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Life expectancy has been a key element in the pension overhaul debate playing out in Rhode Island, in part because retirees are living longer, requiring more money to fund their retirements.
Public safety workers -- police, firefighters and correctional officers -- have been characterized as an exception.
For example, in July we examined a claim that law enforcement officers die 10 years earlier than the general population. We found it to be False because studies showed that they lived nearly as long, or perhaps a bit longer, than other public employees.
During an Oct. 27, 2011, General Assembly hearing on pension reform, David Mellon, president of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, made a similar claim.
"The job lowers your life expectancy," he said, adding later that "Metropolitan did a study in, I believe it was 1998, and the life expectancy was 58 from that study."
A lower life expectancy seems plausible, but age 58 seemed extraordinarily low when a 35-year-old male is predicted to live to age 77. We decided to track down the truth.
It turned out to be as easy as handcuffing a ghost.
We called Metropolitan Life to ask about the table. They couldn't find it and suggested we contact the Society of Actuaries. But the society doesn't keep that kind of data on life expectancies for various professions.
A Google search uncovered other cases in which people made the same assertion, but they also offered no documentation. For example, William Hepner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, during testimony before the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons in 2005, said he was citing Metropolitan Life Actuary Statistics from 1998. Corrections spokeswoman Deirdre Fedkenheuer said Hepner was retired and not reachable.
We found a similar pattern when we followed a separate thread -- a comparable claim that correctional officers typically died at age 59. Articles and websites would incorrectly credit another author or website with doing the research to back up the claim.
The source appears to be an unnamed report, supposedly written in 1982 or earlier, from a union we couldn't find: New York State Council 80 of the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees. (Council 82 currently represents correctional officers in New York, but that union couldn't find a copy of the report.)
We also contacted the National Institute of Corrections, part of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the American Correctional Association. They had no definitive data either.
At this point, Mellon's statement appears to be an urban legend -- a plausible but unfounded "fact" that is repeated so often it comes to be regarded as gospel.
"That's exactly what we found," said Joshua Stengel, program manager for NIC's information center, who tried unsuccessfully to track down the source of the statistic in June 2010. "My concern was that it was being cited by somebody like a union as a bargaining chip. And if they created it, they were essentially citing themselves."
Stengel and Council 82 subsequently directed us to an Oct. 17, 2011, Florida report -- published on a police union website and done by Brevard County Sheriff J.R. "Jack" Parker -- that concludes that law enforcement and correctional officers typically die at age 62.5, 12 years earlier than all Florida residents. Parker used the report to argue for a rollback of the minimum age and length of service requirements for the pension benefits of law enforcement and correctional officers.
The most obvious flaw in the report is that it compared the average age of death in those male-dominated professions to the age of death among both men AND women in Florida, failing to take into account the fact that women outnumber men in the Sunshine State and tend to live six years longer.
And while Parker's report also claims that scientific studies show that law enforcement officers have shorter life spans than the general public, some of the evidence cited in his report shows the opposite, as we found in our earlier PolitiFact analysis.
The truth may be far less ominous.
In 1993, the Correctional Service of Canada released an analysis of 148,850 active and retired public service workers, 1,422 of whom were retired correctional officers. The analysis, by Daniel J.K. Beavon and Paul S. Maxim, modified in 2009, found that male officers had an average life expectancy of 77.5 years.
That's just a year less than the longevity for all male Canadian public service employees and at least two years longer than the overall life expectancy of Canadian males.
After adjusting for factors such as starting age of employment, age of retirement, length of service, class and reason for retirement, the researchers concluded that the longevity difference was not statistically significant.
When we asked Mellon about his original statement, he said it made sense because "We don't have a lot of old correctional officer retirees." Of the 177 former correctional officers collecting retirement benefits, "we have nobody collecting in their 80s," 22 are in their 70s and 97 are in their 60s.
That means that two-thirds of the retirees are 60 or older, but those numbers only reflect who is living. The issue is the age at which they die.
"Over the years, unfortunately, I have been to many funerals of correctional officers under 55 and many retirees under 60. I think the numbers speak for themselves," he said.
David Mellon testified that the life expectancy for correctional officers is 58, and he said he got the information from Metropolitan Life.
But he did not actually get that statistic from the insurance company. He was citing an often-quoted number that, as far as we could tell after nearly two weeks of looking for its source, has no real documentation to back it up. A similar claim still making the rounds is actually 30 years old and comes from a questionable source. The most recent report we could find, from Florida, failed to make even the most basic adjustment -- for gender -- that would make it a valid study.
And the only thorough analysis we could find concluded that male correctional officers actually live longer than the general population.
We don't doubt that working as a correctional officer is hazardous and stressful, and we can understand how the funerals Mellon is attending could give him the impression that his coworkers are dying prematurely.
But the hard evidence cited to back up such claims turns out to be unreliable, ethereal or contradicts his testimony.
We rule Mellon's statement False.
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PolitiFact.com, "Retired police captain says law enforcement officers die 10 years earlier than most people," July 24, 2011
YouTube.com, "Third Joint Finance Committee Pension Hearing on Proposal (Part 2)," Oct. 27, 2011, accessed Nov. 3, 2011
SocialSecurity.gov, "Period Life Table," Social Security Administration, accessed Oct. 31, 2011
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CSC-SCC.gc.ca, "Forum on Corrections Research: The Life Expectancy of Correctional Service of Canada Employees(1)," 1993, modified Aug. 13, 2009, accessed Nov. 7, 2011
FloridaStateFOP.org, "Florida Mortality Study: Florida Law Enforcement and Corrections Officers Compared to Florida General Population," Oct. 17, 2011, accessed Nov. 14, 2011
QuickFacts.Census.gov, "State and County Quick Facts: Florida," accessed Nov. 14, 2011
StateHealthFacts.org, "Life Expectancy at Birth (in years), by Gender, 2007," accessed Nov. 14, 2011
NIC.dendesk.com, "Correctional Officer Life Expectancy," June 11, 2010, accessed Nov. 2, 2011
Law.jrank.org, "Prisons: Correctional Officers - Correctional Officer Stress," (undated, but comments date back more than 3 years), Nov. 4, 2011
Interviews, Edmond Ross, spokesman, Bureau of Prisons, Nov. 4, 7, and 10, 2011
Interview and emails, Alice Heiserman and Jeannelle Ferreira, American Correctional Association, Nov. 7-10, 2011
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