The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled today that a deputy sheriff who killed a man in the line of duty was not entitled to workers' compensation benefits, because he essentially did what he was trained to do, and as such, it was a known risk of the job.
Spartanburg County deputy sheriff Brandon Bentley killed a man who apparently attempted to commandeer his gun and kill him. This happened in 2009. After the incident, Bentley began to suffer from anxiety and depression, and doctors determined he was too ill to work as a deputy. The Sheriff's office fought the claim, with Sheriff Chuck Wright testifying during a hearing that his deputies were trained to know that this type of situation may arise, and they might at some time be required to deploy lethal force.
Today the Supreme Court agreed. In the 3-2 decision, the court found that current law doesn’t cover mental health benefits for such officers, saying, “The use of deadly force is within the normal scope and duties of a Spartanburg County deputy sheriff.”
To be perfectly honest, I am largely skeptical of many “stress related” claims. I think it is potentially abused by many people. I really believe we have gotten soft, and some people just need to “suck it up” when something negative happens in their life.
I do not feel that way about Deputy Bentley.
I truly feel for his situation, and find myself bothered by the courts logic in this case. Saying that someone was trained to know they may have to use deadly force, so therefore cannot get benefits, is not too different than telling a coal miner that the mine might collapse, and since he knows the risk he gets no benefits in the event that occurs. I don't follow that reasoning.
South Carolina law requires “unusual and extraordinary” circumstances to qualify for workers' compensation in mental trauma situations. The court did state its opinion that state law should be amended to eliminate that requirement. I would argue that anytime you are forced to shoot someone at point blank range and end their time on this earth that it might be considered “unusual and extraordinary”. The court could have made that stretch, tiny one that it is.
I don't care what type of training one receives; I am not sure we can predict how anyone will react when they have to pull the trigger and take a human life. And we should not ignore the potential consequences of doing so. What if instead, the system had worked to provide the care and support he needed to deal with this more effectively? In the absence of benefits does he get any of the care he might require? If this had been accepted and treated properly, would we have a deputy back on the streets where he needs to be, protecting the citizens he was sworn to defend?
We will not learn the answers to those questions. He knew the risks and lost his right to benefits as a result.
Law enforcement is a tough and thankless job. If these guys make a mistake they risk their careers and even criminal prosecution. They risk their lives for us daily. Deputy Bentley did the job expected of him. He should not be punished simply because he accepted the risks, and chose to do it anyway.