If a 2005 training accident had killed Minneapolis police Sgt. Dan Wulff — then the head of the city’s bomb squad — he would’ve likely gotten a hero’s funeral and proper eulogies from the city’s politicians.
But it didn’t kill him. It left him with a brain that doesn’t function so well and the inability to work. He’s also suffering a mayor who won’t return phone calls or e-mail messages and a city agency that he says considers him an enemy combatant rather than a decorated cop.
In February 2005, Wulff, 49, was teaching the West Metro SWAT team the art of “dynamic breaching” — using explosives to open doors — when at least one charge created more pressure in the room than normal. He didn’t think much of it until a day later when his reactions started slowing, his head hurt, and his eyelids started drooping. It kept getting worse until he was hospitalized.
A tear in his right carotid artery deprived Wulff’s brain of oxygen.”‘We can’t do anything for you,’” he recalls a neurologist saying at a hospital. “‘If we try to stop it, it will cause a stroke. All we can do is wait for you to have a stroke and then try to save you. You’ll be lucky if you live.’”
Wulff is alive because his left carotid artery was able to provide enough blood and oxygen, but not enough to prevent neurological damage. And though the right artery has reopened, he’s still at risk of stroke. Doctors say that even slight physical exertion could cause problems. He has difficulty with some memory.
It took weeks before he and the doctors figured out that the blast had caused his injury. By then, though, he’d gotten news almost as disturbing as that he might die: He could no longer be a cop.
“Not being a cop was devastating,” he said. “I had dreams for six months every day where I would wake up in the middle of the night. I dreamed the SWAT team and bomb squad were getting ready for callout, and not being able to go. There was a profound sense of failure that I never finished the mission.”
Wulff says the devastation of not being able to work as a cop in Minneapolis is exacerbated by the emotional toll of a constant fight with the city about his care.
“Communities love their cops,” he said. “I want them to know when a cop is permanently disabled, they might be in the limelight, then they’re gone. I want people to know that those cops carry a burden that they want to work, and can’t.”
Minneapolis administers its own insurance and workers compensation programs. “It’s like a real insurance company, only meaner,” said Wulff’s wife, Wendy. The city challenged his workers compensation claim by asserting that the carotid artery dissection did not cause a lasting brain injury, she says. The city, citing privacy concerns, won’t comment on the specifics of his case.
“We are complying fully with the law,” said Ellen Velasco-Thompson, Minneapolis’ director of risk management and claims.
To Dan Wulff, cops who are injured in the line of duty deserve better from their city.
From the moment he was hurt, Minneapolis distanced itself from its bomb squad leader. “At first, we had to live off sick and vacation time,” said Wendy Wulff . “When that ran out, police department employees donated their own vacation time. We got three or four months from cops rallying for each other, but we weren’t allowed to know who donated.”
“When I spoke to the workers compensation office, they took down the information, and said that they would determine whether or not they were liable,” she said.” When I asked how long that would take, I was told, ‘If I can make it someone else’s problem, I will be done with it in three days; if not, I could drag it out for at least a year.’ When I asked how we would be expected to survive for a year without a salary, she said, ‘ That is not my problem.’”
Velasco-Thompson says the city is required to make a decision on workers compensation cases within 14 days of a claim, but it took six months before the city acknowledged that Dan Wulff can’t work anymore. “At the time, we thought that would be the end of our strife,” Wendy Wulff said. “But it was just the beginning. Accepting the (workers’ compensation) claim allowed them to call Dan’s medical providers and try to convince them to recommend lesser, cheaper methods of care.”
“Other medical providers were calling us with concerns that the city was advocating for less than adequate treatment,” she said, while testifying before a legislative committee in 2008. “We finally asked for a different neurologist when the doctor told Dan that it was okay for him to run, even if it gave him severe headaches, impaired vision and coordination problems. He told Dan he was sick and tired of hearing about his symptoms, because there was no possible medical explanation.”
The Wulffs said the city denied their attempt to have Dan treated by an area expert on blast injuries, Dr. Allen Autrey. After mediation by state labor officials, Minneapolis agreed, instead, to refer Dan Wulff to a Hennepin County Medical Center rehabilitation specialist, rather than a neurologist. “Seeing her was setting Dan’s recovery back, not moving him forward,” said Wendy Wulff.
BRAIN INJURY DISPUTE
In their argument filed with the state, Minneapolis officials said “although Dr. Autrey has an interest in blast injuries, his experience relates primarily to critical care of acute injuries in the field.” It said the Wulffs were trying to “develop a litigation strategy rather than pursue appropriate diagnosis and treatment.”
“They were still trying to claim he didn’t have any brain injury at all,” Wendy Wulff said.
The city also has rejected a more recent request to have Dan seen by a neurologist. Instead, Wendy Wulff said the city asked for all records from their family physician for the last 20 years, “many of which they already have,” she said.
What is the city trying to prove? “I don’t know,” she said. “They won’t tell us.”
The Wulffs are appealing the decision to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. A mediation date has not been set. In the meantime, they’ve made an appointment with a neurologist and are attempting to pay for it themselves.
The city also fought the Wulff’s effort to apply for a federal Justice Department grant intended to help families of officers killed or disabled in the line of duty, they said. The grant was denied, and the time limit for applying again has expired.
“The question we keep asking is, ‘Is there anybody who’s allowed to help us?’” Wendy Wulff said. Nobody’s ever given us an answer.”
Last summer, she wrote to Mayor R.T. Rybak, asking for a meeting to discuss how the city is treating her husband and all of the city’s injured police officers. When he didn’t respond, she confronted him at a political event last September. “He said, ‘ It’s not my job to talk to you,’” Wendy Wulff said.
Mayor Rybak has not responded to three requests for comment about Dan Wulff’s plight.
During the 2008 session of the Minnesota Legislature, the Wulff’s state representative, Mary Liz Holberg, filed legislation to increase the state’s pension benefits for permanently disabled police officers and firefighters from 60 to 75 percent of average annual salary. Minneapolis lawmakers testified against the bill.
“After the bridge collapse, when Mayor Rybak was making speeches about how the city would never forget their first responders, and about how the state was taking too long to help the bridge victims, the city was also cutting off Dan’s work comp payments and most of his benefits,” Wendy Wulff testified at the hearing on the legislation.
“When the omnibus pension bill was put together in the pension commission, they decided that they could only support a provision that was very narrowly worded to help Dan Wulff. They also said that they would look into broader changes moving forward,” Rep. Holberg said.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the legislation, but other disabled cops are left out.
“YOU EITHER DIE, OR DO SOME OTHER JOB”
The ongoing battle for benefits comes at a cost.
For 13 years, Wendy Wulff has run her Web design business from her Lakeville home. She had wanted to grow her business. Now, she said she’s cutting back in order to take care of her husband, who is fighting depression.
Dan Wulff thinks only the permanently disabled police officer knows what it’s like to be a permanently disabled ex-police officer in Minneapolis. There are only 33 permanently disabled city employees, but the city doesn’t keep track of how many are cops.
For those who are injured in the line of duty “You usually either die or you can do some other job,” he said.
Earlier this month, a friend of Dan Wulff’s, Minneapolis police officer Duy Ngo, killed himself. Seven years ago, he was shot multiple times by another officer while working undercover. Unable to work on the streets, he sued the city and won the largest settlement in the city’s history. On the night that Ngo was shot, it was Dan Wulff who introduced a then-freshman mayor — R. T. Rybak — to Ngo’s distraught parents.
He said he understands the “demons” that haunted Duy Ngo when he couldn’t be a street cop anymore. “For officers shot in the line of duty, the suicide rate is off the scale,” he says. One study confirms Sgt. Wulff’s claim. A 1980 Wayne State University report said law enforcement personnel who retired because of a disability had a suicide rate of 2,616 per 100,000 compared to age-matched peers with a rate of 34 per 100,000.
Cops forced to retire struggle with demons, Wulff said.
“To get injured, then maybe there’s a pat on the back, a ‘ thank you,’ then you live with those demons. I feel like I failed Duy Ngo.”
A few weeks ago, Dan Wulff scored a victory when he received a Minneapolis police ID, indicating he is a retired police officer. It came in an envelope without a “thank you.” Not only was there not a ceremony to thank him for his service, there wasn’t even a mayoral proclamation to honor him for his sacrifice.
“I didn’t want a ticker tape parade,” he said. “But I didn’t expect to be just thrown away. Duy Ngo didn’t expect to be thrown away. It’s unbelievably cold and cruel.”