Through an extensive analysis of police conviction data and individual pension amounts, CNN reporters Melanie Hicken and Blake Ellis determined that hundreds of officers who have been found guilty of murder, rape, embezzlement, or other serious crimes continue to collect millions of dollars in retirement benefits. Many of these cops are still behind bars, and most are receiving more money than the average American worker makes.
Extensive records, crime scene photos and audio files obtained through records requests were used to provide an interactive experience for readers and to showcase the people and documents behind the issue. A clickable map helped readers understand the law in their states, while a scrolling gallery provided details about some of the most egregious cases and largest payouts.
One officer, eligible for $500,000 in total pension benefits, has been sitting in prison for more than a decade after being convicted of strangling his girlfriend, putting her body in his car and driving it to a rural road to set it on fire. Another stands to receive $2.5 million after getting caught molesting his 11-month-old daughter on a nanny cam. An officer who imprisoned sex workers in his car and groped them is eligible for more than $3 million in lifetime benefits. And a disgraced police chief has been receiving around $250,000 a year from his federal prison cell after being convicted of helping to orchestrate a widespread cover-up of inmate beatings and other abuses at the county jail. He had already received around $1.4 million by the time he began his three-year prison sentence last year.
Some lawmakers, policing experts and even a prominent police chief told reporters that the threat of losing these coveted retirement packages could be used as a powerful tool to discourage bad behavior. But currently, it is only in rare cases that governments strip disgraced officers of these benefits, using a harsh penalty known as pension forfeiture. In fact, a review of state laws conducted by the reporters showed that in the majority of states, a pension would not be removed from an officer found guilty of raping or murdering someone, even while on the job. And attempts to pass pension forfeiture laws had often failed in the face of strong police union opposition.
The analysis ultimately found that more than 350 officers convicted of felony crimes have already received pension payments or are eligible in the future. More than 200 of those have already received benefits and collectively taken in roughly $70 million and current retirees will take in more than $8 million this year alone — not including payments from states where pension amounts are confidential. They stand to receive hundreds of millions of dollars during the course of their retirements. And this is just a snapshot of eligible officers, in part because pension data is kept confidential in more than 15 states and not all funds responded to requests.