Officer's Retirement Tinged with Bitterness

Injured career officer battled city claims administrators

A 20-year career in local law enforcement career came to an end Wednesday, leaving the retiree with a measure of bitterness to go along with sweet memories.

San Diego police officer Craig Isbell, 48, left the department on medical retirement after suffering serious back injuries sustained in the heroic rescue of several residents from a downtown hotel in late 2004. And also after what he describes as a demoralizing battle with city officials who he says denied, delayed and complicated his claims in an effort to reduce the costs to municipal government.

"My back started to go bad pretty quick," Isbell said in an interview before a retirement ceremony at the police department's Northwestern Division station in Carmel Valley. "My legs started to go numb. Although I worked light duty for a while, it wasn't long before I was saying, 'Hey, I've got a problem that needs to be addressed.' "

Isbell said he eventually wound up undergoing a double-disk replacement surgery while on unpaid leave that continued through his recovery -- to the point of having to secure loans from the San Diego Police Officers Association to tide his family over. He has a milk-crate full of medical and insurance records relating to the back problems, the latest in a series of on-the-job injuries that included a facial fracture that required implanting nine metal screws, an ankle fracture and several broken fingers.

"I love this job; I would do this job for the rest of my life if I could," Isbell said. "Today is going to be a sad day when I have to take this uniform off for the last time."

During his time on the force, following a stint as correctional officer in a state prison, Isbell received an American Legion heroism award for discovering two children who had been locked naked for two years in a Logan Heights garage by their parents.

Isbell generally carried out patrol duties in the most dangerous parts of San Diego, once exchanging gunfire with a fleeing gang member who was among a group that had opened fire on police units.

"I loved going to work every day," Isbell said. "When you have fun at a job and you become good at it, it's easy."

The last four years were anything but easy, Isbell said. He said he had to wrangle with the city's medical-assistance, risk-management and legal administrators.

His wife, Dee, said many other injured officers are going through similar bureaucratic ordeals.

"If the city had just address his injuries, he wouldn't be sitting here," Dee said. "This wouldn't be his retirement day."

Informed of Isbell's comments Wednesday morning, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jerry Sanders said they would be relayed to officials in the departments involved in processing Isbell's medical issues.

So far, no response has been forthcoming.

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