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By Laurie Roberts
Arizona Republic Editorial
YOUNGTOWN, Ariz. - Officer Frank Becerra is what you might call a hero. In December 2005, he went into a burning house to rescue a family. Then he went back inside, to make sure that everybody was out.
Three adults and four children were saved that day. For his efforts he received commendations from the town, the fire department and the National Latino Peace Officers Association.
Two and a half years later, he was tossed off the town's police force. This, because he was injured and needed six extra weeks to heal.
Six stinking weeks.
You might have guessed by now that Becerra worked for Youngtown, the same big-hearted place that refused to let Officer Ed Siemen retire early because of an on-the-job back injury. Instead, it fired Siemen last Thursday, leaving him with no life or health insurance as he fights cancer and faces what may be his last year on Earth.
After the story hit the media over the weekend, town officials scrambled to schedule a hearing for this afternoon to consider Siemen's 3 1/2-month-old retirement request. Youngtown Mayor Mike LeVault was clearly miffed that the people running his town sat on Siemen's retirement application and instead fired him.
"Had I known that that application existed, I would have seen to it that action would have been taken some time ago," he said at a press conference Tuesday, adding that the town plans to offer help until Siemen's retirement kicks in. "That's in the past. Now we're moving forward."
That's great, though I might not be so quick to chalk up what's happened here as something that's "in the past." I wrote about Siemen on Saturday, questioning how town officials could treat this guy so badly, a cop who was willing to lay his life on the line.
Turns out it's because they have experience.
Becerra, after all, did lay his life on the line. Twice. People tell me he's the type of cop any town would be proud to have - quietly exceptional. Every weekday at 8 a.m., if he was on duty, you would find his patrol car at a particular intersection along the town's main drag. That's because he knew there was a kindergarten girl who walked to the bus stop alone. Only not so alone when Becerra was there.
But he hasn't been watching in a while now. Becerra injured his back in January and in March, after using up his sick time and vacation, he was put on unpaid medical leave.
The town's then-acting Police Chief Kimberly Johnson refused to extend his leave after his 12 weeks was up on May 30, even though his doctor said he would be ready to return to the streets by July 11. Johnson also declined to offer him light duty until then, writing that the town had "no obligation" to do so. "If you are unable to return to work on your scheduled day, there will be no other recourse but for the town and the Police Department to sever the employment relationship," she wrote.
Becerra resigned, thinking that would look better on his record than being fired. Since then, he's applied for other police jobs but hasn't landed one. He suspects someone at Town Hall is giving him a bad reference though the town's attorney, Michelle Swann, assures me that's not the case.
These days, Becerra, his wife, JonMarie, and their children are living on food stamps and what money they can make on yard sales. Becerra says he bears no grudge to the town he served for 6 1/2 years. He just doesn't understand it.
"I still think about it every day," he said. "Why? Why couldn't they wait?"
Lloyce Robinson, the town manager, told me Tuesday that federal Family Medical Leave Act prohibited the town from offering additional unpaid time off after Becerra's 12 weeks were up. Actually, that law requires the town to give an employee 12 weeks of leave but it doesn't say the town must give only 12 weeks. Even the town's attorney acknowledges that town officials could have extended Becerra's leave.
Instead, they fired him.
It'll be interesting to see if LeVault, who called me Monday evening to assure me that Youngtown would do right by Siemen, is true to his word. "I'm a big supporter," he told me, "of police officers and firefighters, anybody that straps on a gun or runs into a burning building."
Maybe so, mayor, but in your town, the guy who ran into a burning building is now on food stamps and desperately looking for a job.

Reach Laurie Roberts at [email protected] or 602-444-8635. Read her blog at robertsblog.azcentral.com.

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