PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The city of Pawtucket has spent more than the equivalent of a police officer’s salary on an unsuccessful fight against a veteran detective who sought injured on duty leave to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.
As of June 1, the city’s costs of arbitration against Detective Dave Silva ran to $78,868, including about $53,000 spent on outside legal fees, according to city records released at the Globe’s request.
And the meter is still running.
After losing in arbitration in May, Mayor Donald Grebien and Police Chief Tina Goncalves still intend to petition Superior Court to vacate the ruling before the deadline runs out in three weeks.
They will argue, again, that trauma and stress is part of a police officer’s job, and that Silva’s experiences over two decades were no different than any other officer’s.
Silva, who is considered by his peers and prosecutors as one of the best detectives in Rhode Island, had asked to be placed on leave for PTSD last August on the recommendation of his therapist and a city-assigned psychiatrist. He was suffering from anxiety, depression, and anger, built up over years of investigating and responding to some of the most tragic cases in the city, including one involving a beloved cousin.
When Goncalves refused, Silva filed a grievance, which went to arbitration earlier this year. Three psychiatrists and Silva’s own therapist diagnosed him with PTSD, or acute stress disorder that could lead to PTSD.
In May, arbitrator Michael C. Ryan said that if Silva’s work experience and “undisputed diagnosis of PTSD” didn’t him qualify him for injured-on-duty leave, he couldn’t imagine any other officer who could. He ordered the city to put Silva on leave and restore all of the vacation and sick days he’d used up since last August.
Instead, the chief immediately ordered Silva to see a psychiatrist to determine when he could return to work. That doctor found Silva still has PTSD and couldn’t return yet.
The city, however, hasn’t acted on the arbitrator’s order from May 25. Silva is still owed $7,300 for weeks he went without pay, and the city still hasn’t restored his vacation or sick days he used since last August, according to the police union’s lawyer, Joseph Penza Jr. It also didn’t switch him to injured on duty leave right away.
The lawyer representing the city denied that Pawtucket was intentionally creating any delays.
Vincent Ragosta said the arbitration statute doesn’t require the city to act immediately. There is a three-month window that allows the city to implement the award or seek a stay from the Superior Court, pending an application to vacate the arbitrator’s decision, he said. That means the city could take another three weeks.
Ragosta said the city finance director, Joanna L’Heureux, also found it complicated to figure out how to adjust Silva’s pay and corrected W-2 for the injured-on-duty leave last year. (Penza said he ended up drafting a letter last month for L’Heureux to use for the W-2, and remarked that a child with a pencil and calculator could have figured it out.)
“I am informed by the finance director that it is not so facile and simplistic as Mr. Penza believes. Evidently there is a new payroll system and the city has to work through the vendor to implement aspects of the award,” Ragosta said in a text message Thursday. “Bottom line: The city is not purposely choosing to wait to pay or implement, it needs the time to do it correctly, so it is taking advantage of the time span the statute allows.”
Ragosta blamed Penza’s request for the corrected W-2 as one reason for the delay, and added that the arbitrator didn’t “literally” require the city to produce it.
Penza called that suggestion “absurd” and “just further indication how Detective Silva is being mistreated by the city.”
Silva still wants to return to the job he loves, Penza said, but the lack of support from the city and the delays were hurting his recovery.
Penza said he believes the city’s actions are intentional and meant to send a message to any other officer suffering from PTSD about how they’ll be treated if they ask for leave.
“I just really think they have a hard time accepting the fact that people, strong people like Dave Silva, can have a mental illness that requires psychiatric care that puts him out of work,” Penza said. “I don’t know why they don’t take the time to study this disease.”
Support is critical for people who are recovering from PTSD, and for police officers, it’s especially important for them to be supported by their departments, says John M. Violanti, a retired New York state trooper and a research professor at the University at Buffalo, who studies police stress, suicide, and PTSD.
“Any kind of support is essential when you have PTSD — that’s the major factor that can help you recover — and it’s particularly important that the organization backs you up,” Violanti said Thursday. “To a police officer, the organization is a family. If you don’t get that support, it makes you feel quite isolated.”
Officers who have not felt supported by their organizations have higher levels of hopelessness, he said, which can be precursors to suicides.
“In police work, every officer is a brother or a sister. The ethos among cops is we support each other, we protect each other, we’re a family, and because we’re a family, we’re supposed to stick together,” Violanti said. “Unfortunately, organizations don’t do that. Officers are supposed to be a family, but when organizations don’t support them, they get upset about that, ‘They don’t care about us.’”
The lack of support can exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD, he said. “Without support, you’re not going to recover from PTSD,” he said. “The most meaningful [help] for a cop is how an organization can be supportive.”
There are some supervisors and police departments that understand the toll of the work and offer help, Violanti said. Arizona’s governor signed a law allowing therapy and paid leave for officers with PTSD. New York City, which had a spate of officer suicides, has made strides to help officers with PTSD, even adding therapy dogs, he said.
“That’s incredible and shows they care about their officers,” Violanti said.
A diagnosis of PTSD doesn’t have to become a career-ender, he said. “I think with proper treatment anyone can recover,” he said.
But it starts at the top, he said, with recognizing that trauma is real and can affect people differently.