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D.C. firefighter files police complaint claiming assault by Ellerbe

A week after a criminal probe into two ambulance fires was launched, D.C. police began a second investigation involving the troubled fire department: whether the fire chief assaulted a firefighter at one of the blazes.

Firefighter Sean Christopher Griffith, 33, filed a complaint Tuesday with D.C. police, seven days after the alleged encounter at an Aug. 13 fire in the 4700 block of Benning Road SE. The report was made public Wednesday.

Griffith, who last week was temporarily assigned to Engine 27 in Deanwood, says that Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe forcefully grabbed his phone after confronting firefighters about a picture of the burning ambulance that appeared on the firefighters union’s Twitter account 23 minutes after the first engine had arrived.

The complaint says: The “suspect grabbed and removed a cellular telephone which was in his right hand. The grabbing and taking of the cellphone caused injury to the complainant’s right hand. The complainant sought medical treatment for his injury.”

D.C. police will investigate the claim and consult with the U.S. attorney’s office. No criminal charges have been filed.

D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe is seen under scrutiny by the D.C. Council at the Wilson Building in Washington on March 28. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The version of the report that is publicly available does not name a suspect.

A police official reading from the nonpublic portion of the report said Ellerbe is listed as the suspect. Two witnesses, a fire lieutenant and a firefighter, were also listed.

In an interview Tuesday, before the police report was filed, Ellerbe said an assault allegation had been made against him. He denied that there was a physical confrontation and said he asked the firefighter for his phone, which he said was handed over voluntarily. The chief said he looked at the phone and, upon seeing a blank screen, returned it. Ellerbe said he was concerned about on-duty firefighters photographing fire or accident scenes.

Griffith could not be reached to comment Wednesday; no one answered a phone at his home in Beltsville. Edward C. Smith, president of Local 36 of the firefighters union, said Griffith is on leave for medical stress as a result of the incident with Ellerbe.

The police investigation of Ellerbe comes amid heightened scrutiny of the fire department. Police last week began an investigation into two Aug. 13 fires in ambulance engines. Paul A. Quander Jr., the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, has said he wants the police to make sure that “nothing untoward is occurring.”

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said at a news conference Wednesday that “things occurred that are really rather suspect,” but he did not say if he was referring to the fires, the assault allegation or both. He would not elaborate.

Quander said the investigations are “only a distraction if you allow it to be, and we are not allowing anything to be a distraction. This agency is turning the page, turning the corner.” He cited improved response times to emergencies and said the department plans to unveil new, custom-built ambulances next week.

District officials have said that the firefighters union orchestrated the complaint to further embarrass a department under scrutiny for slow response times, frequent equipment and vehicle breakdowns, and paramedic vacancies.

“The firefighter alleged he was caused injury by the chief,” said Keith St. Clair, a spokesman for Quander. “He claims the injury was so severe that it kept him out of work for a week, yet literally a week went by before a report was filed.”

Smith, the union president, called the decision to involve police “a personal choice by an individual.” He said he and the firefighter talked through his options, with Smith advising that he file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Authorities said they do not know who took the picture of the burning ambulance. Dabney Hudson, second vice president of Local 36, said he posted the picture on Twitter. But he said he deleted the text message with which it was sent. Hudson said the picture did not come from Griffith.

Peter Hermann covers crime for The Washington Post.
Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.

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