PALM SPRINGS, Calif.- - Legislation that would increase death benefits for the families of fallen law enforcement officers and emergency responders was unveiled today by a Coachella Valley lawmaker at the headquarters of the Palm Springs Police Department, which lost two officers in the line of duty in 2016.
Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert said the ``Heroes Lesley Zerebny & Gilbert Vega First Responders Survivor Support Act'' seeks to rectify an "outdated'' system that has ``shortchanged'' the families of deceased police officers and firefighters.
Ruiz said families are not receiving enough money to match cost of living or higher education increases, especially as they're often forced to wait up to one year after their loved one's death to receive the benefits.
Inflation forces the families to lose up to $10,000 "while they wait through no fault of their own,'' Ruiz said.
The bill would increase death and disability benefits from $350,000 to $500,000, raise education benefits from $1,100 to $2,000 per month, amend the date when benefits are disbursed, and mandate that an investigative report be drafted to find ways to streamline access to the education benefits.
"The current system is failing our grieving families,'' Ruiz told law enforcement and fire department personnel from across the Coachella Valley who gathered at the Palm Springs Police Department, which suffered the losses of Officers Jose "Gil'' Vega and Lesley Zerebny during an ambush shooting. An ex-con is awaiting trial on charges that could land him on death row for allegedly gunning down the officers when they responded to a family disturbance call on Oct. 8, 2016.
Ruiz partnered with Zerebny's father-in-law Matt to develop the legislation as a way to better assist families who suffered as the Zerebnys did. The 27-year-old policewoman, who had been with the department for a year and a half, left behind a husband, sheriff's Deputy Zachary Zerebny, and infant daughter Cora.
Vega, who was 63, had been with the department 35 years -- five years past his retirement eligibility -- and was about two months from retirement. He had eight children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Matt Zerebny, who said his daughter-in-law's death has been "devastating for our family,'' said he was shocked to find that other families who lost loved ones in the line of duty received little to no benefits.
"How is this possible? We're the wealthiest country in the world and we don't take better care of our first responders,'' Zerebny said.
Palm Springs police Chief Bryan Reyes said the bill `` could not be more timely,'' citing National Fraternal Order of Police data showing that 44 officers have been shot, with 14 of those killed, in the first two months of this year.
Reyes said the number of officers shot increased from 253 in 2016 to 271 in 2017, a figure he said would be surpassed this year if the current rate of officer shootings continues unabated.
Ruiz also emphasized the dangers first responders put themselves in, where their lives are regularly at risk even on seemingly routine calls.
"Each year, an average of 151 law enforcement officers and 79 firefighters lose their lives in the line of duty just to keep our communities safe. That's 230 families disrupted suddenly a year. That's more than four every week,'' Ruiz said.
"Our officers and firefighters pay the ultimate price protecting you and me and our
community, and the least we can do is ensure that families have the support and resources they need,'' he said. "If it were any of us, we would want to know that our families are taken care of, that they wouldn't be strapped with debt, that they could still go to school and pursue their dreams and above all, that they would be able to make it in life."