Dave Statter is a fire service consultant who lives in Fairfax County.
The retirement of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department Chief Richard R. Bowers Jr. is probably being viewed as a way to finally get past embarrassing headlines over claims of sexual harassment and discrimination in the department. Bringing in a new chief — particularly one not attached to or defensive about the mistakes of the past — can bring positive change. The challenge now is creating an environment where a new boss is able to succeed. This can happen only if Fairfax County leadership is finally willing to share with the entire department and the public what has really occurred since the 2016 suicide of firefighter Nicole Mittendorff.
Mittendorff’s death was never officially connected to the vicious online harassment she received, but it sparked a mini #MeToo movement, inspiring lawsuits and complaints from female firefighters . To date, the public has not been told whether any of the allegations proved true.
Now, there’s a new set of charges from Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley, who was the women’s program officer appointed by Bowers. While Bowers called the complaints “misleading,” Stanley attacked his leadership , saying, “ ‘Zero tolerance’ is a hollow term thrown about with false commitment.”
Since my earliest days as a local reporter in the 1980s, it has been my observation that the Fairfax County government is rather allergic to what’s most needed right now: transparency and public accountability. The Board of Supervisors needs to look at its recent history with the police department to find the path forward for the fire department.
The failure to be transparent reached crisis level when Fairfax County tried to withhold the details of the 2013 shooting death of John Geer by a police officer. For more than a year, the police chief, with the blessing of the Board of Supervisors, hid details from Geer’s family, the public and even prosecutors. Eventually the officer went to jail, and the county was left with a mess to clean up.
While there has never been a public accounting of why the county’s response to the Geer killing was so lacking, there has been a strong effort to prevent future coverups in the police department. The final report of the Geer-inspired Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission was embraced by the Board of Supervisors and largely implemented by Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. The report urged the police department to create a culture in which there’s “a predisposition to disclose information” and for the Board of Supervisors to “insist on policies that lean toward releasing information.” As a member of the commission, I wrote those words along with fellow commissioners on the communications subcommittee.
Despite great embarrassment over its handling of the Geer case, the Board of Supervisors somehow can’t see that transparency and accountability also apply to the growing fire department scandal. We’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of Mittendorff’s death and county leaders still haven’t done enough to come clean about the complaints from women in the fire department. Instead, they’ve allowed leak after leak to slowly erode the department’s image.
We still don’t know whether internal investigations have verified a history of failing to appropriately handle complaints. We don’t know how many lawsuits have been settled or at what cost to taxpayers. We also don’t know whether anyone who harassed or discriminated against female firefighters has been disciplined or fired.
After a week of missteps including Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) initially backing Bowers over Stanley, Bulova changed course and appointed County Executive Bryan Hill to investigate the new allegations.
While it’s encouraging to finally hear the word “investigation” coming from a county leader, it’s a disappointment for those of us who have believed from the start that an outside, independent investigation is needed to restore trust. Still, if the investigation is done fairly and thoroughly with a “predisposition to disclose information,” Hill has an opportunity to set the stage for a successful transition to a new fire chief.
In May, the department will host the 2018 I-Women Conference, the annual gathering of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services. This is a perfect opportunity for Fairfax County to begin rebuilding faith in the department while clearing the slate for a new leader. Hill can make this happen by presenting a report at the conference that answers all our questions, finally making clear what’s true and what isn’t about the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s past and outlining a plan for its future.
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