The first disciplinary hearing for one of five D.C. firefighters accused of failing to help a dying man outside a station began behind closed doors Wednesday, contrary to the hopes of District officials that the entire inquiry would be open to the public.
Battalion Chief Charles Battle, who chairs the four-member board that runs the hearing, said the panel decided to keep the proceedings private to protect the “safety of the members.” Neither the firefighter, Lt. Kellene Davis, nor the prosecutor, a lawyer for the D.C. attorney general’s office, requested that the board close the hearing.
As a result, the public was unable to hear a firsthand account from Davis about what happened in the Rhode Island Avenue fire station in January when 77-year-old Medric “Cecil” Mills Jr. suffered a heart attack across the street in Northeast Washington. Davis and four other firefighters are accused of failing to help Mills even after bystanders rushed to the station’s door and pleaded for them to help.
The hearing, which lasted more than six hours after more than a dozen witnesses testified Wednesday, is expected to last several days and will reconvene Friday. The board will probably take several weeks to announce a decision, fire officials said.
“We are disappointed that the people will not be able to view the process,” said Keith St. Clair, a spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul A. Quander Jr. “We had hoped this process would be as open as possible. We would like the public to be able to see and sift through the entire presentation. These are public employees on the public payroll.”
Karen Evans, the attorney for the Mills family, said full details of the incident should be made public.
“The public has the right to know Medric Mills’ story and the precise circumstances that led to his death and how D.C. Fire and EMS employees failed to provide him emergency care,” Evans said in a statement.
Trial boards, as the hearings are called, may be handled like trials but are not subject to the District’s open meeting laws. The board chairman has wide latitude to open or close a hearing, and D.C. officials, although they supervise the board members, need to be careful to avoid undue influence and respect the panel’s independence. The board is made up of two battalion chiefs and two captains.
Davis’s attorney, Donna Rucker, declined to comment after the hearing, citing the ongoing inquiry. But in an interview Tuesday night, she complained that the hearing was rushed and that she got supporting documents from the attorney general’s office only that day. She said she felt that the District was trying to rush the hearing ahead of her client’s retirement, which could come at the end of the month.
The lieutenant, a 28-year veteran, is charged with six administrative counts of neglect of duty that include alleged failure to render assistance to the public and properly command her unit, lying to investigators and not documenting the incident in the station’s journal.
The case is the latest test for a fire department marked by scandal and facing repeated problems of slow response times, a shortage of paramedics and a fleet in disarray. The Mills case has been the subject of a public hearing before the D.C. Council’s public safety committee and a scathing report that rebuked the firefighters at the Rhode Island Avenue station for failing to provide the most basic of public services.
Critics, such as the firefighter’s union and the chairman of the safety committee, have declared the problems an example of systemic mismanagement by the fire chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe.
Details of what happened that day in the Rhode Island Avenue firehouse — which is the headquarters of Truck 15, commanded by Davis, and Engine 26, which was out on another call when Mills collapsed — comes primarily from the report released by the District last month. It says that a cadet, 19-year-old Remy Jones, twice sought out the lieutenant after people came seeking help for Mills. He announced that his request was urgent over an intercom but failed to ring the station bells, which instinctively and quickly draw firefighters to the engine bays. Jones said in the report that he thought he could sound the bells only after dark.
The report says that he finally found Davis, who requested that he go find the precise address. He did, but never returned, having talked to another firefighter who heard the dispatch and told him help was on the way. But that dispatch was to the wrong address.That firefighter then retired to the bunk room to study for a promotional exam.
Davis declined to talk with reporters as she walked into the hearing room with her attorney at the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center on U Street. The trial board chairman allowed news cameras to film the meeting coming to order, allowing them pictures of Davis as she sat at a table and prepared her testimony. At one point, eight firefighters in dress uniforms, including Jones, the young cadet, filed into the room to be sworn. The others then left, returning to a private room while Jones stood outside waiting to be called. He stood in a corner by a window, his back to the media and cameras, and stood silently for several minutes, his head bowed.
A clerk inside the closed room covered windows with white paper; among those who had to leave was an aide to the D.C. Council’s public safety committee. A representative from the firefighter’s union was allowed to stay.