The Lake in the Hills Police Commission unanimously voted to discharge a veteran police officer who was injured on the job two years ago.
After hearing comments from both James Wales, director of police and public safety for the LITH Polce Department, and injured officer Craig James, the three-member commission on Tuesday night determined James would never be physically capable of returning to his patrol duties.
The decision was difficult for the commissioners. After the meeting, two stopped to shake hands with James and said, "I'm sorry."
Commissioner Travis Wilbert thanked James for his 16 years of service to the village.
Wales told the commission he needs to replace James as his department is desperately understaffed due to James' absence and recent economic pressures that forced the village board to cut four police officer positions.
"We're operating at the lowest level of officer ratio (to people) in 32 to 33 years," Wales said. "...we're at 1.26 officers per 1,000 people. That's about half the national average."
James' 13-year-career with the Lake in the Hills Police Department was curtailed when in December 2009 he positioned his squad car behind a stalled car on Randall Road.
James said he intended to protect the stranded vehicle from being struck by the moving traffic but an approaching car slammed into James' squad car instead traveling about 45 mph, he said.
At the hearing, James said he suffered two fractured vertebrae as a result of the accident. He remained on injured leave until August 2010, but when he returned to work his back pain "increased enough where I couldn't go back to work," he told the commission.
From that point on, the officer began exhausting all of his sick and vacation days. He underwent two spinal fusion surgeries — one in December 2010 and the most recent in November 2011.
In March 2011, he said a staff member told him he should request a one-year leave of absence.
James said he knew the leave would be unpaid. He has gone without a salary for more than one year now, and has been paying for his family health insurance out of his own pocket, he said.
In recent months, James said he was told by police staff members he needed to retire or quit. James' attorney advised him not to quit because of his pending workman's compensation claim from the accident. James also filed a police pension claim, which also is pending.
James requested the commission delay its decision until he had completed the pension hearing process. If fired, the health insurance payments he already is paying on his would likely increase substantially, he said.
However, LITH village attorney Carlos Arevalo said the Police Commission hearing and Police Pension Board of Trustees hearings are not interrelated.
"He can't do the job, bottom line," Arevalo said.
After the decision, the officer's wife, Patricia James, said the outcome was "expected," but she was disheartened by what she perceived as a lack of concern for her husband.
"I'm very disappointed at the lack of support my husband and family have received," Patricia James said.