Injured Portland police officer faces sick-time Catch-22
The day in 2001 when a stranger's bullet nearly took his arm, Officer Chris Barker remembers lying in his bed at Emanuel Hospital when Portland's then-Mayor Vera Katz held his hand, kissed his cheek, and issued the city's customary promise to its injured officers.
"You will always be taken care of, don't you worry," Barker recalled Katz saying, adding that then-chief Mark Kroeker said the same thing. "They made the same promise to my family."
Today, from where Barker sits, it's a different story. The Portland Police Bureau is refusing to give the decorated, longtime cop a desk job to accommodate the accumulated after-effects of his long-ago shooting, which required multiple surgeries to reconstruct his nerves. Not only that, but his disgruntlement — well justified, according to many cops — has the city subjecting him to a review of whether his long-ago diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder has affected his fitness to be a cop.
The move is clear retaliation for standing up to his superiors, Barker says, and many cops interviewed for this story say he's done nothing to deserve it. But the city's refusal to cover a doctor's recommended surgery to clean up scar tissues in his arm means Barker faces pressure to leave the force before qualifying for full retirement in 2021.
Now, in a highly unusual move, he's not just going public: He's taking his case to the city's cop watchdog office, the Independent Police Review unit — which he called last week, asking it to step in.
"I certainly can't help the fact I got ambushed and shot, and further shot and killed the suspect ... I pay for that every day of my life!" he said in a Facebook post in May. "I have done nothing but stand up for myself."
Barker's strange tale shows that despite all the laws passed in the name of protecting injured workers, their fate in some cases still rests on who their friends are. Documents describe a bureaucratic Catch-22 where a superior is using Barker's past need for sick time as a reason for not getting Barker a desk job that could save his career — and stop the need for sick time. It also shows why cops care so much about the safety net intended to protect them in the case of injury.
"We don't expect to be carried on the shoulders of our brethren," said another longtime Portland cop, Stuart Palmiter. "We just want to be taken care of when we get hurt. We just want to still be productive, get to our retirement and retire in good standing."
At this point, Barker is answering phones for the bureau, but in November he'll have to go back to work under the terms of his union contract — back to a patrol job that even the city's doctors agree is not the right fit for his injured body.
His job security would be better off if he were to get busted for drunk driving — because then, under the city's rules, he could answer phones indefinitely, Barker said.
Two months ago Barker filed a tort claim notice, essentially a threat of lawsuit, accusing the city of unlawfully retaliating against him for his rightful use of sick time.
Sgt. Kevin Allen, a public information officer for the Portland Police Bureau, said the city can't comment on specific cases, but he defended the city's handling of injured cops.
"The care of our officers is a concern and one of many reasons for the creation of a wellness officer position and our continued investment in the Employee Assistance Program," Allen wrote in an email. "There is a process in place for those who are injured and the Fire and Police Disability and Retirement fund is a resource for those who are injured on the job. If a sworn member of the Portland Police Bureau is unable to perform their job duties, the Police Bureau and the city have a number of processes available to evaluate and work with the member, including processes in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws."
Injury started with routine call
Barker was responding to a seemingly routine call when he was shot. A man had grabbed a woman's buttocks while she was walking to the park in Southeast Portland with her two children.
Barker and two other officers followed a man fitting the description of the suspect to a house on Southeast 69th Avenue. The man entered the house, then reemerged and began firing a revolver at them from 6 feet away.
Barker and the others returned fire and killed the man, later identified as a mentally ill man, Raymond Youngberg, 50.
Youngberg's bullet had entered Barker's right hand near his pinky, tumbled up his forearm and lodged in his bicep. At first the doctors thought he'd lose his arm, and certainly his career. His nerve had been turned into hamburger, and doctors conducted multiple surgeries to reconstruct it using nerve tissue taken from his leg.
Barker says he vowed right then that Youngberg's bullet would not steal his career. And after two years of healing and therapy, he proved the doctors wrong, returning to work.
But as his surgeon, Steven Madey, wrote in a 2007 letter, his strength would be permanently affected, and "he will be bothered by this the rest of his life."
Sitting at his dining room table recently, a tower of documents and medical records stacked in front of him, the walls decorated with his police awards and commendations, Barker, 49, showed off one of the braces he has to wear at night to curb the pain. His right hand looks like an old man's — gaunt and bony, its muscle wasted away — while the other looks normal.
The pain, he says, typically starts in the morning, fades, then grows in the afternoon. There are three kinds — the prickly electrical sensation in his wrist, the intermittent bee-sting sensations around his hand and arm, and — perhaps worst of all — a continuous dull ache. Narcotics don't help. The pain, Barker said, "wakes me up pretty much nightly."
His strength wanes as the pain grows. His hand shakes when tired, and he tends to drop things a lot. Meanwhile, due to the loss of nerve functioning, there's a general numbness in his right hand "like it's been dipped in wax," Barker said.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing for him is how close he came to the desk job he'd sought. Last December he received a text message from a police personnel manager, Rebecca McKechnie, telling him that as long as he stopped talking about lawsuits and stayed positive, he'd likely get the desk job he'd applied for since "the captain involved has a high regard for you." McKechnie stressed Barker should "act surprised" when he was picked.
For whatever reason, the happy "shoulder tap" McKechnie prepared him for never happened.
And his morale grew worse since February when the city denied his claim for sick time due to pain after he subdued a rowdy drunk and carried him from the car to the emergency room.
Barker's records show that the city's own doctors agree: What he needs is a low-stress desk job, or "light duty."
But the city won't give it to him.
Meanwhile, the city's Fire & Police & Disability Retirement bureau, a separate agency from the bureau, denied his most recent claim for coverage, saying more surgery will not help his arm, and there's no "preponderance of evidence" that his current symptoms stem from his 2001 shooting.
Several current and retired cops say FPDR has become far less friendly than it used to be to injured cops, now relying on the same system of "independent medical examiners," or IMEs, that private insurers do — a system that has drawn accusations of anti-claimant bias.
Sam Hutchison, head of FPDR, declined to comment, but referred the Tribune to a report showing that the agency denies only 6% of claims.
Daryl Turner, head of the Portland Police Association, similarly declined to comment, citing the pending case.
Alan Ferschweiler, head of the Portland Fire Fighters Association, said his members have noticed the difference with FPDR, which, according to the city charter is supposed to be a non-adversarial, neutral process.
"It's become an adversarial process, especially with the IMEs," he said. "We feel like the IME is more of a confrontational situation that's based upon employer needs, versus a neutral third party."
Barker's plight comes as the bureau is struggling to hire new recruits fast enough.
In 2002, Barker was decorated with the bureau's Police Star award for the Youngberg shooting, "in recognition of personal courage and devotion to duty,"
And Barker was again recognized in 2009 when he received the city's Medal of Valor for his role in responding to a shooting.
His performance evaluations have been good. One, in 2015, called him a "dedicated hard working officer. ... Officer Barker does a good job when dealing with the unsheltered population and with individuals suffering from mental illness."
There have been blemishes — mainly questions about his use of sick time and contractual leave.
In 2010, for instance, he received a reprimand for absence from work, but the document noted that most of his sick time used was "for legitimate health issues for which you had provided doctors notes." And in 2013 and 2015 he was similarly dinged for failing to show up for traffic court, meaning the tickets he'd written were thrown out.
He drew attention in 2015 for having "liked" a Facebook post showing solidarity with the cop involved in a controversial shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
"It had nothing to do with black, white, brown or whatever," Barker said. "It just had to do with another officer in the country needing support."
Bob Pippen, a patrol cop who retired in 2017, said he personally has worked alongside cops who abused the benefits system, and it made him angry. In contrast, he calls Barker hard-working and conscientious.
"They're questioning the motives of the wrong guy," Pippen said. "His motivation is, 'I want to work. I want to finish my career.'"
Things come to a head
Barker's plight took another turn in December. That's when the personnel manager told him he had a good shot of obtaining a job in the employee assistance program, helping other injured cops. Barker seemed well-qualified: He'd been volunteering to help injured cops for years and had been asked to talk to people about how to deal with post-traumatic stress.
However, in a Dec. 6 discussion, Barker's lieutenant told him he'd personally blocked the injured cop from getting a job in the employee assistance program and accused him of sick-time abuse, the officer says.
The lieutenant, Nathan Voeller, filed a complaint after the conversation, accusing Barker of a lack of courtesy. Barker, meanwhile, filed a complaint against Voeller for inappropriately citing his sick time usage to deny him a job.
In August, Barker received the notice that his supervising captain had dismissed the discipline against Voeller, and upheld it against Barker.
Last week, the longtime cop called the Independent Police Review unit — an office that some Portland cops view as anti-police — to ask it to examine the case and its outcome.
The injured cop says he's just desperate to finish the career he grew up wanting. He called the outcome of the internal investigation comical.
"This," Barker said, " is what happens when you stand up for yourself in this city."
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