Insult to Injury

Some ex-deputies say BSO treated them like damaged goods after they got hurt on the job

Erin Brown grew up in an Irish cop family. One brother, a sister, and three cousins all work for the Broward Sheriff's Office. Her father, Don O'Brien, retired from BSO in 1995. And a career in law enforcement was all that the freckled redhead wanted for herself. Two years out of high school, she applied to join BSO; in February 1987, she spent her first day on the job as a detention deputy sheriff at the Broward County Jail. In 1989, she married another BSO deputy.

Brown's employers were happy with her too. She collected five letters of appreciation from superiors and even some from relatives of the inmates she guarded. The two performance evaluations which appear in her personnel file, from 1991 and 1998, give her excellent marks. While she served under three Broward sheriffs, she was credited with recruiting her sister and two cousins for the department. She hoped and expected to serve for 25 years and retire with the dignity due a long-time law officer. But that's not what happened.

On the night of August 11, 1998, Brown was working in the visitation area when the dispatcher called for all available deputies to respond to a disturbance in a cellblock. Racing to the scene, Brown led a file of deputies running around one side of the jail's circular control room. As she rounded the bend, she nearly ran into another deputy leading a line from the other side. She changed directions to avoid a collision but felt her legs slide out from under her. Brown slammed down, banging her elbow and head on the concrete floor. She knew she was hurt, but as her fellow deputies helped her up, she didn't think it was serious. The deputies, including Brown, went on in search of the emergency only to find that a faulty alarm had directed them to the wrong end of the jail.

She filled out an event report and shrugged off the initial pain. But the next day, she awoke with a splitting headache and knew something was seriously wrong. She went to see a doctor approved by Workman's Compensation, and the next week also got a brief get-well note from Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, signed with a green felt-tip scrawl.

Brown has come a long way from receiving letters of condolence from Jenne. Now, almost four years later, Brown's faith in BSO is shattered. She claims that BSO, seeing an injured employee as a liability, never really intended to keep her on the job even though the Americans with Disabilities Act required the department to accommodate her needs. She believes that BSO waged a hamhanded campaign to discredit her with the intention of making her quit: She was investigated twice as a suspected malingerer and twice was cleared. When that effort failed, she says, BSO played a shell game with bogus job offers until it found an excuse to fire her.

Now that she no longer has a job, Brown says she's more disappointed than anything else. She expected better from Jenne, whom she once saw as the "savior" of BSO. "I'm disappointed in his leadership, or lack thereof," Brown says. "I fear he has allowed himself to become insulated and isolated by his command staff to the point where he has no idea what occurs in daily operations."

The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't require the creation of jobs for injured employees but does require reassignment to a vacant position if the injured person is qualified and the change does not involve a promotion or create an undue hardship.

Brown's father, a BSO retiree with 13 years of service, says that dumping injured employees was never a policy under previous sheriffs. But among the comparatively small group of detention deputies Brown knew, she could immediately name several others who had lost their jobs -- she believes unfairly -- since Jenne took over in January 1998. They all say that once they were hurt in the line of duty, their BSO "family" disappeared, replaced by harassment and endless runarounds that resulted in their firing.

One of Jenne's obsessions is slashing BSO's expenditures on sick time. He publicly credits his PowerTrak statistics systems with identifying bogus claims of ailments, thus saving more than 4 million taxpayer dollars since his arrival.

But at least three of his ex-deputies hint at another method of cost-cutting. Injured employees with years of seniority earn more than uninjured new hires, making compliance with the law uneconomical. And Mario Perez, attorney for two of Brown's injured acquaintances, points out that having injured employees on the payroll can run up the department's insurance costs. If those deputies are driven from the department, collecting Workman's Compensation disability checks, they are shifted off Jenne's books and onto the Broward County Risk Management budget, which pays out Workman's Comp. "Unfortunately," Perez says, "this is something you see more and more of with employers."

The Broward Sheriff's Office employs nearly 5000 people, of whom 1470 were injured on the job between 1997 and 2001, according to Broward County Risk Management. That's roughly one out of every 13 in any given year. But how many of those injured employees have been dismissed, for whatever reason, is harder to figure out. New Times asked BSO public information officers that question. They referred the inquiry to Broward County Risk Management. A spokesperson for Risk Management, however, said they didn't keep track of that and directed New Times back to BSO. It might be possible, she said, to figure it out by pulling boxes of old records from the warehouse, going through every injury claim and then calling BSO 1470 times to ask if each person still worked there.

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