When a Police Officer Is Killed, a Financial Army Moves In
As America absorbed the news of five murdered Dallas police officers, Frederick Frazier grimly signed $2,000 checks, one after another. They were for the families of the slain.
“So many people are calling and want to donate food, travel, but the biggest thing in the world for the families of these officers is that their means of finance is gone,” said Frazier, chairman of the Assist the Officer Foundation and a Dallas cop for 21 years.
The officers killed during the Black Lives Matter march in downtown Dallas on Thursday were Lorne Ahrens, 48; Michael Krol, 40; Michael Smith, 55; Patrick Zamarripa, 32; and Brent Thompson, 43. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 123 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty last year, among the more than 900,000 currently active in the U.S.
Police officers in the U.S. are poorly paid relative to the risks of the job, their unions will tell you. This is especially the case in the bigger cities: Dallas police make an average of about $54,000 a year, while a 2014 report found the base salary to be roughly $50,000. Despite charitable funds and the pension payment, the families of officers may struggle without additional help from the state and federal governments.
Dallas-based certified financial planner Wade Chessman, of Chessman Wealth Strategies, has worked with spouses of officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. Much of their income consists of tax-free pension payments, tax-free workers compensation payments, and some life insurance from the U.S. government and local credit unions. The widow of a police officer received a year of dues from the Dallas Police Association, as well as some Social Security survivor benefits tied to work her husband did before joining the force. But in the case of a firefighter's widow, even with all those sources, the sum total was “not enough where she can do whatever she wants,” said Chessman. "If she’s careful, it will be fine."
Checks to relatives
That's where people such as Frazier come in. He anticipated an additional $100,000 in donations through his group’s website by day's end on Friday. That and any other money coming in over the next week and a half will be split among the five grieving families. Also on Friday, Ron Pinkston, president of the Dallas Police Association (DPA), drove to the homes of two of the five officers, delivering their next-of-kin checks for about $100,000. Though technically not a union, the association gives families of its slain members a “special assessment” equal to one month of association dues from all members. “We try to do it the next day, which is today,” he explained. “The state and the feds, they come much later. Even the city paycheck is held out for a while. We want to make sure there’s no financial burden on these families. All that they have to worry about is grieving.”
Four of those killed were members of the Dallas Police Department. All of them voluntarily joined the DPA, which represents about 85 percent of the force. The fifth officer, Thompson, worked for Dallas Area Rapid Transit. As a transit officer, he didn’t qualify to join the association and didn't have a traditional police pension. A DART spokesman said Thompson had access to a defined contribution plan and the option to purchase life insurance. To benefit the Iraq war veteran and his family, the transit department started a GoFundMe, where they hope to raise $100,000. As to whether those funds will be taxed, the crowdfunding website doesn't offer “specific tax advice” to users but notes that “most donations on GoFundMe are considered to be 'personal gifts' which are not taxed as income in the U.S.” Thompson’s family will also receive an equal share of the funds raised by Frazier’s foundation.
Texas law calls for a lump sum payment of $500,000 to an officer's surviving spouse, children, or parents, as well as possible state-paid funeral arrangements and health benefits for relatives. The “special benefits to survivors of those killed in the line of duty” is administered by the Employees Retirement System of Texas (ERS). On Friday afternoon, the ERS hand-delivered copies of an updated statement of the benefits—and how to apply—to state offices at the Texas Capitol, said Mary Jane Wardlow, the agency spokesperson. Also, the federal government’s Public Safety Officers Benefits Program offers compensation of about $340,000.
Too much paperwork
Both Frazier and Pinkston said these programs require considerable paperwork and have waiting periods, during which time the family may experience financial burdens. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the delay in May 2013, when he announced that the PSOB program would move to a paperless, electronic management system. “These fundamental improvements to the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program will help us cut through red tape–and ensure that fallen or injured officers and their families can get the benefits they need in a timely manner,” he said at the time. From 2008 to 2013, the program distributed more than $426 million.
Outside the government system, private life insurance policies are available to police officers. The DPA offers life insurance through the Texas Police Trust, which account executive Taylor Jackson said runs about $26 a month. Jackson estimated that about half the association’s members have policies.
Former New York Police Department Lieutenant Keith Maresca said he never purchased life insurance while on the force, though the union offered it to members. The union also provided information sessions about writing a will, retirement planning, and what Maresca describes as “preparing yourself if, God forbid, something happens.” He found the sessions useful but opted not to have life insurance because he knew his family would receive the police pension.
“You discuss it,” Maresca said of the dangers of being a police officer. “There’s a lot of times when you’re in discussion that you kind of joke about it—that’s just a way of dealing with the harsh reality of it.”