Cop who shot marauding chimp says workers' comp law a 'farce'

Stamford police Officer Frank Chiafari, right, and state Rep. Gerald Fox of Stamford, far left, listen as Sgt. Joseph Kennedy, president of the Stamford Police Association, makes a statement Thursday during a public hearing before the legislature's Labor and Public Employees Committee at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
Stamford police Officer Frank Chiafari, right, and state Rep. Gerald Fox of Stamford, far left, listen as Sgt. Joseph Kennedy, president of the Stamford Police Association, makes a statement Thursday during a public hearing before the legislature's Labor and Public Employees Committee at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

Hartford - If the violent assailant that Officer Frank Chiafari shot last year had been different, the insurance coverage for the treatment the Stamford policeman later needed wouldn't have been in doubt.

Chiafari had responded to a scene of almost unimaginable gore, a woman bleeding without face or hands and near death, her attacker desperately trying to attack Chiafari himself before the officer was able to draw his gun and shoot.

But the attacker was Travis, a chimpanzee who turned on his owner and a friend at his home in Stamford last year.

And so when Chiafari's superiors put in a claim on his behalf for workers' compensation for the post-traumatic stress that still affects him, it was rejected in just five days, faster than his union could ever remember a denial coming down.

The state law that covers police officers for workers' comp claims after they are involved in shootings doesn't apply, the city said, when the attacker is an animal.

For Chiafari, for whom the city later agreed to pick up some medical expenses, the scarring memories of that day remain.

"I came this close to getting ripped apart myself, and I can't get that out of my head - seeing his face coming at me with bloody teeth," the veteran officer told members of the legislature's Labor and Public Employees Committee on Thursday.

Chiafari was testifying in favor of a bill that would amend the current law to permit police officers who are compelled to shoot attacking animals in the line of duty to submit workers' compensation claims for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The legislation, first proposed by Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, would allow post-traumatic stress claims in incidents like the chimp attack, provided an officer used deadly force while "reasonably believing that he or she was in imminent danger of serious physical injury or death from such an animal."

Chiafari was one of the first officers to arrive at a home in North Stamford on Feb. 16, 2009, where the 200-pound chimp had already severely injured Charla Nash, a friend of the animal's owner who had reportedly come over to help calm the aggravated animal.

Just five days later, his claim was denied in writing, Chiafari said, even though he has continued to suffer from anxiety and terrible visions. The officer described walking through a shopping mall, picturing women "without faces," just as Nash had been when he arrived at the scene of the chimpanzee's attack.

"The next day when I wake up, I'm like broken," he said. "I just - I crashed. I get a letter five days later essentially telling me they're washing their hands of it. 'You've suffered nothing. Goodbye, Frank.' For a city that claims that it cares about its officers, what a farce," he said.

Supporters of the bill are not trying to permit officers to make workers' compensation claims for more routine interactions with animals, like shooting a rabid or mortally injured animal, said Sgt. Josephy Kennedy, the president of the Stamford Police Association.

"We're not trying to open the floodgates," said Kennedy. "That's not the intention here."

Kennedy told legislators he had brought along pictures of the crime scene, which he offered to show privately to those who wanted a deeper understanding of Chiafari's ordeal. At least one lawmaker, Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, said he was interested in seeing the images.

Lawmakers were universally sympathetic during the committee hearing, which was packed with TV cameras and onlookers.

"It took a lot of guts to come up here today," said Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, the co-chairwoman of the committee.

Prague, her co-chairman, Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and other lawmakers expressed shock that Chiafari had been so quickly denied compensation via a letter that arrived five days after the incident.

"It's totally incomprehensible," Prague said, "that you would get such a letter."

t.mann@theday.com

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