Disability pensions are supposed to be a safety net for those who risk their lives to protect the public. It's a kind of reassurance to firefighters who run into burning buildings, or deputies who wrestle with bad guys, that they won't go into bankruptcy if they're injured on the job.
But, a 17 News analysis found a disproportionate number of county firefighters and deputies are taking these disability pensions. And, it might be because a large percentage of their pension money becomes tax-free for life.
33 percent of firefighters in Kern County retire through disability. For deputies, it's about 40 percent. That's far greater than other county departments.
Those who work in public safety say it's physically demanding and often dangerous work. But, critics suggest some deputies and firefighters are fleecing the system.
Five years before he became Shafter's chief of police, Charlie Fivecoat told the county retirement board he was so badly injured or stressed he no longer could serve as a Sheriff's commander.
It's significant because the on-the-job disability he claimed means half of his $81,000 Sheriff's retirement comes from income, exempt from taxes.
"We do have a very dangerous job that we do, and I don't want to minimize the job that these men and women do because it is inherently dangerous," said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood.
Sheriff Donny Youngblood wouldn't talk about Fivecoat specifically, but he thinks others are just scamming the system when nearly 40 percent of sworn deputies retire from the department claiming they were disabled on or off the job.
"I find that appalling. I think that number, there's something wrong with that," said Youngblood.
He points to deputy T.J. Moore who was shot in the face responding to a domestic disturbance.
"I don't think there is any person on this planet who thinks he shouldn't have gotten worker's comp and should have got medical retirement," said Youngblood. "But, guess where T.J. Moore is today? He is working for this department because he chooses to."
The Sheriff's disability pension isn't the only money Fivecoat receives.
Even though he said he was too sick to work for the county, Fivecoat later spent five years as the chief of police in Shafter. That's the minimum amount of time required for him to also receive a pension from that job.
Combined with a few years he spent on the Taft police force, and the state pension system pays Fivecoat another $13,000 for his former work in Taft and Shafter.
His disability notwithstanding, Fivecoat is still working, now at Occidental Petroleum as a security consultant.
He declined to be interviewed for our story. And, the retirement board, citing privacy laws, declined to reveal how he was injured.
"I think someone, somewhere would have asked the question, 'How can you have a disability from the Sheriff's Department and then go right into law enforcement again?'" Kern Taxpayer Association's Mike Turnipseed sits on the retirement board that makes those decisions.
"I mean what do you say? The state created that," he added.
"It's the rules working within the rules, and as I mentioned earlier these are physically demanding jobs," said Anne Holdren, Kern County Employees' Retirement Association.
The union that covers local deputies, Kern Law Enforcement Association, declined an interview for this story.
The Kern County Detention Officers Association did not respond to a similar request.
But, deputies aren't alone.
33.5 percent of firefighters retire disabled. Compare that to Kern Medical Center, where only 11.7 percent of retirees receive a disability pension. In the Department of Human Services, it's only 5.2 percent.
Critics say there's no easy fix, but until the public has better access to disability pension files--until they know what kind of injures are being claimed--questions will linger.
"It puts us in a bad position and makes us form some opinions in a lot of cases that we really don't know a lot about," said Youngblood.