GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan State Police has ended a program that’s helped the families of troopers after their death for more than 80 years.

The Voluntary Benefit Program distributed funds to families upon the death of an MSP officer, current or retired.  

The initiative started in 1936 when troopers “passed the hat” around state police posts to collect and distribute cash quickly to surviving families.

Upon an officer’s death, VBP members paid either $2 or $5 depending on the status — active or retired — of the decedent and the donating officer.

Target 8 reported in January 2022 that MSP had quietly paused the program in April 2021.

Since our initial report, state police officials notified the 1,200 participants that the program is shutting down permanently.

“I’m disappointed,” said Ken Knowlton, a retired MSP detective who’s been paying into the VBP for 45 years. “If something went wrong, we would just like to know what went wrong, why it went wrong and if there was any feasible way the program could be continued.”

In the March 21, 2022, letter announcing the program’s official end, state police administrators said they tried unsuccessfully to find an outside organization to run the Voluntary Benefit Program.

The department has repeatedly noted the program was entirely voluntary and participants were never guaranteed a payout.

While the VBP began as a grassroots, “pass-the-boot” effort at individual posts, MSP began administering the program in the 90s, electronically billing participants.

“Over the years, the department has continued to administer this program, despite lacking the statutory authority to do so,” Amanda Baker, the director of MSP’s Budget and Financial Services Division, wrote in a letter to participants. “Participation in the program declined steadily in modern times due to a number of factors, including the availability of life insurance, the inability to hire troopers in the 2000s, and a significant change to the retirement benefits of new trooper hires, which made a program such as this even less desirable to new troopers…”

The department stopped offering the program to new recruits in 2018 but failed to inform retirees who were still paying into the VBP.

Knowlton finds that particularly upsetting.

“They decided they weren’t going to offer the program anymore but yet they continued to send out billings knowing full well that there was never going to be a back end feeding of the program in terms of new people joining,” said Knowlton in an interview with Target 8 via Zoom.

Knowlton said members who had money in escrow to support the program have started receiving reimbursement checks from the state.

“Inside that envelope with the check, there was no explanation, no apologies, there was no breakdown of amounts, it was basically, ‘here’s your check, trust us and we’re done,'” he said.

According to Shanon Banner, director of public affairs for MSP, the reimbursement checks come directly from the state treasury so state police cannot add anything to the mailing. 

“Everybody’s been doing the best they could with the best intentions, wanting to do the right thing to support (current MSP employees) and retirees,” said Banner. “(But) this program is not sustainable. It just wasn’t viable for us to run it. This wasn’t a program that had staff dedicated to it. … Sometimes doing the right thing is really hard and, in this case, the right thing is acknowledging we have to discontinue this program. We don’t have the (statutory) authority to run the program.”

More than a dozen VBP participants reached out to Target 8 to share their frustration over MSP’s handling of the program, as well as its failure to communicate the program’s status to its members in a timely manner.