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Congressman Raul Ruiz

Representing the 36th District of California

Op-Ed: Supporting the Families of Fallen Officers

October 18, 2018
In The News

Every law enforcement officer deserves recognition and respect for the risks they take to protect our communities and preserve peace in our cities.  Officers become like family to the members of the communities they serve, and their fellow officers become their brothers and sisters.  Like a death in any family, losing an officer impacts the entire community, something I was reminded on October 8, 2016, when Riverside County lost officers Jose Gilbert ‘Gil” Vega and Lesley Zerebny to a gunman with an assault rifle. 

Their loss shook us all.  It was a stark reminder of how much officers put on the line when they kiss their loved ones goodbye in the morning because as a doctor, I’ve taken care of first responders in the emergency department with countless injuries and even gunshot wounds, but that didn’t make the loss of Officers Vega and Zerebny any easier.

As the initial shock wore off our county came together to stand with the families of our fallen heroes and make sure they had what they needed to grieve and get back on their feet.

I met with Dr. Matt Zerebny, Officer Zerebny’s father-in-law, to learn about his family’s experience.  He shared with me the pain of losing a daughter and how he sought to comfort his grieving son, Zack – also in law enforcement as a deput yin the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department – who was now a single parent faced with raising his infant daughter on a single income and wondering how they were going to get by.

He also shared with me stories from other families across the country who were struggling financially, worried about the next mortgage or car payment instead of grieving like they should have been.  Dr. Zerebny and I agreed that we can best honor those we’ve lost serving their families and that we would honor the. Memory of his daughter by improving the lives of others.

We found the families of fallen officers who gave everything to keep their community safe were being shortchanged by bureaucracy.  They were struggling.  And so, we decided that legislation was needed to support these families, make sure that they aren’t strapped with debt, and give them a fair shot at making it in the world.

H.R. 5060, the Heroes Leasley Zerebny and Gilbert Vega First Responders Survivors Support Act, would fix this. It proposes to update the Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) Program to reflect modern costs of living and education and give first responders the peace of mind that their families will be taken care of should they be killed or disabled.

First, we found that families weren’t able to pay off the most common kinds of debt, like home mortgage, credit cards, auto loans or student debt, so my legislation increases the PSOB death and disability benefit from $350,00 to $500,000. We based this on the national average debt in these categories along with the nationwide average cost to raise a child from birth to maturity, giving families the financial security they need to get back on their feet.

Second, we discovered that families were losing out on up to $10,000 because the government took too long to process their paperwork. H.R. 5060 fixes the benefit determination date so that families don’t lose out because of bureaucratic delays.

Third, the education benefit for families hasn’t kept up with the sky-rocketing cost of higher education, which means surviving family members aren’t able to pursue their education and their dreams. My bill increases the education benefit form $1,023 to $2,000 per month and fixes the inflationary rate to match the rising cost of education

I am thankful for PORAC’s support of this bipartisan legislation. Passing the bill won’t be easy built with the support of communities, first responders and law enforcement organizations from across the country, we will succeed.

We can never truly repay the families of Officers Vega and Zerebny, or others who have lost a loved one in the line of duty for their sacrifice. What we can do is take common-sense steps to make sure their families and children have a fair shot in life. They have so much top serve our society and so as a society we must serve them.