Judge Blocks Attempt To Pension Disabled Policeman
CHICAGO (AP) _ He survived Vietnam, a dangerous tour as an undercover decoy cop and two bouts with cancer that cost him his legs. Now Bruce Neberieza is fighting to keep a desk job that officials contend he can no longer handle.
″They say that because I use two canes, I can’t defend myself,″ the 43- year-old Neberieza said Friday.
Since his first amputation in 1980, Neberieza has been assigned to the front desk of a local precinct. The Police Department has tried since last summer to strip away that job, either by suspending him or putting him on medical disability, claiming he is medically unfit for the post.
The city told Neberieza on Tuesday it was suspending him without pay or insurance until the city Police Board rules on whether he should be put on disability pension.
″What has been filed with the Police Board are specifications stating that, based on evaluations, he is not able to fully perform the functions of a police officer,″ said Robert Karmgard, the city’s assistant corporation counsel.
But Circuit Judge Thomas Rakowski ruled Thursday that Neberieza is entitled to a Police Board hearing before the board rules, and extended an order he first issued in October that bars the city from taking Neberieza off the payroll without such a hearing.
″It makes no sense for a person who has performed his duties, is performing his duties, has a doctor’s affidavit that he can do a desk job, to be denied (salary and medical insurance) without a hearing,″ the judge said.
The Police Board hearing is scheduled for July 15.
Neberieza, who supports his wife and three children on his $35,000 salary, said he wants to stay on active duty another 15 years to qualify for full pension. On disability, he would receive half pay for four years, and a small annuity thereafter.
″I can’t afford to settle for a small annuity,″ he said. ″I have a mortgage and bills like anyone else.
″I feel I fit the definition of a policeman. I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do.″
″He has proved he can do the job,″ said John Dineen, president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police. ″He has been doing it for seven years.″
Neberieza joined the police force 15 years ago after a Vietnam tour with the Air Force.
He eventually was assigned to an undercover unit of decoys who prowled subways, acting like drunks or sleeping commuters to lure muggers.
But in 1980, his right leg was removed at the hip because of cancer.
That meant a limited-duty job; he was assigned to a neighborhood police station’s front desk.
Five years later, he developed heart trouble and had quadruple bypass surgery.
It wasn’t until last year, when Neberieza lost his left leg below the knee to cancer, that the city decided it no longer could use him.
″The two requirements to remain on the job are that they must be able to ambulate independently and be able to fire a firearm. If he can’t protect himself, how could he protect the citizen?″ Police Commander Hubert Holton, the department’s personnel commander, told the Chicago Tribune.
Neberieza, who walks on two artificial legs, said he is no more disabled than any number of other handicapped officers performing limited-duty jobs.
His attorney, Anne Burke, said the department has 600 ″light duty″ jobs and Neberieza easily could fill one of them. Except for his court appearance, she said, he hasn’t missed a day of work.