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Bill would expand family death benefits of fallen officers

Paul Bearers carry the casket of Utah County Sgt. Cory Wride for the internment service at the Spanish Fork City Cemetery on Wednesday, February 5, 2014.
Paul Bearers carry the casket of Utah County Sgt. Cory Wride for the internment service at the Spanish Fork City Cemetery on Wednesday, February 5, 2014.
Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — “When something like this happens to your family, you’re pretty numb. You’re walking like a ghost in your house and trying to hold things together.”

That’s how Nannette Wride described her state of mind after she heard her husband, Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Cory Wride, was fatally shot.

Lawmakers listened to Wride on Friday before considering HB288, a bill that would expand death benefits to the families of peace officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty.

In addition to dealing with the grief of losing her husband, Wride said she had to shoulder the stress of a financial nightmare — not only losing her husband’s income, but also her family’s health insurance.

“At that point in time, your brain can’t handle it,” she said. “There’s no way that you are physically or mentally able to handle the stress that falls upon you when something like this happens.

“So to have the option to be able to have health insurance just fall back in place and not have to be made to go back to work … where you need to be able to heal and grieve and help your children is just vital,” Wride said.

The House Retirement and Independent Entities Committee later approved the bill 7-0, favorably recommending it to the full House. If it passes, HB288 will increase the lump sum that spouses of officers killed in the line of duty receive, as well as provide health coverage for the officer’s surviving family.

Currently, surviving spouses are granted only $1,500, which is not sufficient to support families who have not only lost a loved one but also a source of income and often health insurance, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield.

Ray said families of fallen officers have been receiving inadequate compensation based on outdated law.

“As we looked into it, we were kind of appalled that this has fallen through the cracks through the years and we’ve never updated the code,” he said. “This isn’t a bill that makes anybody rich. This is something that helps take care of families.”

HB288 would increase the surviving spouse’s lump sum to equal six months of the fallen officer’s final average salary.

In addition to requiring employers to provide fallen officers' families with continuing health coverage, the bill would also instruct those employers to provide the surviving spouses assistance with applying for death benefits.

Wride said having financial guidance during such tragic times would be invaluable to spouses as they cope with the loss.

“It takes that stress off of the widow so that she doesn’t have to jump through the hoops and figure out how to get insurance and things like that for the family,” she said.

Bountiful City Manager Gary Hill said the Utah League of Cities and Towns will support HB288 if Ray revises it to spread the costs associated with supporting fallen officers’ families across all Utah cities rather than leave the burden on individual city police or fire departments.

Mike Millard, president of the Salt Lake Police Association, said if something tragic were to happen to him as a police officer, his wife and four kids’ lives would be “completely turned upside down.”

“I couldn’t imagine my wife having to deal with that by herself,” Millard said. “I think this is probably the most important bill up on the hill today.”