Council wise not to delay officer's disciplinary hearing

June 20, 2014 

Keith Spears

Sometimes doing nothing is the right thing.

So, it was Tuesday when the Urban County Council passed on a request to delay the June 30 disciplinary hearing of a police officer until after he'd had a chance to get disability retirement benefits from the pension board.

The case involves Keith Spears, the officer who pleaded guilty in January to a charge of harassment that arose from a confrontation in October with a 13-year-old soccer referee at a youth soccer game.

Spears "verbally confronted" the boy and then "shoved him and grabbed his wrist," according to court documents.

It's the council's job to hold public hearings to decide on discipline, including possible termination, of police officers.

Mary Sharp, Spears' attorney, asked that the council wait until after the pension board meets in mid-July. The council hearing would "not even be necessary," if, as she anticipated, Spears got disability retirement, she told the council. If Spears, who is now on unpaid leave, is fired he won't be eligible to retire.

It's not hard to understand Spears' motivation. Officers who retire with a job-related disability -— there aren't any details on Spears' disability application — receive a minimum of 60 percent of their final salary, tax-free, regardless of the number of years of service. Children of disabled officers can attend any state college or university for free until age 23.

It doesn't take a financial wizard to figure that's a better deal than being fired.

For managers, and even the council, disability retirement could also be a way to avoid the difficult work of confronting tough, time-consuming disciplinary matters. Look the other way on a disability claim and the problem goes away.

Except it doesn't really. Disability retirement is an important and legitimate benefit for people doing dangerous public-safety jobs.

When those benefits are awarded to people with only minor issues, it drains funds from the system and diminishes public confidence in the process.

The council could have put off its disciplinary hearing, accepting his attorney's assertion that the pension board would grant Spears' disability benefits and this unpleasant task would go away.

But it didn't, and that was the right decision.

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