August 24

The D.C. firefighter who retired to his bunk to study for a promotional exam instead of going to the aid of a man dying outside his fire station will be suspended for 60 hours. The lieutenant in charge of the station was allowed to retire with full pension, and another firefighter whose actions were found wanting was reprimanded. So much for people being held accountable in the death of Medric Mills Jr. Given the department’s hidebound system of discipline, no other outcome was likely.

Responsibility for this travesty lies less with the trial boards that whitewashed the events than with the D.C. lawmakers who tolerate a system with no real consequences for wrongdoing or incompetence.

Justice was not done today,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said of the findings after disciplinary hearings into the events of Jan 25. That is when Mr. Mills collapsed from a heart attack across the street from a fire station whose personnel couldn’t be roused to provide assistance; the 77-year-old man did not survive.

The reasoning, if one can call it that, behind the boards’ decisions is a mystery, because the hearings were closed to the public and the reports have been kept secret. But the opaqueness of the proceedings is not the only problem. The panels are composed of firefighters who tend to protect their brethren. Rules prohibit the fire chief from overruling a board’s decision or increasing the recommended punishment. That a 2 1/2-day suspension (firefighters work 24 hour shifts) was the most severe penalty “is a complete and utter sham. It boggles the mind,” said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander.

Let’s hope that the outrage expressed by city officials leads to genuine reform. A spokesman for Mr. Gray told us that he had directed the attorney general and Mr. Quander to investigate a legislative fix to the process that is spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement. Whether the D.C. Council will have the will to set new parameters is an open question, as its members have shown a propensity not to ruffle the feathers of the firefighters’ union. The council needs to realize that pandering to union interests doesn’t serve public safety. If the performance of this troubled department is to improve, the fire chief must be given the tools to punish and, if need be, weed out those who can’t or won’t do the job.