UPDATE 12/1 10:31 a.m.: ADDS State Rep. Yasmin Neal comment
On November 8, 2017, Forest Park Master Police Officer Timothy Sterrett walked to an ambulance, his hand pressed on the bullet wound in his neck. He bled out the equivalent of three times. He died twice.
Today, Sterrett carries the slug, the fragments, the catastrophic nerve damage, the PTSD, and the knowledge that the City of Forest Park did not have his back.
Sterrett and his then-partner, Officer Demarkus Hutcherson, stopped an armed man, who suffered from a meth addiction, next to Forest Park Middle School. The man fired on them, striking Hutcherson in the leg and Sterrett in the neck. Sterrett calmly applied pressure to his wound and was rushed to Grady Hospital in critical condition. Police later found the man dead behind a house off College Avenue.
The incident was a major news story at the time. Today, few in City Hall remember or have ever heard about it:
The shooting has forced Sterrett to work through four years of difficult physical and occupational therapy. It stole his ability to pitch a tent and sleep on the ground, to hike a steep trail in the woods, to go kayaking. It invaded his sleep with nightmares about shootings. It left his hands with tremors and one pupil bigger than the other due to traumatic brain injury.
A couple of years ago, Sterrett was hailed as a hero. The Forest Park City Council issued a proclamation to him and Hutcherson. The Clayton County Chamber of Commerce awarded him and Hutcherson their Valor Award. Former Police Chief Dwayne Hobbs awarded them the Purple Heart and the Medal of Valor, the two highest honors in policing. Grady Hospital put Sterrett’s picture on one of its billboards overlooking downtown Atlanta.
Sterrett’s Georgia Law Enforcement Purple Heart wasn’t good enough for him to get a Georgia Purple Heart license plate. The DMV told him that was reserved for members of the military who had been awarded the Purple Heart in combat.
Maybe for someone who had come under fire. Someone who carries a slug in their shoulder, whose neck and right ribcage are riddled with fragments, whose upper ribs are shattered, whose C6 and C7 vertebrae are fused, who lives with PTSD, whose body goes into electric shocks and spasms if he moves or sits the wrong way.
The department didn’t give Sterrett the certificates to validate his Georgia Law Enforcement Purple Heart and Medal of Honor as authentic through three different administrations. Finally, he said, Chief Nathaniel Clark printed it out on everyday computer paper and gave it to him.
“That was the second and last time I met the dude before I went out on light duty,” he said. The only other time Sterrett encountered Clark was when the chief shook his hand when he came back to FPPD. For a few months, Sterrett worked the phones at the Forest Park precinct, whch allowed other officers to go out on patrol.
He’d hoped to keep that desk job, along with his badge. But it was not to be.
After four years of hard work, doctors said Sterrett’s body had improved as much as possible. A physical therapist did an evaluation of his ability to do simple tasks: wear a police belt loaded with gear, put on a bulletproof vest, carry 50 pounds.
His body said no to all of the above. Sterrett’s career as a street cop was over.
Sterrett had to get an attorney to negotiate with the city over workmen’s compensation. He was forced to take money out of his own weekly paycheck and put it into retirement savings, instead of the city paying that for him. Finally, Sterrett put in for medical retirement.
That’s when he suffered his gravest wound.
Legal vs. ethical
The city told him that the police department had no written policy about medical retirement for officers wounded in the line of duty. The city said he could resign then and there and call it a day.
So he did. On December 31, he tendered a letter of resignation to Mayor Angelyne Butler, cc’ing Clark:
“Please accept this as immediate notice of my retirement. I have enjoyed my work for the City of Forest Park Police Department as a Police Officer and have done my best to serve the City and her citizens throughout my employment. After such consideration, I have elected to retire from the City of Forest Park and turn my attention to other matters.”
The city didn’t even send him his paperwork for another month.
A termination report dated January 5, 2022 indicates Sterrett’s resignation date was effective January 7, 2022 and that that was the last day he had worked. His evaluation criteria were all marked as “satisfactory’ and he was recommended “without reservation” and marked as “eligible for rehire.” The report was signed on February 8, 2022.
A letter dated February 3, 2022 on City of Forest Park letterhead and signed by Diane Lewis, whose title was listed as “Dep. Director of HR,” read:
“In reference to your separation from employment with the City of Forest Park, I have enclosed some important information. Your Medical, Dental, Vision and Group Life Insurance Policy will terminate on 2/06/2022. You will receive your COBRA Insurance information from Medcom.
“I have enclosed Lincoln Financial Group’s Conversion Form, which will enable you to continue your Life Insurance Coverage. Also, please find the enclosed Separation Notice.
“If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to phone me.”
Lewis signed the State of Georgia Department of Labor Separation Notice on Feb. 3, 2022, noting “Employee Resigned.”
Sterrett called “more than 20” lawyers, looking for help to get his medical retirement. They all told him the same thing: His situation is in a gray area of the law. The city does not have a written policy covering medical retirement for officers wounded in the line of duty that could be enforced. But ethically and morally, they said, clearly something should be done.
None of those attorneys were willing to take on his case.
Luck of the draw
Had Sterrett worked for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Department of Public Safety, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, or the Department of Revenue, he would have been eligible for medical retirement.
Had he worked for the Clayton County Police Department, he would also be entitled to keep his service weapon and his badge.
But on Wednesday, November 30, Sterrett says he will return the firearm that he says saved his life, his ballistic vest, and his badge, which have sat in a box since he moved. He’d like to keep those items.
Especially his service weapon, for which he says he would be willing to pay the department.
Nationwide, law enforcement officers are over 80 times more likely to be wounded than killed in the line of duty.
Source: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, FBI/LEOKA Data, LEOKA Report Available Fall 2021
With no medical compensation for his injuries in the line of duty, Sterrett has had to scramble to make ends meet. For two years, with the help of Forest Park Fire Department, as well as the Forest Park Police Department and officers in Henry County, Sterrett was the beneficiary of a motorcycle ride event. T-shirts and wrist bands featuring the thin blue line proclaimed “STERRETT STRONG.” Former Henry County Fire Chief Nish Willis saw to it that Sterrett got in touch with the Gold Shield Foundation, which provides benefits for a couple of years for officers wounded in the line of duty. Eventually, Sterrett was able to find a private-sector job where he can use his skills. He does have health insurance but he has had to pay for many of his ongoing medical expenses out of pocket, often with a credit card.
For the rest of his life, those medical expenses are unrelenting. Medications alone cost hundreds of dollars each month. Add to that a trip to the doctor or the psychologist, and it adds up quickly. In case something goes wrong, like the infection in a massive surgical incision to treat fluid that had collected in his neck, requiring daily trips to and from the hospital in the middle of COVID-19, those bills are astronomical. As a cop, Sterrett loved to travel and enjoyed his motorcycle and his Camaro. He had to sell those toys to pay his medical bills and downsize to a modest SUV with better gas mileage. His injuries limit his ability to take road trips or catch planes.
Sterrett has a little service dog, Dixie, who helps him cope with the mental anguish and the extreme spasms he suffers if he sits or moves the wrong way. He can pick up his tiny dog. But he can’t pick up his nieces and nephews and hug them like he used to. The wires holding his broken ribs to his spine, the fragments in between his ribs, and the slug he carries in his shoulder ended all that.
Just over three weeks ago was the fifth anniversary of Sterrett’s shooting. He says no one noticed. Immediately after the shooting, he said, Butler used to text him emojis and ask how he was doing, making friendly chit-chat. That stopped a long time ago. Hardly any of his former fellow officers call him, he says, with the exception of two people. He notes that the city always marks the anniversary of Officer Ricky Cash‘s fatal shooting. But no one even called to see how he’s doing on the anniversary of the day he died two times.
He accepts the injuries that came with the job, and the adjustments he has had to make to his personal life as a result. What he is unwilling to accept is the fact that the city he swore to serve and protect, and that the officials who were so willing to pose with for photographs with the man they dubbed a hero, do not have his six.
The city’s response
The Clayton Crescent asked to meet with Butler for this story Wednesday morning. We spoke with Public Information Officer Javon Lloyd, who was not familiar with Sterrett or what had happened to him five years ago. We asked three questions:
- Has the City of Forest Park ever had medical retirement for officers injured in the line of duty?
- If not, would the city consider instituting medical retirement for officers injured. inthe line of duty?
- If the city does institute such a policy, would it retroactively add Sterrett?
Lloyd said he would get back with the answers. We will update with the city’s response.
Medals don’t pay for medical bills
Sterrett is on a mission now. He’s calling reporters and figuring out next steps to ensure that he and other former law enforcement officers in his situation aren’t left to fend for themselves by their agencies.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police issued department guidelines in 2020 specifically about medical retirement:
When addressing medical retirement, the agency should consider these actions:
- Identifying who is authorized to make this determination.
- Outlining the legal and financial considerations of this option to the injured officer and their family.
- Creating a plan with the officer and their family to help facilitate the transition into retirement, including injury benefits and opportunities available to the officer once the decision is made.
- Inviting the officer and their family to attend a retirement celebration, if they are amenable.
- Continuing invitations to agency events once the injured officer has retired, including, for instance, citizen’s academies; employee engagement events, as appropriate; and community events with a large law enforcement presence.
Sterrett was not offered any of those IACP-recommended actions.
We left a voicemail with the IACP Wednesday morning for more information about how many agencies nationwide offer medical retirement for career-ending line-of-duty injuries and will update with any response.
Meanwhile, we contacted other municipalities in Clayton County Wednesday morning to see whether their officers are protected by medical retirement, which is separate from whatever workman’s compensation would pay.
The City of Morrow was unable to state definitively whether it offers line-of-duty medical retirement for police officers.
Police Chief Todd Spivey said he had never had to deal with an officer seeking medical retirement for a line of duty injury. He said he would check with the city’s Human Resources department and get back to us with the answer. He called back to confirm that Riverdale has “nothing outside of worker’s compensation for what you described.”
We called the Jonesboro Police Department, which said it would ask around and get back to us.
We left a message for Police Chief Michael Gaddis and will update with any response.
City Manager Chris Leighty, who also had a lengthy career with Atlanta Police, saidthe city pays for short-term and long-term disability for all city employees and that line of duty injuries would fall under workman’s comp. “Once they’re on workman’s comp, if they are released from workman’s comp [because their injuries prevent them from working], long-term/short-term disability would take over. I would have to check.”
Leighty added that one Lake City employee who caught COVID-19 and developed “other issues” was placed on long-term disability.
“If you don’t qualify for disability with Social Security, the long-term disability will continue to pay the amount they would pay. It’s not the complete [salary] amount, but it’s a pretty good amount of money, until they’re eligible for Social Security.”
Lake City uses an insurance company through the Georgia Municipal Association, GIRMA, which stands for Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency and covers over 370 local governments.
“Tremendous” money for officers killed in action
Leighty said the State of Georgia has a “tremendous” fund for officers killed in the line of duty, and that federal dollars also are available for line of duty death compensation.
It comes down to dollars and cents, Leighty explained: cities and counties try to push back on unfunded mandates from the state.
“It’s up to the jurisdictions to take care of their employees,” he said. “It probably comes down to the cost factor. I would think there’s a pretty good number of officers injured in the line of duty across the state….That’s a lot of money for taxpayers to pony up.”
Having a policy to cover an officer’s line of duty medical retirement means cities “don’t have to take it out of the general fund,” he said. “You’re talking about a $10,000 insurance policy versus a $300,000 claim.”
A Lake City officer would be eligible for a Georgia Municipal Association pension, he said.
“It might not be a lot of money, depending on how long they were a police officer and how old they are,” Leighty told The Clayton Crescent. Employees are vested at five years of service and earn two percent a year, so they would earn ten percent once fully vested. But they would be penalized for withdrawals before age 65.
“The GMA pension follows you if they go to another jurisdiction that also has GMA,” he said. “That’s a big advantage because it builds up [as an officer goes] from place to place.”
Meanwhile, there’s no one place that officers like Sterrett can go to to seek compensation for their sacrifices.
“Taking care of our police officers and public servants and first responders is our number one priority,” Leighty said. “I think taking care of those who take care of us matters.”
We asked State Rep. Yasmin Neal (D-74), a former law enforcement officer, whether the state might be able to offer a solution for officers like Sterrett.
“I would need to look into this issue, being that this is my first time hearing of an officer having trouble getting certain benefits while injured in the line of duty,” Neal told The Clayton Crescent. “If I find this is a state fix, I will gladly draft this bill to be considered at the Capitol during this upcoming session to ensure law enforcement officers are covered when risking their lives on our behalf.”
You can donate to help Timothy Sterrett pay his medical expenses at his FundTheFirst page, https://fundthefirst.com/campaign/timothy-sterrett-gp8u9d