More MS news articles for November 1999

When disease conflicts with police duty

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Correspondent, 11/07/99

When Arlington police officer Gary Provenzano gets to work, he settles into a tiny storage room, nudging aside recycling bins and cases of confiscated Bud Light. Then he picks up his copy of ''The Anatomy of Motive,'' a treatise on catching violent criminals.

That's as close as the 22-year veteran officer gets to anything resembling police work.

''If a civilian comes into the police station to file a report, I come out, take the report, file it, and go back into my little hole,'' said Provenzano, 48. ''It happens about once a week.''

On the rare occasions when he leaves the station while working, Provenzano is under orders to wear a civilian jacket over his uniform and drive his own car.

The charade began two years ago when Provenzano disclosed that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Arlington officials insist that the measures are necessary to protect public safety and keep the town from being sued by citizens who might mistake Provenzano for an able-bodied officer in an emergency.

But to many, Provenzano's plight - his separation from the job he loves - makes him a symbol of those whose pain is caused not by disease, but by the insensitivity of other people.

''They see someone like him, who was once vibrant and was out there chasing criminals, only now he can no longer do that, so they shut him down,'' said Christine Griffin of the Disability Law Center.

While other towns have accommodated officers with MS - assigning them to meaningful desk jobs inside the station - Provenzano said all he's been offered is forced early retirement, in violation of anti-discrimination laws. He has sued the police department in Middlesex Superior Court, charging that the department has refused to make the state-mandated ''reasonable accommodations'' allowing him to perform significant police work.

Both the officer and his defenders readily admit that the chronic central nervous system disease has sapped the strength in his legs to the point where he sometimes uses a cane and cannot chase criminals. Yet they say the department should be using the talents he has left, instead of trying to force him out.

While some advocates for the disabled say police departments may see an officer like Provenzano as a drain, others acknowledge the dilemma posed by his case: How do cities and towns stay within the boundaries of state and federal anti-discrimination laws without endangering the public?

''It's not an easily answered question,'' said Linda Guiod, director of chapter programs for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of New England. ''Obviously we want people to continue to work. But the employer also has rights.''

Town officials deny that they are trying to get rid of Provenzano, even though they insist they could, given that he can no longer physically do the job. But instead, they say they've kept him on and given him all the work he is qualified to do.

A detective's job Provenzano wanted went to a more qualified candidate, town counsel John Maher said. Provenzano couldn't have met the physical guidelines anyway, Maher said.

''Clearly we feel genuine sympathy and empathy for him,'' Maher said. ''But you have to be able to perform the essential functions of the job. He can't be reasonably accommodated.''

George DiBlasi, head of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said departments with limited budgets can't ''make work'' for disabled officers without endangering public safety.

''Your heart says, `Gee, I want to take care of this person,' but your brain says you can't,'' DiBlasi said. ''And once you start changing those things for one person, you have to do it for another and soon you have a lot of problems.''

Like it or not, DiBlasi said, that's why the police disability retirement system was developed.

Provenzano said he was offered early retirement two years ago when he was first diagnosed. But with two school-age children at home, retiring at half his base salary isn 't an option, he said.

Instead, he made numerous suggestions for more meaningful assignments - night detective, community relations officer, public relations officer, dispatch supervisor.

''It's not like I'm a GED-kind of guy. I can perform the job,'' said Provenzano, who has bachelor's degrees in political science and criminal justice from Northeastern University, as well as a master's degree in criminal justice from Anna Maria College.

All his ideas were rejected, he said, and there began what his lawyer called a ''campaign of humiliation.''

He was put on ''light duty'' and ordered to work out of the ''report room,'' a windowless, 9-by-4-foot former supply closet. He was forced to cover his uniform when leaving the station.

Arlington Police Chief Fred Ryan, who took over the department in early September, said he wasn't familiar enough with Provenzano's situation to comment. Under the previous chief, Eugene Del Gaizo, the department was plagued by several scandals, including the conviction of an officer last summer for peeping through a woman's window and the disciplining of two others who helped cover up the incident.

Maher said Provenzano is required to cover his uniform when leaving the station because if it were visible, citizens might mistakenly assume he was physically able to assist them. If Provenzano were unable to help, the town could be sued, he said.

Officers with multiple sclerosis in other towns appear to have fared better.

In Wayland, Sgt. Steve Williams performs a mix of duties ranging from overseeing the evidence room to investigating cold cases to supervising crime scene and accident scene investigations.

Williams said he and a ''half dozen'' other officers around the state with multiple sclerosis remain valuable to their departments, although they try to keep their disabilities under wraps as much as possible.

Since the disease's effects can vary widely, some officers don't even tell their employers until it becomes absolutely necessary.

For Williams, the issue comes down to whether police departments value experience and intelligence as much as physical agility.

''You have 20 years invested in this police officer,'' he said. ''Do you use that and let him make a contribution, or do you say `Let's kick him out and throw him away.'''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 11/07/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.