January 26, 2014 - 8:40 am
Jesus Arevalo will never again work as a Las Vegas police officer, but he’ll be paid by Nevadans for the rest of his life.
The former officer, who was fired for the 2011 shooting of unarmed war veteran Stanley Gibson, is getting thousands of dollars each month from Nevada’s Public Employees Retirement System because he was granted a full disability retirement just before he left the department.
“It was stress-related,” Arevalo said last week.
The medical retirement allows Arevalo, 36, to collect benefits equaling about 31 percent of his annual pay while on the force. PERS would not release specific numbers, saying they aren’t a public record. Arevalo declined to disclose his earnings.
But the Review-Journal estimates Arevalo, whose annual pay averaged $90,275 in his last three years with the department, will get $23,000 to $28,000 per year, with periodic cost-of-living increases, depending on how PERS calculated his retirement benefits. That’s at least $1 million over 40 years.
Benefits are based on the employee’s highest consecutive 36 months of pay, but it’s unclear whether PERS used Arevalo’s base pay — $76,000 in 2012 — or his total pay, including overtime.
Arevalo said he didn’t consider a medical retirement until it was clear the Metropolitan Police Department was strongly considering his termination in the wake of Gibson’s controversial death on Dec. 12, 2011. Arevalo fired his AR-15 rifle into Gibson’s barricaded car after mistaking another officer’s beanbag-shotgun blast as gunfire from Gibson’s car.
Gibson, a Gulf War veteran suffering from delusions and post-traumatic stress, was hit four times and died at the scene. His wife later received a $1.5 million settlement from the department.
The department’s internal Use of Force Board recommended Arevalo’s firing in May. Arevalo said he suspected the deck was stacked against him.
“I did (want to stay) at one point,” he said. “But when it came down to the end, you know what, it was disheartening. When I took my oath of office I believed in it. You believe in the system. You have to believe the system is going to work.”
A disability retirement was a fail-safe.
“When you’re gonna (expletive) lose everything, and there are medical issues stress-wise, and a lot of people are saying, ‘Hey, it’s not worth it. You need to work on you,’ toward the end, it was just too much,” he said.
Arevalo submitted his disability retirement paperwork to the department on July 9, almost 19 months after the shooting.
The department submitted Arevalo’s final packet — which included a report from his employer, his immediate supervisor and personal physician — to PERS on Sept. 3. The agency’s doctor, G. Bruce Nickles, approved the application.
On Sept. 18, PERS retirement board members, who are appointed by the governor, unanimously approved Arevalo’s permanent and total disability.
One of the board members who voted for Arevalo’s retirement was Chris Collins, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association — Arevalo’s union.
Collins said he didn’t abstain from voting because he didn’t have a personal relationship with Arevalo. He said he knew the details of the Gibson shooting, but union lawyer David Roger and others in the organization worked closest with Arevalo on his defense.
“We didn’t hang out together,” he said. “I thought I could be objective.”
Two weeks after Arevalo’s disability was approved, the department’s pre-termination board heard Arevalo’s case. They agreed Arevalo should be fired.
Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie fired Arevalo on Oct. 15, although the officer’s medical retirement wasn’t noted in the news release. By the time Arevalo left the department as the first officer ever fired for an on-duty shooting, he’d been on paid suspension for 22 months, collecting more than $183,000 — including about $9,000 for a graveyard shift differential.
The firing came about a month too late for the department. Had Gillespie fired Arevalo before the Sept. 18 PERS vote, the officer wouldn’t have been eligible for medical retirement.
Arevalo was satisfied with the disability retirement and didn’t appeal his firing, even though he believes an arbitrator would have reinstated him. Gillespie’s touting of his firing was just window dressing to improve the department’s image, he said.
“He didn’t fire me,” Arevalo said. “I retired.”
Technically, both Gillespie and Arevalo were correct. Arevalo’s personnel file says the officer was terminated with cause. He’s not eligible to carry a retirement badge, nor does he have the privilege to carry a concealed weapon in all 50 states, which is typically granted to retired cops.
But PERS is a separate entity from the department, which has no control over the agency’s decisions, Undersheriff Jim Dixon said.
“There’s no way for the sheriff or I to really know what the medical issue is,” Dixon said. “If (an officer) files for medical retirement, and has a doctor assisting him through this, and the PERS board and (PERS) doctor reviews and agrees with the decision, it’s outside of the purview of the sheriff and myself.”
Lynette Jones, PERS’ director of member and retiree services, said the retirement board almost always approves medical disabilities. Applications are reviewed by two doctors and most rejections happen much earlier in the process, before the board’s involvement, she said.
Jones said she couldn’t recall any Las Vegas police officer who was denied medical retirement by the board in the past decade.
“The board won’t even hear their request if we can’t provide enough information to make a positive recommendation,” she said.
Collins agreed that it’s rare for the board to reject a doctor-approved application.
“We’re all professional people on the board, but we’re certainly not medical experts,” Collins said. “To vote no, you’d have to have some specific reason,” he said.
Collins said he reviewed the doctors’ notes on Arevalo and the treatment the officer received. Arevalo wasn’t trying to avoid being fired, he said, and the medical retirement was legitimate.
“I don’t think he ran from discipline,” Collins said. “Both letters from doctors were saying that this is a gentleman who, from the events in his life, put him in the predicament that he probably shouldn’t be a policeman anymore. It made perfect sense to me.”
Collins said he understands why people might be skeptical, as Arevalo asked for medical retirement only after the department began seeking his firing.
Realization that the department wanted him out might have been too much stress for Arevalo to bear, Collins said.
“Maybe that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I don’t know,” Collins said. “Whatever it was that finally pushed him over, his doctor didn’t believe he could have worked as a police officer again.”
It isn’t uncommon for officers facing discipline to retire.
Former police Lt. Paul Page left the department in 2010 after being accused of embezzling funds from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Managers and Supervisors Association, the union he headed.
Page, an 18-year veteran, was granted a medical retirement by the PERS retirement board and left the department before an internal investigation was finished. He had previously served on the board that approved his retirement. He paid back some of the money, and the union’s board voted not to file a criminal complaint.
Police Capt. David O’Leary, who arranged a police helicopter ride for a rock star’s wedding proposal last year, retired last month rather than taking a demotion.
But O’Leary had worked the 25 years required to receive a full, regular PERS retirement.
Arevalo could have taken early retirement without claiming a disability, but his benefits would have been much smaller — about half of what he receives now.
Several senior officers with knowledge of the practice said questionable medical retirements are rare, but do happen. An officer facing discipline will retire for a questionable medical reason about once a year, said one senior police official with experience in PERS.
“The whole medical retirement thing, for a lot of people, is a joke,” said another officer with knowledge of department disciplinary policies.
Collins acknowledged that some medical retirements are questionable.
“I’d say 99 percent of medical retirements are legitimate. It’s a small percentage (that aren’t),” he said. “Maybe someone is running from discipline, or trying to pull something on the system. But it doesn’t happen often. I don’t believe that was the case with Jesus.”
Arevalo, meanwhile, argues that the department lacked cause to fire him.
Lt. David Dockendorf, who supervised the botched plan to extract Gibson from the car, bore as much responsibility for the shooting, Arevalo said. Dockendorf faces a demotion of two ranks, to officer; his appeal of the punishment is pending.
“Why does he only get demoted when (his plan) led to Gibson losing his life?” Arevalo asked.
Arevalo said the department’s much-maligned radio system, which officials have acknowledged did not work properly that night, was also a factor in the shooting. The radio system is to be replaced.
“The department tried to paint me as an out-of-control cop, a rogue cop,” Arevalo said. “It’s all Gillespie. He wanted to take heat off a $42 million radio system that failed that night. He wanted to take heat off his lieutenant.”
While ruled 100 percent disabled by PERS, Arevalo is still allowed to work and receive his disability benefits. He said he doesn’t plan to return to policing — any job he takes will be scrutinized by the PERS board.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. De-stress, get the last two years out of my head and out of my heart and try to get better,” he said.
Although he’s done with the department, his personal struggle continues.
Arevalo was charged with harassment and disturbing the peace, both misdemeanors, stemming from a Feb. 2 incident at Canyon Ridge Church involving his ex-wife, Catherine, and her boyfriend, Steve Delao, according to court documents.
Arevalo said Gillespie pushed for the criminal charges and disputes reports that he challenged Delao to fight. His next court hearing is in February.
Despite his anger, he said he’s filled with guilt over Gibson’s death.
“Someone died because of what I did,” Arevalo said. “As a Christian, I have to live with that the rest of my life. That should have never happened.
“But the department, they came at me and put a target on my back,” he said. “Every time I turned around there was another hurdle.”
Staff writer Brian Haynes contributed to this report. Contact reporter Mike Blasky at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0283. Follow @blasky on Twitter.