Cause and effect can be blurry when it comes to maladies suffered by police officers and firefighters. Statistically, both contract hepatitis, hernias, pneumonia, AIDS, tuberculosis, and heart disease at much higher rates than other groups of comparable age, courtesy of stress, toxic conditions, and struggles with uncooperative and, sometimes, drug-addled suspects. Today, all cops and firefighters in Portland receive lifetime benefits to pay the costs associated with on-the-job disabilities. Voters stepped up to protect their protectors, approving the benefits through a 2007 ballot measure that the Oregon Legislature later expanded to include certain cancers for firefighters.
But the cops of Groepper’s era got a different deal. Their contracts both predated the ballot measure and did not include enrollment in the Public Employees Retirement System, or PERS. Reasoning the officers’ pensions would be large enough to cover their future health care premiums, the city never even paid into Medicare, workers’ comp, or Social Security on their behalf.
Marcia Maple, age 76, for example, spent 26 years as a Portland police officer, serving in the historic Women’s Protective Division (the first in the nation to give female officers powers of arrest). In 1970, she contracted Hepatitis B on duty when she diapered the ill child of a dying woman. Since retiring in 1995, she’s racked up $47,000 in insurance premiums. In the course of his 26 years on the job, vice cop Brian Duddy required four surgeries on his shoulder, one on his back, and two on his elbows from endless chases and dust-ups with suspects. He retired with a heart condition in 2003. Today, the 62-year-old pays $640 each month for insurance coverage; the city pays nothing. Lanny Bennett, a 27-year veteran who supervised patrols on lower Burnside in the days when it was an alley of drugs and prostitution, was diagnosed with an abnormal heart rhythm in 1987. Since retiring in 1998, he has had valve surgery and a pacemaker installed in his chest. Now age 64, he pays $1,300 a month for a benefit package that includes his wife. The City of Portland’s contribution? Zero.
“The city has tried to say I was over there going
rogue . . .” —Charles Moose, former Portland chief of police
Maple, Duddy, and Bennett all retired from the city with approved disability claims for diseases acquired on the job. But none has ever received the benefits they believe the City of Portland promised—benefits that are now routinely provided to current officers. (Groepper got his cancer coverage on a technicality: he retired while out of work on disability.) Because of their often-debilitating preexisting conditions, buying their own health insurance and life insurance is expensive, and sometimes impossible.
“I just turned 67, and I’m trying to work. My wife is out of work. It’s a real challenge right now,” says Lennox Stanley, a retired police officer who became a private security guard, in part, to cover the $75,000 he’s spent on medical care for heart disease since leaving the Portland Police in 2003. “If we would not have had to pay that, we would have been able to save more for our retirement. We would have enjoyed a better life.”
The Portland Police Bureau’s employee manual, in effect during these officers’ tenure, clearly states that the city owes them more. Section 410.00b reads: “medical, dental, vision, and city paid life insurance premiums will be paid . . . indefinitely” for police who acquired occupational diseases on the job if they joined Portland’s Fire & Police Disability & Retirement plan after 1988 and retired before 2007.
But the City of Portland claims that wording was a mistake. In 2005, its lawyers successfully beat a lawsuit brought by Groepper and seven other officers, in part, by arguing that then–Chief of Police Charles Moose added the language to the manual without authority. The collective bargaining agreement negotiated with police and firefighters in 1993 and ’94, the city’s attorneys contended, sets the binding rules, and it contains no such promise of benefits.
A judge agreed. But on appeal, Groepper and his attorneys argued that the provisions were added to the manual later to provide parity with new employees who were contractually entitled to more benefits.
State law requires all minutes from the many arduous bargaining sessions necessary to change the manual and any contracts be kept for 75 years. The city claimed all pertaining documents were lost or irretrievable from an old computer system. Lacking any evidence to challenge the lower court’s ruling, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed it without opinion on August 29, 2007.
But Cold Case remained determined. “All [the city] was doing [in the manual] was giving all the cops with occupational disease disabilities the same benefit,” Groepper says. “How they fell through the cracks, that’s a question only those documents can answer.”
Groepper’s house has a storybook exterior, its steeply pitched roof rising into the trees on a verdant, sloping lot in unincorporated Clackamas County. But inside, most surfaces, from the kitchen counter to the dining room table, are covered in tall stacks of paper and boxes full of city and union documents.
Joined occasionally by Bennett, the former Burnside patrol sergeant with a heart condition, Groepper has patiently stalked city bureaus, pillaging the personal files of Charles Moose and other past police department managers. He estimates he’s spent thousands of hours pulling documents up through the city’s web-based document archive system, digging through the archives of both the city and the Portland Police Association, the local union.
In the 1990s, City Hall and labor unions hashed out every detail of police and firefighters’ benefits in brass-knuckle bargaining sessions, spelling out the results line by line in both the collective bargaining agreement and the employee handbook. Both were, and continue to be, two of the most fussed-over documents in City Hall. That one person—even a chief of police, as the city argued—could add language to the handbook seems far-fetched, to no one more than Moose himself.
“It’s bigger than my health care costs. It’s what the city did to deceive.” —Henry Groepper
In the 2005 lawsuit brought by Groepper and his colleagues, Moose was never deposed or called to testify. But interviewed by phone from his home in Tampa, Florida, he flatly denied he ever added—or even could have added—benefits, given the elaborate process of writing and rewriting, with each twist in the bargaining and review vetted by staff and lawyers. Moose’s remarks were echoed by Mark Sponhauer, then an officer in the planning and support division and now a detective for Portland Police. Sponhauer oversaw such changes at the time, and in a deposition confirmed that all documents traveled a wide circuit of stakeholders.