By JUSTINE McGUIRE
Capital News Service
LANSING – On Oct. 9, 2003, Clare County Deputy Sheriff Kevin Sherwood died in the line of duty, leaving a wife and three daughters.
Sherwood was on U.S. 127 when a car driving the wrong way struck his cruiser, killing both drivers.
The Army veteran had served with the sheriff’s department for nine years.
His family soon learned that the benefits they’d received through his job ended with his death, leaving them in a tough spot emotionally and financially.
His wife, Katy Sherwood, said that prior to her husband’s death, she hadn’t ever thought about what kind of benefits she and her daughters would get if he died, but was surprised to find out how little the state provided.
“They told me, ‘We can’t help everyone,’” she said.
Sherwood and her daughters received a one-time grant of $25,000 from the state, worker’s compensation and Social Security payments that extend until their children are 18 years old. The workers’ compensation payments decreased this year when the oldest daughter turned 18, as did Social Security benefits for that daughter.
She said she lived off the federal benefits for four years while she returned to college to get a good job to provide for her family.
Sherwood works for the Department of Human Services.
“I wanted to provide for my family as if he was still there, rather than making things harder for them,” Sherwood said.
Her younger daughters are 13 and 10 years old.
The 18-year-old attends college, Sherwood said, and the state pays for her tuition, but room, board and books are the family’s responsibility.
“I’m grateful for what I do have,” she said. “But, had there been state benefits I could have saved. That money would have been my kids’ future.”
Since 2004, the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association has unsuccessfully pursued legislation to guarantee retirement and medical benefits for families of all law enforcement officers who die in the line of duty, said Terrence Jungel, director of the association.
It’s unclear how much the measure would cost the state.
In the past five years there have been 11 line-of-duty deaths in Michigan, including one State Police officer. The others were local or county officers and were not covered by the state program that assists the families of State Police officers.
“I’d always assumed my family would be taken care of,” said Jungel, a former Ionia County sheriff. “It came as a shock that they wouldn’t be.”
He said taking care of a fallen officer’s family would be a minor expense for the state but would make a huge difference in their lives.
Bills introduced since 2004 haven’t passed, and Jungel said it’s a “real source of frustration” that although he doesn’t know of anyone who opposed the legislation outright, it always dies.
Rep. Matt Lori, R-Constantine, a former St. Joseph County sheriff, said he would probably support and would consider sponsoring a bill to provide benefits through the state because some communities don’t do it on their own.
“All emergency responders’ families deserve something,” he said. “But it comes down to money.”
Although most legislators are sympathetic to the Sheriffs’ Association’s plea, funding would be hard to come by, he said.
“Hopefully things get better and we can take a serious look at this,” Lori said.
A 2012 law provides the children and spouses of police officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty with college tuition for up to 124 credits at in-state, public institutions.
Rep. Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township, sponsored the tuition bill but said other benefits should be locally controlled and negotiated in contracts with life and disability insurance, which is how Harrison Township does it.
He said providing lifetime health and retirement benefits for families could costly for the state, but college tuition came to only about $35,000 last year.
“Tuition is different because there’s no insurance for that,” Forlini said.
Making the state pay for other benefits would be a mistake, he said. Families should be protected, but it’s not the state’s responsibility.
“I can’t imagine the state would be a very good insurance company,” he said.
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, a former Eaton County sheriff, is of a similar opinion as Lori. He said he would probably support and would consider sponsoring legislation, but is concerned about the price tag.
“We ask our officers in the line of duty to take great risk,” he said. “It would help their peace of mind to know that if they gave the ultimate sacrifice their family would be taken care of.”
In his time as a deputy and sheriff, Jones was shot at twice, and said there were three incidents when he “could have died.
“It would be nice if each department bought life insurance for its officers, but it’s tough with budget cuts,” he said.
But he said that in the current political climate it’s hard to pass any bills that have a cost associated with them. And although only a few officers are killed each year, the list would grow and the cost would multiply.
He also said that if all officers were eligible for such benefits, other public safety occupations, such as firefighters, would seek them as well, exacerbating the expense.