Aberdeen Police Officer Jason Easton hasn't gotten a paycheck in more than four months — not since the department determined he could not return to the job he held for 10 years before he was shot in the face while on patrol in December 2015.
After spending the rest of their savings to cover bills, Easton and his family have now had to turn to outside agencies like the FOP and police benevolent funds for help. A friend created a gofundme site for the family, as well.
Through their experience, the Eastons — Jason, 34, wife Sandi, 32, and their four children, Joshua, 11, Lora, 8, Piper, 4 and Jameson, 4 months — know there are also other officers injured in the line of duty and their families who are far worse off than they are and they hope to use any attention generated by their story to help those other families.
Jason Easton said he has discovered there is no standard by which officers get medical retirement — some departments don't offer it at all, he said. There is no process for injured officers and their families to get psychological support after a line-of-duty injury; and like to see requirements for continuing health insurance or to cover what worker's compensation, since it only covers 66.6 percent, Easton said.
So the Eastons have turned to local lawmakers to propose legislation to streamline the process to get support when an officer is injured in a work-related incident, Sandi Easton said.
"We want to tell our story to change and effect change for everyone — not us," Sandi Easton said. "We want our story to change what happens with injured officers everywhere."
Aberdeen Police Chief Henry Trabert agrees there are problems with the department's medical retirement and he and others in the police department are working with the city to rectify them.
Parts of it are subjective, he said, and the department as a whole can look at areas of the policy — such as the definition of a catastrophic and non-catastrophic injury — that need better clarification, restructuring or to be changed altogether.
"I support Officer Easton 100 percent. I think he deserves to get everything he can for what happened to him," Trabert said. " I'll do anything I can."
The department's retirement board is run by the city not by the department so as chief, Trabert said he has no oversight or ability to provide additional benefits in Easton's case.
Aberdeen City Manager Randy Robertson said he couldn't discuss Easton's case because it's a personnel issue and because he was not on the board that determined what disability he would receive.
He also said Easton's case is still active and Easton has the right to appeal the decision that was made. Easton said he is working on an appeal.
Easton is the first officer to encounter these issues, which Trabert said the department didn't know existed until now.
"I want to take care not only of Officer Easton, but all officers from here on out," Trabert said. "This is not just about Jason Easton, I want to protect officers who come after him."
Trabert has advocated looking at the department's pension plan and he has recommended revisions. But he said he didn't want to discuss them so as to not jeopardize Easton's case.
"This is a guy who put is life on the line; [officers] do it every day. And he received an injury that was career-ending, it affects the rest of his life," Trabert said. "We need to take care of our people."
The department has an obligation to make the retirement process as easy as possible, Trabert said. And he'd like Easton to be part of finding a way to fix the process. As someone's who's been through it, he can point out some of the things that should be looked at, things that can be made easier.
Cleared by doctor
Easton was shot in the face with bird pellets from a shotgun blast on Dec. 4, 2015 by Tyler Testerman, now 23, of Havre de Grace.
Testerman and his accomplice, 28-year-old Scott Lawrence, of Abingdon, were arrested the same day. Both pleaded guilty for their parts in the shooting.
Lawrence tried to get the victim, who had been arguing with Testerman via text messages, to come out of the trailer where he was hiding while Testerman waited in the nearby woods to ambush him, according to news reports at the time.
Easton responded to the victim's 911 call and was talking to him when he was shot. Lawrence was sentenced to 25 years in prison and five years' probation, with the prison time suspended.
Testerman was sentenced to a combined 78 years in prison, although he will serve a maximum of 35 years after the remaining years were suspended. He is serving his sentence in Jessup.
The shooting left Easton legally blind in his left eye, he said. He still has small pellets lodged in his eye and eye socket.
He wears a contact to mimic the lens in his eye. He's had numerous surgeries and has oil in the gap in his eye to keep it stable, he said. He has to use an antibiotic steroid daily and sees one doctor every three months, another every six.
Despite the inability to use his left eye, Easton was released by his doctor on April 1 to return to work which he had hoped to do since the shooting. He had a permanent restriction, however, and was approved to do everything but patrol, he said.
Easton had been planning to return to a light-duty position, but the day before his start date, Easton said, he was told by Trabert that if he couldn't return in full capacity, he couldn't return at all.
Easton understands that rationale, he said.
"Because it's a smaller agency, everybody in a law enforcement role needs to be able to fill every position," Easton said. "I have my personal disagreements with it, but I understand it. I have seen the effect it has on a small staff when an officer can't do everything. I know what it's like."
But he doesn't understand why he can't return in a light-duty position.
"All my schooling, my training, it's geared for law enforcement. I'd prefer to stay in law enforcement," he said. "My desire has always been to go back but I've been notified that's not going to happen so I'm pursuing retirement."
The Aberdeen Police Department Retirement Board determined that Easton's injury was non-catastrophic, not career-ending, so he is only eligible to receive a disability benefit of 33.3 percent when he retires.
He is in the process of appealing that decision, however, and if the board rules his injuries are catastrophic, he would get a 66.6 percent disability benefit.
Since the shooting, workers compensation has paid Easton two-thirds of his salary and the City of Aberdeen paid the rest of his salary to 100 percent for two years. Easton said he was the first person this was ever done for.
"It was a really gracious gesture," Sandi Easton said.
But when Easton was told he couldn't return in a law enforcement capacity, he was put on unpaid leave effective April 1. He was also released from worker's compensation because he exceeded the time during which he could receive those benefits. After Oct. 1, the family will be without health benefits.
From April through July, the Eastons were getting by financially. "God provided everything," Jason Easton said.
When their clothes washer broke, Jason turned to Facebook for help to fix it or to buy a cheap one.
"Then Home Depot came along with a new washer," Jason Easton said.
The Aberdeen Home Depot bought the family Christmas presents, they said. Church members donated gift cards.
They waited as long as they could until they couldn't pay their mortgage and other bills, Jason Easton said.
"We realized, especially since my injury, a large majority of injured officers are in way worse situations than us. We had our needs provided for until that point," he said. "But we got to a point where we had to start telling people, to ask for help. You can't bleed a rock."
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A friend of the family created the gofundme.com page, www.gofundme.com/please-support-the-easton-family, which had raised $2,665 as of Thursday. Easton's co-workers have donated money to the family, Fraternal Order of Police and police benevolent funds have provided assistance. Ten days later, they're able to catch up on their mortgage and other bills they're behind on.
"We can take a deep breath instead of hold on for dear life," Sandi Easton said.
"It's been amazing to us, humbling for sure," Jason Easton said.
The hope to use the attention they're getting to make changes so other officers injured in the line of duty don't have to go through what the Eastons have.
Sandi Easton has met with a local senator in hopes of developing legislation to streamline the process and set standards for officers injured in the line of duty.
"We want them to get the physical support, the financial support, the psychological support, to make sure they get the help they need," Jason Easton said.
"We want to take our media cause and pass along the torch, not let it burn out," Jason Easton said.