Anyone who has served in the U.S. military in a war zone is familiar with the concept of the "million-dollar wound." It's an injury severe enough to get a warrior out of combat and into a hospital bed but not severe enough to be permanently disabling.
The equivalent in law enforcement is a disability pension for an injury that is not quite so disabling. And a lot of people think medically retired New Jersey transit officer Christopher Onesti may be the beneficiary of such a "million-dollar wound."
Back in 2006, Onesti was qualifying with his service weapon when the wind blew down his target. He then picked up a staple gun, went downrange to fix the problem, and accidently shot a staple into the base of his left ring finger. Onesti pulled the staple out, covered the wound with an adhesive bandage, and finished qualifying.
The next day, he mentioned the injury to his commanding officer. And that set into motion a chain of events including doctor visits, surgeries, pension board hearings, and judicial rulings.
Three years later it was found that the injury to Onesti's non-shooting hand could prevent him from effectively controlling and handcuffing suspects and accurately shooting a pistol. He was awarded a tax-free disability pension of about $46,000 per year for life. If Onesti, who is now 34, makes it to 80—which is the expected lifespan of a male American born in 1979—then the total value of his pension is roughly $2.34 million without any inflation adjustments.
Onesti's retirement and move to a Philadelphia suburb should have been the end of this story. But unfortunately for Onesti, some folks apparently took exception to his disability pension and were watching him on social media for any signs of "non-disabled" behavior. So when he posted a video of himself shooting a precision Austrian rifle on his Facebook page, it was brought to the attention of the press.
Last month New Jersey Watchdog, a Website that monitors state government issues, published a story about Onesti and illustrated it with video of him shooting the rifle. Which led to coverage of Onesti's disability pension in the New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania media.
It would be easy to—as some have—blame Onesti for this entire mess. But it would also be false. He certainly played the game, but he didn't establish the rules.
From his point of view, Onesti was placed in an untenable situation. He even says he asked to stay on the force doing desk work and his request was denied. Then he was offered a pension of slightly more than $27,000 annually and that's when he sought the full disability and tax-free status.
Onesti is not alone. It's believed that numerous Garden State officers are on disability with minor injuries as the result of a clarification of state law. In 2007 the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling that made it much easier for injured officers to qualify for disability.
Bloomfield, N.J., detective John Sierchio serves on the board of the state's Police and Firemen's Retirement System, and he is angry about the cases in which minor injuries have resulted in full disability pensions for New Jersey officers. Sierchio told the New York Daily News that the board voted against Onesti but was overruled by a judge.
Sierchio and the board had to follow the judge's ruling, but he thinks the ruling was fundamentally unfair to officers who've suffered grave injuries on the job. "(A cop shot in the line of duty and someone like Onesti) get the exact same pension, and that's insane," Sierchio told the Daily News. "He just happens to fit within the law."
The New Jersey Police and Firemen's Retirement System spends about $200 million annually for officers on disability. Sierchio told the Daily News that he believes 90% of the claims are "questionable" and that officers disabled for minor injuries are draining the funds needed for "people who really deserve the disability pension."
Such funds are becoming more precious as more and more pension funds, including the New Jersey Police and Firemen's Retirement System, are facing a future of red ink. Both Garden State officers and public officials fear that payments to disabled officers with minor injuries may make it difficult for them to pay for future public safety retirement and disability programs. Worse, stories like those told by the press about Christopher Onesti may inflame public opinion against such benefits. But the only way to solve the problem is through a change in state law. And you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for that.