So many Minnesota police officers have left the profession due to post-traumatic stress disorder that 11 Minnesota organizations started a group to highlight what has become a fiscal and staffing crisis for many communities.
As of June, 118 disability retirement claims had been filed with the state police and fire retirement fund, equal to the total number of applications in all of 2019. In 2020, the year George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, the state received 241 applications. Last year, the state received 307 applications.
Since August 2020, police officers made 80% of the disability claims, and 80% said they have post-traumatic stress syndrome.
That prompted Minnesota organizations — from the League of Minnesota Cities to the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association — to create the MN Public Safety Wellness Initiative. They plan to increase awareness of the PTSD problem and support and educate workers through a public relations campaign, as well as promote legislation to address the exodus of workers.
Lora Setter, the public safety program coordinator for the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, worked in law enforcement for more than 20 years. Cops often work 12-hour shifts that can morph into 14- to 16-hour shifts, she said, but they’re used to being the helpers, not the ones that need help.
“There was no crying in baseball,” she said. “You didn’t talk about anything because you were expected to be tough and strong.”
And with staffing shortages, those officers who remain are under more pressure.
The group is still in its infancy, she said, but they want to heighten awareness because cities can’t solve the problem on their own.
The departure of workers is contributing to staffing shortages — and hurting city budgets.
Some workers claim workers’ compensation benefits, collect a lifetime disability pension and then, by law, their former employer must cover their medical insurance until they turn 65. The average age of people seeking PTSD-related pensions since 2013 is 42. The group said these are important, taxpayer-paid benefits, but many communities can’t afford the increasing claims.
Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said PTSD is serious, but in most cases, treatment and support can prevent early retirement.
“We need to reduce the stigma in our profession that PTSD is a sign of weakness, empower public safety professionals to ask for help, and proactively give them the support they deserve,” he said in a news release.
Chris Steward, a retired Minneapolis sergeant who spent most of his career working in north Minneapolis, left MPD due to PTSD after 14 years on the force.
He said he loved his job but became a threat to himself and others, and has since created a nonprofit called Heroes Helping Heroes to help cops cope with PTSD.
He said the MN Public Safety Wellness Initiative doesn’t have anybody in its work group “who represents the people with boots on the ground” — like a worker who has been diagnosed with PTSD or has gone through the workers’ compensation process.
“It’s these administrators who are in the front office who haven’t done any police or EMS work in 15-plus years,” Steward said. “They’re completely out of touch with reality.”
Steward said nothing prevents cities and counties from offering such services now, and if they took the issue seriously, they would already be helping people deal with the stresses of the profession.
Setter of the League of Minnesota Cities said departments face funding constraints, and that’s why the groups had hoped to see the Legislature step up to help cities deal with the emerging crisis.
“Some agencies are very robust in their approach to this, and some agencies aren’t,” she said.
Steward said some workers can go back to work, but some are so badly affected that it can take decades, maybe even a lifetime, to recover.
“Almost every one of us — if we had a choice — would put a uniform on and go back,” he said. “But we can’t … our mental health is preventing us from doing a job we love.”
The new organization includes the League of Minnesota Cities, Metro Cities, Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, Minnesota Association of Small Cities, Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, Minnesota Inter-County Association, Association of Minnesota Counties, and Government Human Resource Professionals.
Editor’s note: The Minnesota Reformer is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to keeping Minnesotans informed and unearthing stories other outlets can’t or won’t tell.
Minnesota Reformer staff writer Deena Winter wrote this piece. It originally appeared in the Minnesota Reformer on Aug. 11.
She can be reached at email@example.com.