Retired Sierra Vista Cop Goes To Court To Fight For Pension

CITY CONTENDS ANY DISABILITY IS UNRELATED TO RECENT WORK

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A former Sierra Vista police officer has given notice to the city that he intends to appeal a December 2019 decision which denied him a disability retirement through the state’s Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS).

Jock Russell believes his response to a February 2018 suicide call triggered PTSD symptoms, including auditory hallucinations, which interfered with his ability to perform his duties. His August 2018 pension application was denied by Sierra Vista’s police pension board in April 2019, a decision reconfirmed by the board in December.

In January, Russell, filed a notice of appeal with the Cochise County Superior Court. He has requested oral arguments on whether the local pension board failed to properly consider PRPRS statutes, thus erring when his application was denied. If approved for a disability pension, Russell, 57, would receive $3,165 per month based on his average monthly compensation of $6,300.

The suicide incident occurred Feb. 17, 2018, shortly after Russell arrested a man for DUI. The officer seized a gun from the man, processed him for a DUI charge, then drove the man home, a not-uncommon practice at an officer’s discretion. Once outside the man’s home, Russell returned the gun.

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About an hour later, Russell and another officer were dispatched to the home for a welfare check. Upon entering the house they discovered the man shot himself in the head.

Public records obtained by Arizona Daily Independent show Russell was referred for counseling. He was later cleared to return to duty, but contends he was “walking wounded” and could pose a danger to the public, himself, and his coworkers. He then went out on leave before resigning in August 2018.

Russell’s disability pension application cites the suicide as his “disabling event.” A five-member board chaired by Mayor Rick Mueller, along with two active-duty police officers, a Human Resource employee, and a member of the public first considered the application in November 2018.

One issue the board members had to consider is that Russell previously worked for the city as a police officer from February 2002 through March 2010. That first term of employment was ended by the city, which resolved an EEOC complaint by financially compensating Russell and hiring him in February 2011 for a non-sworn position as a records supervisor.

According to board documents, Russell later applied for law enforcement positions with three federal agencies and two sheriff’s offices, but none made offers of employment. The city rehired him as a police officer effective February 2013.

By then, Russell had withdrawn his pension contributions related to his first term of employment. As a result, any PSPSR pension must now be based solely on his second term as a Sierra Vista police officer.

And that is the source of the disagreement between Russell and the pension board. The board acknowledged the February 2018 suicide call as “the final culminating event” leading to Russell’s resignation. However, the board cited “other more culminating evidence” unrelated to his second term of city employment in denying the pension application.

That evidence, the board contends, included Russell’s experiences on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) taskforce during his first term of employment with the city which appears tied to the PTSD and hallucinations. The board also cited “personal stressors” such as frequent bouts of insomnia and fatigue, depression due to long term marital and financial issues, operating a private business while employed fulltime by the city, and Russell’s enrollment in a demanding PhD program.

“It appears his life has been in constant chaos and turmoil,” one of the city documents noted.

In December, Russell took to social media seeking employment opportunities and sharing his frustrations with the city’s position. He noted that at one point, city officials questioned whether he should have been more explicit in his resignation letter as to his reason for leaving and his plans to apply for disability retirement.

Russell suggested in his Dec. 16, 2019 posting that the board is more influenced by other officers than medical reports, including one a city-hired doctor who confirmed Russell suffers from depression and PTSD.

“They have listened to officers giving their opinion that I am faking it,” Russell wrote, adding that he appreciates everyone’s consideration and prayers, and is “really trying not to be bitter.”

Public records show one of Russell’s supervisors questioned whether the officer was gaming the pension system with claims of psychological problems. The corporal said he believed Russell was putting on “a show” and knew “the right things to say” to support a disability claim because Russell was studying for a PhD in Psychology.