by Robert W. Steele, Jr. (Winter 2019)

The Fourth District Appellate Court in Illinois recently found that a police officer injured during a voluntary bicycle-patrol training session was entitled to a “line-of-duty” disability pension in Gilliam v. Board of Trustees of City of Pontiac Police Pension Fund and the City of Pontiac, 2018 IL App (4th) 170232. The court recognized that the capacity in which an officer was acting also determines whether an officer’s conduct involved a “special risk” and constituted an “act of duty” under Section 5-113 of the Illinois Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/5-113).

The court concluded that the officer was “acting in capacity that involved special risk” when she injured herself in attempting a special maneuver while “performing or learning to perform the duties of a bicycle-patrol officer.” It did not matter whether the officer was injured during a training exercise or on actual patrol.

In April of 2012, Pontiac Police Officer Shawna Gilliam participated in a bicycle-patrol training program, taught by the International Police Mountain Bike Association (“IMPBA”) instructor. The course was specifically designed to teach “tactics” used by officers while responding to calls and conducting traffic stops. These tactics included patrol procedures, night operations, and various maneuvers for felony pursuit.

Seeking to be certified for police bicycle-patrol duties, she reported to the four-day training session while on duty, wearing police equipment, and using a City-provided bicycle. While learning to perform a felony pursuit maneuver called “parallel curb ascending,” she fell onto her right arm, injuring her forearm and wrist. She was later diagnosed with a “triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFC) tear requiring three surgeries.” Doctors subsequently determined that she was unable to carry out her duties as a patrol officer due to the injury.

Three years later, Gilliam filed for a “line-of duty” disability pension (40 ILCS 5/3-114.1), and alternatively a “non-duty” disability pension (40 ILCS 5/3-114.2). The police department placed her on “non-pay status of employment.” After a hearing was held in which the City of Pontiac was allowed to intervene, the Board of Trustees of the Pontiac Police Pension Fund voted 3-2 to deny Gilliam’s request for a “line-of duty” disability pension, but unanimously voted in favor of her request for a “non-duty” disability pension. The Board found that Gilliam’s disability was neither incurred by nor resulted from the performance of an “act of duty.” The Board principally reasoned that the accident did not involve an act that “inherently involved a special risk.”

Gilliam appealed the Board’s decision to the circuit court. After a hearing was held, the circuit court reversed the Board’s decision, and granted Gilliam’s “line-of-duty” disability pension, finding that Gilliam was injured while performing an “act of duty involving special risk.”

Appealing the circuit court’s decision, the Board and the City argued that Gilliam was not entitled to receive a “line-of-duty” disability pension because her injury was not incurred in the performance of an “act of duty” as defined under the Code. The Board followed a narrow interpretation of the Code: that determining whether conduct involves a “special risk” is limited to assessing the activities the officer engaged in at the time, specifically whether those activities are “inherently dangerous” and produced the injury.

Disagreeing with this interpretation, the court relied on settled case law, reasoning that the “capacity in which the police officer was acting” ultimately determines whether conduct involves a “special risk.” (See Johnson v. Retirement Board of the Policemen’s Annuity & Benefit Fund, 114 Ill.2d 518, 522 (1986) (traffic patrol officer slipped and fell while crossing the street to respond to a citizen’s request for help; under the Code, the officer’s conduct was an “act of duty”)).

Due to the factual similarities, the court predominantly used the same analysis from Alm v. Lincolnshire Police Pension Board. 352 Ill.App.3d 595 (2nd Dist. 2004), in which an officer injured his knee while pedaling a bicycle on bicycle patrol. In Alm, the court held that officer was entitled to “line-of-duty” disability benefits. Agreeing with the Alm court, the court in Gilliam distinguished the “‘precise physical act at the moment of the injury’” from “‘the capacity in which the officer [was] acting.’”

In essence, a seemingly benign activity for an average citizen—when performed by an officer as routine patrol or otherwise—may hold “special risks.” For an officer, bicycle patrol may include night riding, carrying additional weight from equipment, heightened awareness of surroundings, and specific maneuvering designed for pursuit and apprehension.

Here, the court’s decision quoted the IMPBA’s course description verbatim, which included “patrol procedures, tactics, night operations . . . [o]ff-road and riding and bike-specific live-fire exercises” to be included during training. Coupled with testimony as to the nature of felony pursuit through parallel curb ascending, wheel lifts, and speed variation, it was clear to the court that bicycle patrol came with special risks beyond those an ordinary citizen encounters.

To this court, and others in prior decisions, it does not matter whether an injury could occur to anyone engaging in the precise activity in which the officer was engaged. Even use of a specific maneuver by an ordinary citizen is distinguished from an officer using the same maneuver, because it is being done while on patrol. Further, the nature of the training simulates the capacity in which the officer will be acting; thus, those same “special risks not assumed by ordinary citizens [in] riding a bicycle” or doing other unique activities still allow the officer’s conduct to be an “act of duty.”