WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate today unanimously passed legislation authored by Senators Chuck Grassley and Kirsten Gillibrand to reduce the backlog of families awaiting approval of survivor benefits of public safety officers killed in the line of duty. The Senate’s action on the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act comes one month after two central Iowa police officers were ambushed and killed while on patrol. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.
“Our nation’s public safety officers bravely run toward danger each day to protect our communities. And sadly, as we’ve seen recently in my home state of Iowa, and in communities across the country, these officers too often make the ultimate sacrifice for our safety. As a society, we’ve promised to support the loved ones of fallen officers, so it’s unacceptable that these families are often forced to wait, in some cases, for years, for the Justice Department to process their survivor benefits applications. Many families, like the Langenbaus of Northwood, Iowa, only see results on their applications after public scrutiny of the Justice Department’s delays. So this bill shines a bright public light on the Justice Department’s survivor benefits backlog to get some answers for these families. My colleagues in the House of Representatives should pass this bill as soon as possible to bring needed help to the loved ones of our fallen officers,” Grassley said.
Congress established the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program in 1976 to provide death benefits to survivors of officers who die in the line of duty. Over the years, the law has been amended to provide disability and education benefits, and to expand the pool of officers who are eligible for these benefits. While the Justice Department has a goal of processing survivor claims within one year of the time they are filed, many families must wait long periods of time for their applications to be approved. According to recent data, the Justice Department is failing to meet its 1-year deadline in 58 percent of the 738 pending death benefit cases. Moreover, 175 death and disability claims filed on behalf of officers who lost their lives as a result of the September 11, 2001, response efforts remain unresolved.
To address the backlog, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act expands public oversight of the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program by permanently increasing the level of transparency regarding wait times for benefits applications. Specifically, the bill:
• requires the Justice Department to post on its website, weekly status updates for all pending claims;
• requires the Justice Department to report to Congress other aggregate statistics regarding these claims, twice a year;
• allows the Justice Department to rely on other federal regulatory standards; and
• allows for the Justice Department to give substantial weight to findings of fact of state, local, and other federal agencies.
The bill also requires the Justice Department to demonstrate clear and convincing evidence that an officer was negligent or engaged in misconduct at the time of his or her death or injury before denying a claim on those grounds. Under the bill, the Justice Department must also utilize all of its investigative authorities before rejecting claims based on a lack of information, and ensure remedies for claimants who age out of eligibility for education benefits because of the department’s own delays in processing their claims. The bill’s provisions would apply to all claims that are pending at the time of the bill’s enactment, in addition to all claims filed after that date.
In April, Grassley convened a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to shed light on the length of time the Justice Department takes to consider death benefit claims from the families of fallen public safety officers. At the hearing, Jay Langenbau of Northwood, Iowa, testified that his family had yet to receive benefits following the death of his wife, Shelly, in 2013. Two days following Langenbau’s public testimony, the Justice Department finally approved his benefits application.