SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Four Orange County sheriff’s deputies injured in the Las Vegas county music festival massacre have been denied workers’ compensation and court battles may be looming for dozens of other California law enforcement personnel who tried to help even though they were off-duty, it was reported.
More than 200 Southern California police officers were attending the Oct. 1 event when a gunman opened fire and some were shot or otherwise hurt as they helped secure the area, perform CPR and get people to safety. Some have put in claims for compensation with their cities or counties and others intend to do so.
But because of unclear language in California’s labor code, local jurisdictions are asking whether they are required or even allowed to compensate people who were hurt while performing police duties out of state on their own time, the Orange County Register reported Monday.
At issue is whether taxpayers must foot the bill for potentially long-term medical care and treatment of post-traumatic stress, not to mention early disability retirements.
The California labor code says public agencies are required to pay benefits to off-duty police officers hurt while protecting life, peace or property anywhere in California but the code doesn’t mention out-of-state actions.
Orange County officials interpreted that lack as forbidding payment. On Monday, the county rejected workers’ compensation claims from four sheriff’s deputies who said they suffered physical and psychological injuries while doing police work during the attack.
“If the county believed the law was on the side of these applicants, these claims would not be rejected,” Orange County counsel Leon Page said. “But there’s no wiggle room, there’s no discretion.”
“There’s no ill will here,” Page said. “We just think the law is clear.”
The deputies’ union had a different interpretation.
“The Sheriff’s Department has an expectation of its sworn members to take whatever actions are necessary to preserve life wherever they’re at,” said Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs. “If they deny the claims, then the message that they’re sending to their peace officers is not to take action when it is certainly warranted.”
State lawmakers should step in to extend benefits for out-of-state actions, county Supervisor Todd Spitzer said.
“These police officers went into their instinctive training mode. and I don’t think they should be punished because they trusted their instincts,” he said.
In the meantime, those whose claims are rejected have the option to sue. More than a half-dozen jurisdictions, including Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, might find themselves facing court battles with injured people whom, in other circumstances, they might honor for heroism.
Los Angeles County is considering whether to accept or reject claims by two sheriff’s deputies who were shot at the festival.
Eleven San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies attended the festival and one, Sgt. Brad Powers, was shot in the leg. The deputies union is talking with the Sheriff’s Department about treating that as an on-duty injury.
In the city of Bakersfield, 14 local officers attended the festival, including Aaron Mundhenke, who was shot in the hip.
The police union has advised members to seek legal advice if they are considering filing claims but the president, Officer Ramon Chavez, told the Register that he understands the city’s predicament if officers seek paid time off in the aftermath of their Las Vegas experiences.
“There are 14 people, and if all these officers go out on stress, if they cover one, they’ll probably have to cover everybody else,” he said.