Opinion

Overregulation Hurting Those That Serve and Protect

Donald J. Mihalek Vice President, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation

Over the past decade, our nation loses an average of 120-140 police officers per year who are killed in the line of duty. This includes tragic killings like that of Philadelphia Officer Robert Wilson last year. Our firefighters lose an average of 100 brothers and sisters per year, lost while performing their heroic duty. Every year police officers, firefighters, and other first responders answer millions of calls — often putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the innocent, save lives, and tend to the injured.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of a police officer in the United States was $56,810 per year. A firefighter, on average, makes $45,970 per year — if they are paid at all. Outside of most large metropolitan areas, public safety careers don’t pay much. An adjancet municipality to where I live, Yardley Borough in Pennsylvania, has a starting pay rate for police officers of $15 per hour. Home Depot pays its associates about the same, and also gives its employees discounts for materials.  

Suffice it to say then, that public safety officers live in modest homes, in modest areas, often trying to make ends meet. And when a tragedy occurs, their families are left to pick up the pieces and try to rebuild their lives.  

Congress established the Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) Program in 1976. The Program was intended to pay a death benefit to the family of a public safety officer who makes the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty and has been expanded to include a benefit to officers critically disabled in the line of duty and cover other prevalent health conditions and provides educational assistance to the spouses and children of fallen officers.

The PSOB program is administered by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Unfortunately, the DOJ administration of the program has been called into question for years and considered by many as unjust.  

The reason: A backlog of more than 1,000 death and disability claims — some languishing at the Department for a decade — and a lengthy certification process, caused by federal overregulation.

This backlog has recently captured bipartisan attention in the U.S. Senate and has prompted several investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the DOJ Office of the Inspector General, and the media. Attorneys General from John Aschroft through Loretta Lynch have promised to improve and streamline the PSOB process and address the PSOB bureaucracy. But after more than a decade of promises, the program is still a bureaucratic quagmire.

Overregulation happens because a law is passed and then Congress, recognizing it’s not an expert with running a program, allows the federal Departments to write the rules (the fine print). For the PSOB program that falls directly on the shoulders of the DOJ, a Department one would think has some experience with writing rules.  

Recent letters from Senator Charles Grassley (IA), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), one of the architects of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act have questioned the DOJ about the PSOB Program’s lack of progress with clearing overdue cases.  Senator Thom Tillis (NC) recently questioned Attorney General Lynch about the problem with the claims’ backlog. For a program aimed at helping those that have lost all, the statistics are startling.     

According to a USA Today investigation last September based on information obtained from the DOJ Inspector General, it takes the PSOB Office an average of 391 days to vet a claim. In more than 40 percent of cases, the DOJ approval process extended from over a year to several years, as the 9/11-related cases show. These include noteworthy incidents like the killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Wilson. The DOJ has said it “strives to handle claims within a self- imposed year timeframe,” which clearly, the investigations show they violate.  

As of October 30, 2015, DOJ reported to Chairman Grassley and the Senate Judiciary Committee that there were 693 pending death benefit claims, 228 pending disability claims, and 128 pending education benefit claims for children of the fallen officers. Among these cases, 148 are deaths and disabilities resulting from exposure to toxins during the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is believed that over the past decade, DOJ has yet to finalize even one of these 9/11-related claims. The statistics also show that the oldest pending case under review dates back to 2006.   

To be fair, some cases drag on this long because the claimants failed to provide enough information or DOJ has requested more information, which they never received. DOJ considers these cases “more complex cases.”  

Irrespective of the reasons that DOJ gives for why a backlog exists, that is still 1,049 heroes and their families whose survivor’s benefit claim languishes amid mounds of paperwork in the PSOB Office.  

The problem is, the rules concerning PSOB are complex and the DOJ has often changed the PSOB rules to make it harder — not easier, for first responders.

The GAO reports cites the following bureaucratic morass:

Upon receipt of all the required documentation associated with a claim, a PSOB benefits specialist reviews the claim and its supporting documentation and drafts an initial determination on whether to approve or deny the claim. This draft determination is then reviewed by a senior benefits specialist, the PSOB director, and OJP’s Office of the General Counsel (OGC) before a final determination is rendered. … A claim may go through different phases of the process multiple times if at any phase DOJ officials determine that more information may be needed to make a determination.

This makes getting a mortgage or doing taxes seem easy. You’d think the certification by a department and validation by a DOJ staffer would be enough.

I wonder if the DOD puts the military families through similar hurdles.

While our heroes’ families wait, “refugees” can obtain government assistance the moment they hit U.S. shores. With the same vigor they are using to push for the early release of criminals from federal prison, our Senators and Congressman should demand that the Department of Justice act justly for those that Serve and Protect since that service is often paid with a selfless sacrifice on behalf of the American people.