Covid has become the number one killer of police and other first responders.
Around the state, Mississippi first responders are doing their job in spite of the obvious and apparent risk. Mississippi is a largely rural state, and an article released by the American Police Officers’ Alliance in 2020 states that those smaller departments are the most at risk.
“Smaller sheriff’s departments and police operations have been some of the hardest hit by the coronavirus,” the article states. “With lower staff numbers to begin with, any officers out on sick leave or quarantined have a heavier effect on the overall ability of the department to perform its duties.”
In May of 2020, beloved Lincoln County corrections officer Bem London died of Covid he contracted on the job.
His essential job. The kind he couldn’t do from home, and through which he was exposed to large numbers of people he didn’t know and didn’t get to choose.
According to several people who were in on a conference call recently with Department of Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell, DPS doesn’t think people like London deserve state benefits for line of duty deaths. As a matter of fact, families are recieving letters from DPS saying their loved one’s death doesn’t qualify as a line of duty death.
We have reached out to Tindell’s office and are awaiting a response to a request for an interview.
The Officer Down Memorial Page maintains at least a partial list of law enforcement killed each day in the line of duty. Their Covid list is extensive, and growing every day. At the end of each entry depicting a Covid death, including that of Hinds County Sheriff Lee Vance, the page says, “Beginning in early 2020, due to the requirements of their job, thousands of law enforcement officers and other first responders throughout the United States contracted COVID-19 during the worldwide pandemic. Hundreds of law enforcement officers died from medical complications as a result of contracting the virus while remaining on duty and interacting with the community.”
Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing has submitted a request for an opinion to Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch about whether or not Covid deaths constitute line of duty deaths in Mississippi.
The Mississippi statute governing law enforcement and firefighters line of duty death benefits was amended in 2016 to reflect the federal statute and to change with the federal changes.
Rushing points out in his letter that “cause of death” means any cause that would be covered under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act of 1976 or the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act of 2003.
Federally, congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a law into being that would outline Covid-19 as a line of duty death under the Public Safety Officers Benefits Act.
Rushing states that it is his belief that Covid-19 first responder deaths should be considered as valid as any other line of duty death, and that the families of those victims should be entitled to the death benefits given to any other officer, firefighter, or other first responder who falls in the commission of his or her duties. That is backed up, he said, by the fact that the Mississippi statute reflects the protocols outlined by the federal guidelines.
The question was stated to Fitch in the letter: “Are Covid-19 first responder deaths covered under Miss. Code Ann. 45-2-1 entitling their families to line of duty death benefits?”
“We believe this is exactly what the Mississippi Legislature intended when enacting this statute,” Rushing writes in the request. “A positive response to our question would mean LODD benefits are allowable to families of our fallen if they die from Covid-19 or Covid-19 related complications.”
Rushing closed the letter by saying that the families of fallen first responders “desperately need” assistance in the matter.
The Officer Down Memorial Page lists six officers in Mississippi who have died from Covid, but it is only a partial list, as several others just in the last few months have been determined to be Covid deaths, including veteran Jackson Police Sergeant Bryan Pippin, and Yalobusha County Sheriff Mark Fulco. It is up to the department or the community to report line of duty deaths to the ODMP.
It is also up to the department leadership to submit both federal and state paperwork to establish that the fallen officer’s name will be on both the national memorial wall and the state memorial wall.