Never Forget the PSOBA
Aaron Nisenson, I.U.P.A. General Counsel
In 1976 Congress passed the Public Safety Officer Benefits Act to provide federal benefits to survivors of public safety officers who are killed or disabled in the line of duty. 42 U.S.C. 3796. Currently, these benefits include a death benefit of $283,385, disability benefits if an officer is permanently and totally disabled, and educational assistance to survivors.
When Congress passed the PSOBA it expressed a profound appreciation for the sacrifices law enforcement officers make:
The physical risks to public safety officers are great; the financial and fringe benefits are not usually generous . . . a Federal death benefit to . . . survivors is a very minor recognition of the value our government places on the work of this dedicated group of public servants.
S.Rep. No. 94-816, at 3-4.
However, the scope of the PSOBA is often underestimated. Several recent cases illustrate areas where PSOBA coverage may have been overlooked. First, the individuals covered by the PSOBA is expansive: the PSOBA definition of “law enforcement officer” includes “an individual involved in crime and juvenile delinquency control or reduction, or enforcement of the laws, including, but not limited to, police, corrections, probation, parole, and judicial officers.”
Thus, covered law enforcement officers include individuals who may not generally be considered law enforcement officers, such as school traffic officers (Cassella v. U.S., 68 Fed.Cl. 189), reserve deputies (Hawkins v. U.S., 68 Fed.Cl. 74), Chaplains, and volunteer firefighters (Messick v. U.S., Ct.Cl. Mar. 27, 2006). Therefore, the potential for PSOBA benefits should be considered when any member is killed in the line, not just those working on the street.
Second, the situations in which a death is considered “in the line of duty” is very expansive. It covers not just active enforcement of criminal laws, but also individuals involved in enforcement of civil laws, or crime prevention and reduction. (Cassella, Hawkins.) Therefore, the courts have awarded benefits for an officer killed after falling from a horse during a mounted posse (Hawkins); a school traffic officer killed while directing traffic (Cassela); an officer killed on the way home from duty by a fleeing suspect (Davis v. U.S., 46 Fed.Cl. 421); and a fourteen year old volunteer firefighter killed while traveling to a fire station to respond to an alarm (Messick). Thus, PSOBA benefits should be explored whenever a covered member is killed in any duty related activity. Areas that may be overlooked include deaths occurring while reporting to work in an emergency, engaging in directing traffic, and preparing for duty.
PSOBA benefits are granted by the federal government, and managed by the Department of Justice. See www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/grant/psob/psob_main.html. However, please remember that courts have rejected certain federal regulations, finding that they unjustly excluded qualified individuals. (Hawkins, Messick.) Therefore, when in doubt a claim should be filed.
In cases of legal disputes, the Court of Federal Claims resolves disputes. The I.U.P.A. general counsel is authorized to practice in this court in the event that local union counsel needs assistance.