Remarks of Laurie Robinson, Acting Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs
Concerns of Police Survivors Conference
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Thank you, Suzie. I’m so glad to be here.
I want to thank Suzie for her incredible leadership and advocacy – for so many years – on behalf of America’s law enforcement officers and their families. I also want to commend the entire Concerns of Police Survivors organization – the board, the staff and members – for their tireless work in support of our nation’s fallen heroes. Jennifer, thank you very much for all of your hard work as National President. The work that COPS does every day, the comfort you provide to family members and loved ones, the peace of mind that you give to fellow officers, are all so important and so very much appreciated by the Attorney General and the Department of Justice.
I feel very fortunate to work for an Attorney General who, as a prosecutor, has been on the front lines with our law enforcement officers, and who understands the enormity of the sacrifice that they make. He also knows that the burden of that sacrifice is shouldered most heavily by their families. Every danger that an officer faces, is faced in equal measure by those he or she loves.
President Obama feels the same way, and I’d like to take a minute to set the record straight on that point.
The President released details of his 2010 budget last week, and – as in every year’s budget proposal – there’s a line item for the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program.
As most, if not all, of you here know, the PSOB Program is a benefits program, intended to support officers who suffer catastrophic injuries while in the line of duty and family members and loved ones of officers killed in the line of duty. By the very nature of the program, it’s impossible to estimate how much will be needed for PSOB each year. But because of budget rules, the President is required to do just that.
The amount estimated for PSOB death benefits in this year’s budget is $60 million. That amount is based on historical patterns of spending. But I have to emphasize something extremely important: That figure is nothing more than an estimate. It is neither binding nor prescriptive, and it does not – I repeat, does not – represent a spending target or a ceiling. In fact, the language for the death benefits portion says that we will spend “such sums as are necessary,” meaning we will pay out whatever it takes to cover eligible benefits.
If some of you are wondering why I’m making such a big point of all this, it’s because word has gotten out that the amount proposed in the budget is less than the amount that was paid out in PSOB benefits last year. So some media outlets have, very wrongly, characterized this as a budget “cut.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
First of all, last year – that is, in fiscal year 2008 – we paid out more than $112 million in PSOB death benefits, which was more than double the amount that our PSOB Office had paid in any of the three previous years. 2008 was exceptional because we spent that year working to complete reviews on the many “Hometown Heroes” claims for heart attacks and strokes that we had received – so payments spiked. We approved 377 claims for death benefits that year – which was the highest rate of approvals since the year following the attacks of 9/11. But it’s important to note that in the three years prior to that, payments for death benefits never exceeded $53 million.
But again, from the standpoint of how much money will be available for PSOB, the amount in the President’s budget is merely a placeholder – an estimate based on previous-year spending patterns. There is no funding limitation or cap. Rest assured, if eligible claims exceed $60 million, additional funds will be made available.
I encourage you to share this with other families and agencies in your jurisdictions. I know how quickly false information can travel, and I’m very aware of how much damage that can do to morale. So please, help us spread the word that we are not – repeat, not – cutting PSOB.
I think it’s especially unfortunate that this has come up now. For one thing, it’s Police Week. But we have also been working very hard with COPS and other groups to make sure that PSOB is responsive to law enforcement officers and their families. We have heard you loud and clear that enhancements are needed to the PSOB program, and I think we have been making real progress. I want to tell you about a few of the things we have been working on.
First of all, we are getting close to full implementation of the PSOB case management system. This system will do two things. First, it will capture all active cases and allow us to closely monitor details on claims, which means increased accountability in our review process. Second, it will allow us to provide updates to survivors and agencies on the status of claims. This goes hand in hand with PSOB Online, which we put in place three years ago to allow survivors to access forms and submit material through the Internet.
Another thing we’re doing is increasing awareness of the program. PSOB has been around for more than 30 years, but I’m often surprised at how frequently I run into officers and entire agencies who have never heard of it. We’ve been going to conferences, trainings, and other meetings to brief agencies on the program. In fact, Hope Janke from our PSOB Office is here at this conference – as she has been for the last several years – to give an update on PSOB and to walk through the process with you. We also have nearly the entire PSOB Office staff here with you today and available to meet with you.
We’re also increasing staffing to help speed up the claims process. We’ve hired more hearing officers to decrease the amount of wait time. We’re also working to bring on additional contractual support staff to work with survivors on filing their claims, to have proactive and responsive communication, and to input data into the case management system. And we’re working to add attorneys to make things go more smoothly and quickly on the legal end.
We’re also increasing staffing of our PSOB call line. I know that not being able to talk to someone can be very frustrating. I just signed off on a contract expansion that will keep the call line staffed from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. I realize that’s not all day every day, but I think it’s a good start and will help give individuals who file claims better access to PSOB staff.
We know, however, that there are times when survivors want to know the status of their claim and are unable to reach a benefits specialist directly. To address this issue, and to create greater transparency, we are exploring the ability to provide every claimant with the ability to log on to the PSOB Web site and to learn the status of their claim on line. No more wondering where your claim may be and what the next steps are.
Another step is the formation of a PSOB advisory group. For the last five years, we’ve often called on some of our partners to help advise us on PSOB issues, but I think it’s important to institutionalize that process and create greater transparency on claims. We’ll be reaching out to COPS and other law enforcement partners to ask them to be part of this group, and I hope that you’ll take us up on this opportunity to learn just what goes on behind the scenes and to provide us with your insight and recommendations on how best to serve survivors.
Last, I have moved in the last few weeks to strengthen the accountability of the program. Now, for any claim that is not decided within 120 days or not moved to an inactive status, the case will be brought to my attention and I will ask why the claim has not been decided. This will begin immediately.
Finally, we’re working to expand our network of outreach and support. In fact, I’m pleased today to announce that we have just awarded COPS a $1.5 million grant to continue this very important work. This grant will support another National Police Survivors’ Conference like the one here today, weekend retreats for survivors, training, and a host of outreach activities, including newsletters for survivors and law enforcement leaders nationwide over the next 18 months and beyond. This investment is the largest DOJ has ever made with COPS and is critical – not just because it improves our responsiveness to PSOB claims, but because it’s so important to the emotional well-being of survivors.
I realize that much of the focus of my remarks has been on death benefits, but I’d just like to mention another tremendously meaningful aspect of PSOB – the educational assistance that we’ve provided to hundreds of surviving spouses and children each year. We’ve received many letters from survivors expressing that, but for this assistance, they might never have achieved their academic dreams. I say this, not to pat ourselves on the back, but to emphasize that PSOB can help in a number of important ways, and also to encourage you, in your outreach to survivors, to talk about this aspect of the PSOB program.
I want to close by pointing out that the PSOB program of today differs greatly from the PSOB program of three, or even two, decades ago. There are far more cases, the legal issues are more complex, and the threats to officer safety have grown. This means that we have to be even more thorough in our reviews. But the care we take in reviewing claims is a reflection of the respect we have for our nation’s law enforcement officers and their families and of the compassion that we feel for officer survivors.
I could give many examples of the work our PSOB Office has done to help survivors through the PSOB process, but I am very aware that examples are meaningless when your own experience has not been positive. You feel like this moment of great personal tragedy has been reduced to a small length of red tape. You may even feel that someone is looking for evidence to deny your claim. Let me assure you, that is not the case.
We care about every law enforcement survivor, and we care about each and every PSOB claim – and we will do whatever it takes to make sure that everyone who files a claim understands the process and has the information he or she needs.
So, as we work to make the PSOB program more responsive, more timely, and more sensitive to the needs of law enforcement survivors, please continue to share with us your concerns and your ideas for making this a better program. We won’t be defensive or make excuses – that’s something I just won’t tolerate. Instead, we’ll listen, and we’ll do whatever we can to help.
So thank you for your time, and thank you for all you do on behalf of law enforcement officers and their families of this great nation.