OAKLAND -- As Oakland investigates a former police officer who has been collecting a medical disability pension while working as an FBI agent, it continues to approve far more police disability retirements than neighboring cities.
Last year, nearly three out of four retiring Oakland police officers received disability retirements, department records show.
Officers approved for a disability retirement get their pensions tax free as long as the injury is work-related.
The benefit deprives public agencies of tax revenue and contributes to higher pension rates that the city must pay to the California Public Employees' Retirement System.
In Oakland last year, 12 officers received a standard retirement while 35 received disability retirements.
The figures were essentially reversed in San Jose where 26 officers received standard retirements and nine received disability retirements.
In Richmond, two of the six retiring officers received a disability retirement last year.
San Francisco reported 152 standard retirements and one disability retirement in 2013.
"If all our numbers are that out of the ordinary, we absolutely should be looking into that," Oakland council president Pat Kernighan said.
Sgt. Holly Joshi said disability retirements increased in 2013 as the city worked to process dozens of officers who had been out on long-term injury leave. So far this year, there have been eight disability retirements and four standard retirements, she said.
Also, Joshi said unlike some other police departments, Oakland chooses not to keep injured officers in desk jobs.
"We can't accommodate desk duties permanently because we have a high demand for officers who can take calls for service," she said.
Attorney John Burris, who frequently sues the department, said officers are using medical disabilities to express their frustration with city and department leaders.
. "Disability retirements are a way to fatten their pockets and cause the city more financial stress," he said.
The issue of disability retirements rose to prominence this week after The Boston Globe reported that former Oakland Police Officer Aaron McFarlane, 41, had been collecting a $52,488 annual disability pension even though he was deemed fit enough to work as an FBI agent.
McFarlane, who retired from Oakland in 2004, has come under scrutiny after it was revealed he was the federal agent who fatally shot a key figure in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
City officials are looking into whether McFarlane's job at the FBI required the same degree of physical fitness as his former job in Oakland. They would not rule out seeking criminal charges against the former officer.
"If we think that it's a criminal matter we will definitely report it to the District Attorney's Office, but it's too early to tell," City Administrator Fred Blackwell said Friday.
In cases where an officer who retired on disability is able to resume police work, it is the officer's responsibility to alert his former employer, CalPERS spokesman Joe DeAnda said.
Councilman Dan Kalb said retirees on medical disability should be required to show they have not returned to physically demanding jobs.
"There is a gap in the system," he said. "It can't be that no one is checking because people will try to scam us right and left."
In Oakland, a city-run board, independent of the police department, determines whether employees qualify for disability retirements. Its decision is based on the advice of a city-commissioned doctor.
Sgt. Barry Donelan, who heads the Oakland Police Officers Association, chalked up the high number of disability retirements to the challenge of policing the state's most violent city with an understaffed force that has been required to work mandatory overtime for more than 18 months.
"These are the hardest officers working in America," he said. "Unfortunately, they get injured and stressed at rates that are higher than everyone else."
Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at Berkeley Law School, attributed Oakland's high number of disability retirements to officers seeing their comrades receive them.
"If Jones and Smith, get away with it, then Johnson will be next," he said.
Zimring questioned why the city hadn't addressed the issue.
"When you've got a statistical outlier like this, it's very easy to understand why the officers do it," he said. "The mystery is why it's allowed."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.