Broken Promise

The city puts the squeeze on some retired cops

Oct 3, 2001 at 4:00 am
Cops don't have normal jobs. They're the only ones in civil society allowed to use violence against fellow citizens. That's not a bad thing when the violence is directed at the jerks and perpetrators among us; it's an awful thing when the violence is overdone or used on innocent, wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time citizens.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, everybody seems to have discovered the value of police officers and firefighters. Suddenly they're heroes. Now they're trendy. But for all the teary-eyed flag-waving, has anybody started a campaign for better pay and retirement benefits for those in uniform? Didn't think so.

Joe Fredericks was a policeman, but it would be hard to describe him as trendy or typical. He retired last year after 23 years as a city cop. He's been shot and he's shot other people. In the mid-'80s, he worked for two years as an FBI agent in Colorado, but he returned to the the funky South City streets of the 3rd District. It's not a quiet place, but Fredericks led that district in arrests for 14 straight years. He was named Policeman of the Year in 1989. He says he's made more than 6,500 arrests, about one-third of those for prostitution. Don't argue with him. He can probably prove it. "I'm a little bit more colorful than the average policeman -- or I was," Fredericks says.

Like most cops who bailed after toting a gun and a badge for 20 years, Fredericks expected that his health insurance premium would be paid by his former employer. He was wrong. That changed in July. For any retired cop who was on the force for less than 30 years, the monthly fee is $53. Once a retiree turns 65, the fee is waived.

That's not a lot of money, and Fredericks won't have to break into his piggy bank anytime soon. If health insurance were means-tested and given only to the financially needy, he wouldn't be getting a free ride. When Fredericks was a street cop, he worked so much overtime that in some years he earned more money than lieutenants. Or captains. And he saved it too, so money is not a problem for the never-married Fredericks. But it is for many retired cops, some with kids still in school.

In response to the change in benefits, attorney Elkin Kistner has filed a class action lawsuit against the Board of Police Commissioners on behalf of retired policeman Charley Lane and other retirees to force the city to pay the full medical insurance premium for retirees. Kistner contends the state statute requires the city to do so. Sheriff Jim Murphy authored the bill when he was a state senator and agrees the intent of his legislation was to require the city to pay the full benefit premium. "If it wasn't that, we would have said 'may provide' instead of 'shall provide health, medical and life insurance coverage for retired officers,' which is how it's written," Murphy says.

Fredericks, like many other cops, is pissed. He feels he's been betrayed. He worries it's only the beginning.

"The 50 bucks a month is bad, but it's not as bad as the fear that if it's 50 bucks a month this year, then next year it's 75 bucks a month and the year after that it's a 100 bucks a month until finally it disappears," Fredericks says. "That's what they're going for, years down the road: to eliminate health insurance for anybody with less than 30 years."

Police Commissioner Eddie Roth insists that the cash-strapped city has been "heroic in doing the financial heavy lifting" to pay for a police department that serves the entire region by keeping the core under control. "There is an urgent need for the region to grow up and get its act together on law-enforcement funding," Roth says. "Putting the arm on retirees is an unhappy event that is symptomatic of a much larger issue."

Earlier this year, Roth floated the idea that other local jurisdictions chip in to the city's police budget, but the motion died for lack of support. Roth insists that the area's economic segregation is driving the crisis, separating a central city with a dwindling tax base and a high crime rate from a more affluent, less crime-riddled suburban ring. Roth denies that making retirees pay part of their medical insurance was designed so that cops would stay on until they reached the 30-year plateau. Fredericks isn't buying that. He thinks Roth wants cops to work longer.

"That's Roth's idea so they keep people around 30 years because they can't hold people on the department. Everybody's quitting. It's not just morale with St. Louis city. All big city departments have morale problems," says Fredericks, who has doubts that keeping cops on the payroll longer will improve law enforcement. "Most of these guys who do 30 years, most of them go hide behind a desk. What guy out there with 30 years on is chasing down people? I was really an exception."

One of those chases occurred five years ago, when a rather large man Fredericks suspected of having a gun took off running. "I chased him for about a block, through the alleys and yards and stuff. When I tackled him, it was a freak accident, my triceps on my right arm completely disconnected from the elbow, the bone, and rolled up my arm. So I only got one fuckin' arm. I still wrestled this 250-pound prick and got him handcuffed. He was pretty winded though because he was out of shape and I wasn't."

"My arm has never been the same," Fredericks says. "I was 44 years old at the time. How many 44-year-old cops you got out there chasing bad guys on foot?"

Of course there are other war stories. This one is from 1980:

"I chased some guy into a gangway," Fredericks says. "He was a burglar we were looking for. The gangway was a dead end, so he comes back toward me, tries to run by me and I push him up against the wall. All of a sudden I hear a pop. What had happened was he had pulled a gun and put it to my stomach and pulled the trigger five times. But I didn't know it until the fifth one went off. The first four were misfires. It was a .32 revolver, stolen from the state of Texas. Anyway, the ammunition was old and screwed up; it didn't go off. You could see the primer marks, the marks on the back of the bullet where the hammer hits the bullet. By the time he squeezed the fifth round off, I was pushing him back so the gun turned sideways and the bullet hit me in the bottom of the arm.

"So then I heard the pop and I felt the pain and I saw the gun in his hand and we fought over the gun. I knocked him to the ground and I pulled out my gun and shot him in the head," Fredericks says. "But he lived."

And so did Fredericks. Last year, he finally tired of arresting prostitutes, which he was doing full time since '96. Some of them surely hated to see him pull around a corner near Chippewa and Broadway, though at least one, who worked the South City streets with her twin sister, went so far as to name her child after him. That was based on the sad premise that if Fredericks hadn't busted her so often, "she would never have eaten because the only time she ate was when she went to prisoner processing and got the bologna sandwiches."

Such are the memories of a career 3rd District cop. Fredericks also has a string of nagging maladies, including not being able to raise his right hand over his head, though that may be due more to his fuzzball pitching years ago than anything police-related. He's got a disc problem in his neck and he's taking medication for an arthritic shoulder.

But money is not his problem, principle is. For him, it's more about police commissioners reneging on a deal. "When I was hired, they said, 'When you retire, you'll have medical insurance for the rest of your life and we'll pay for it,'" Fredericks says. "They told us that and then in addition to that, it's in plain language in the statute."

Officials respond that other retirees are being asked to kick in as medical costs change. But then, most people's jobs don't call for them to chase 250-pound guys down an alley or to get a gun shoved in their gut in a gangway.