Houston, TX - Former Houston Police Officer Jill Hesseldahl was seriously injured in the line of duty, waited almost two years for medical treatment, and then lost her job with the Houston Police Department (HPD) when she wasn’t back in working shape fast enough.
“You hear there is this big brotherhood,” she said. “Then you get hurt and find out you are all alone. It's devastating.”
Meanwhile, HPD accounted for her time off incorrectly, and in addition to going through the pain and suffering, she had to sue to get the sick leave she was entitled to for the on-duty injury.
The eight-year veteran of Houston Police was injured in the line of duty on Feb. 15, 2016 when she was in a collision while responding to a call. An ambulance transported Officer Hesseldahl to the hospital.
That’s when the delays and dismissive attitude from her department first began, according to the former police officer.
Hesseldahl was released from the hospital and sent for additional diagnosis of her neck and spine injuries. That doctor ordered an MRI two days after the collision.
It took six weeks for worker’s compensation to approve an MRI, and that test confirmed she had multiple cervical and lumbar spine injuries.
The doctor ordered her to have spine injections, and sent Officer Hesseldahl home loaded up with pain medicine and muscle relaxer prescriptions. Worker’s comp didn’t approve the injection treatments until several months later.
Officers who are injured in the line of duty continue to be paid their regular salary while they recover, but Houston PD took Officer Hesseldahl off Injured On Duty (IOD) status on July 22, 2016, forcing her to burn her own vacation and sick leave in order to continue receiving a paycheck.
The officers treating doctor refused to release her back to active duty because of the severity of her injuries, which completely contradicted the department’s decision. So Officer Hesseldahl filed a complaint and eventually took the department to court.
In the meantime, Hesseldahl said worker’s compensation dragged out the approval for the surgery required to make her whole again.
In fact, the surgery didn’t take place until November of 2017 - 21 months after the car crash that would eventually end her career in law enforcement - and Officer Hesseldahl would require several months of rehab and physical therapy afterwards before she would be physically able to return to patrol.
While she was waiting for the approvals – first for the injections and then for the surgery – HPD ordered the seriously-injured Officer Hesseldahl to get back to work.
She said her sergeants visited her at home on Dec. 17, 2016 to tell her she had to return to work, or be terminated.
Officer Hesseldahl returned to HPD as instructed on Dec. 19, 2016, and went to talk to her supervisor, Lt. Terry Horton, about the situation.
“I advised Lt. Horton that I was taking Oxycodone, Flexeril, and Lyrica three times a day. And it left me intoxicated,” she explained.
“He advised me to make sure I wrote 11 reports a day,” Hesseldahl told Blue Lives Matter.
She tried to do her job, but didn’t feel safe. So she went to Executive Assistant Police Chief Troy Finner and explained the situation. The chief sent her back home to recover.
“Chief Finner ordered me not to drive, or come to work while on these meds,” Hesseldahl said. “And he told me he would do whatever he could in his power to help. He told me he would get back with me in a week.”
But the chief never got back to her, and she was burning tremendous amounts of sick leave to keep financially afloat, despite the fact she’d been hurt on duty and shouldn’t have needed to use her personal sick days. She emailed him to follow up, but he never replied.
In February, a little more than a year after she was injured on duty, Officer Hesseldahl made an appointment to meet with the new Houston police chief, Art Acevedo.
She told Blue Lives Matter she explained the situation to Chief Acevedo and asked for his help.
“I told him what I had been though, and explained how the department had treated me,” Hesseldahl said. “He told me not to worry, that he was here now, and he would take care of me. He told me he would get back with me in 1-2 weeks. That he wanted to look over my medical records.”
Health privacy laws didn’t require then-Officer Hesseldahl to share her medical records with her employer, but she did.
“I'm more than willing to show anyone who is willing to help me, so I gave him copies,” she said.
She waited patiently and then followed up after a month had passed.
“Then I never heard back from him. I have written, called, and stopped in. But he will not talk to me,” Hesseldahl complained. She said she was baffled by the treatment she received from her department’s new top cop.
Two days after she met with Chief Acevedo, Officer Hesseldahl received good news on another front.
The Worker’s Compensation court had ruled in her favor. The judge determined that since Officer Hesseldahl was injured in the line of duty, she never should have been taken off IOD, and forced to burn her own sick days.
The Houston Police were ordered by the court to return the hours she burned of personal sick leave, but she said she still got burned by a loophole.
Hesseldahl told Blue Lives Matter that despite the ruling from the Texas Department of Insurance Division of Workers’ Compensation, HPD didn’t return the 200 hours her husband donated when they were incorrectly charging her sick leave.
Hesseldahl said the Houston Police Officers Union had encouraged her to have her husband, Sergeant R.C. Hesseldahl, donate leave to her, and promised to fill in from the union’s donated “leave bank” if she ran out of hours. However, the policy which outlines donated leave doesn’t have a mechanism for returning a donation.
The lump sum that was returned to Officer Hesseldahl by the police department didn’t include the 200 hours Sgt. Hesseldahl had given her, valued at between $37,000 and $41,000.
Hesseldahl blamed her union for making promises they couldn’t keep, but the union vice president, Doug Griffith, told Blue Lives Matter that his organization has “bent over backwards trying to help her” and had their legal department review the matter.
He said the contract doesn’t allow for donated hours to be returned to their original owner under any circumstances.
“It’s contract law – I can’t change that,” Griffith said.
Hesseldahl said it’s not fair and that the policy shouldn’t apply in a case where the leave never should have been deducted in the first place.
Six weeks before Christmas, Officer Hesseldahl separated from the Houston Police. It wasn’t optional.
She had suffered damage to four discs in her neck, and four in her back, as a result of her on-duty accident, and while she knew she couldn’t go back out on the street right away, she believed the Houston Police could effectively use her in another capacity while she recovered.
So she asked for a desk job, and was turned down.
Following surgery and several weeks of physical therapy, now-former Officer Hessedahl reported she was feeling much better, but that she still hasn’t received the full reimbursement of hours the court ordered returned to her.
Blue Lives Matter reached out to the Houston Police for comment and asked whether the leave Sgt. Hesseldahl donated to his wife would be forthcoming.
“HPD has followed the law, and we’ve complied with our policies in the handling of how we handle these types of situations,” Public Information Officer Jodi Silva responded.
Their answer wasn’t sufficient for Hesseldahl, who said she felt she had to continue to stand up to the department to ensure “this doesn’t happen to another officer.”