability payments -- tax-free.

Officer Stacy Lopez Devereaux's love life caused her stress. She married a fellow officer as he shipped out to Iraq. The city said she soon started an on-the-job affair with another officer and then accused her supervisor of stalking her. Lopez won a stress disability and has collected more than $300,000 since she left the department in 2004.

"Most officers on this job have a real problem with that," Liebold said.

Both Lopez and Henry will collect more than $1 million in tax-free disability by the time they turn 57 years old when they'll start collecting department pensions.

Milwaukee's disability rules are designed to protect officers such as Graham Kunisch and Bryan Norberg.

The pair survived a suspect's barrage of gunfire at point-blank range. Both would likely qualify for lifetime disability. Instead, they chose to return to limited duty at the Milwaukee Police Department.

"The stress inherent to what we do manifests itself differently in each person," said Mike Crivello, head of the Milwaukee Police Association.

The head of Milwaukee's police union won't weigh in on the Henry, Benton, or Devereaux cases. Crivello said it takes a doctor to assess the real impact of police stress on the psyche.

"You don't know what the trigger is going to be, so we absolutely need the opportunity to refer somebody for evaluation and possibility for early retirement," Crivello said.

Liebold said the pension board now allows the department to present its own evidence at a duty disability hearing, but the problem persists.

"They got themselves into trouble, and instead of just dealing with the consequences, they're going to take the easy way out and manipulate a system that probably is broken and get paid for the rest of their lives," Liebold said.

Despite Benton's long disciplinary record, he, too, stood to collect more than $1 million in stress disability payments. Instead, he died in the fire that destroyed his nightclub -- a fire that police determined he set after they found gasoline poured throughout the club, gas cans left behind, and Benton's body clothed in a melted plastic rain suit, a latex glove and his shoes smelling of gasoline.

Disabled officers must undergo an annual checkup to ensure they're still unable to work.

The latest police contract includes new rules for officers hired after 2005 relating to stress disabilities. Applications must be reviewed by a standing three-member panel of doctors contracted with the city.

It's still unclear if that will make it harder to get a stress disability. The city said, so far, no one has applied under the new rules.

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