ORLANDO -- The state of Florida is being urged by one of the first responders in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting incident to allow those in their profession who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to receive long-term disability payments from the state.
Police Officer Gerry Realin, a 12-year veteran of the Orlando Police Department (OPD), was part of the small team that arrived to remove the bodies following the mass shooting at Pulse. The group had to carry 49 victims out of the establishment. Due to that experience, Realin has suffered from sleep loss and hypertension.
“There was just that smell that saturated my whole body. My hair, my skin, my whole respiratory system,” Realin told the Orlando Sentinel.
Florida law does not provide long-term disability payments to first responders on the grounds of psychological factors only. These benefits can only be claimed when accompanied with proof that a physical injury incurred in the line of duty, meaning Realin could not claim these despite suffering from PTSD.
In a statement sent to WESH 2, the OPD shared that Realin is categorized under the “no work” status. However, the representative clarified that workers compensation is currently covering two-thirds of Realin’s pay.
“All of his medical needs are being met through workers compensation and he is continuing to be provided the equivalent of full pay," the OPD said in the statement.
OPD Deputy Chief Orlando Rolon expressed the department’s commitment to help Realin and other officers who are in a similar situation. However, he also noted that the idea of listing PTSD as one of the conditions to be covered by workers’ compensation has caused a debate among police officers.
“You’re swearing to put yourself between the evil that’s trying to bring harm to the innocent,” Rolon told WLRN Miami. “When you ask the question, should workman’s comp cover PTSD-related conditions for law enforcement officers, I think it’s tough to be able to justify that when you are already expected to be exposed to so much that the average person won’t be able to handle.”
Meanwhile, Realin’s legal counsel sees this situation as an opportunity for the state to amend its laws. Paolo Longo, Realin's lawyer, challenges the constitutionality of Florida law when it comes to providing assistance to first responders. The attorney said the state’s law is “bad” and is in need of revision.
“The law as it stands is bad. It’s not a department issue. It’s not an Orlando Police Department issue. It’s a Florida statute issue,” Longo told WLRN Miami.
An expert in representing clients suffering from PTSD, he shared that the matter could be resolved by lawmakers. He noted that adding PTSD to the list of disabilities compensated is the legal and right thing to do.
Longo’s statements were echoed by John Burton, a Rutgers professor who spent more than 50 years studying the laws addressing workers’ compensation. Burton noted that half of the states in the country have already recognized stress and mental health matters as legitimate considerations for workers’ compensation. Only 10 states are left that refuse to make workers suffering from these conditions eligible to receive the benefits and Florida is one of them.
"The limitations on PTSD under these circumstances seems to me to be unconscionable. Now, it may be unconscionable, but it’s still legal. We’ll find that out later. But it does strike me as being mean-spirited," Longo told WLRN.