By: James Gottry
Firefighting is viewed as the third most prestigious professions in the United States, according to The Harris Poll. It’s not surprising—these brave men and women risk their lives daily by running toward the flames the rest of us instinctively run from. But, as with any profession, some who hold the title fail to conduct themselves with the strength of character we expect.
On Tuesday, I awoke to the news that a firefighter allegedly beat up a homeless person in Brookline, Massachusetts. The motive was apparently culinary in nature; specifically, the homeless man took too long to order food at a restaurant. And the beating was extensive. Witnesses say the 37-year-old firefighter, Joseph Ward, punched the victim in the face five to seven times, threw a bottle and food at him, and kicked him. The victim was taken to the hospital for treatment, and he may be fortunate his injuries weren’t worse; one witness said “I was afraid he was going to kill him.”
Ward was arrested shortly after, and has been charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. The Brookline Town Administer wasted no time placing Ward on paid administrative leave "pending further investigation."
The timing of the news was somewhat ironic considering that another firefighter, former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was preparing for a hearing on Wednesday in his case against the City of Atlanta after being terminated from his job, for very different reasons. More on that below.
But Ward's case is actually the second incident involving Massachusetts fire department personnel in recent months. In August of this year, the town of Danvers terminated Kevin P. Farrell as its fire chief for his "own conduct and a series of poor decisions on his part.” While the Town Manager has said that he is prohibited from releasing his written decision to dismiss Farrell, due to the state’s public records law, local media noted that three years prior to his firing, Farrell was arrested and charged with assault and battery, and witness intimidation, in an incident involving his then-estranged wife. Like Ward, Farrell was placed on paid administrative leave for his job as chief, before being terminated for "conduct unbecoming of a fire chief.”
These stories are reminiscent of yet another incident that unfolded across the country in Seattle last year. In March 2014, two off-duty firefighters and a third individual were alleged to have beaten a homeless man in Occidental Park. The trio faced misdemeanor assault and hate crime charges, and the two firefighters, Robert Howell and Scott Bullene, were placed on paid administrative leave and eventually terminated.
After being acquitted at trial, the pair sought reinstatement, but Bullene was subsequently "arrested in connection with an alleged road-rage incident in Bellevue,” leading his union to drop its support for him, and Howell lost his appeal when an arbitrator determined he was the instigator and “falsely report[ed] to the police he had been a passive victim.”
From these three events, we might be tempted to conclude that a firefighter who is alleged to have committed serious misdeeds will likely be placed on paid administrative leave. Moreover, if the charges are substantiated, he will likely be terminated. But, it turns out there are exceptions, as acknowledged by the arbitrator in Howell’s appeal of his termination.
The Union points to three firefighters who were not discharged for involvement in violent fights:
First, in 2013 Firefighter Karthauser was arrested for DUI—his third since 2005—and told the officer (quoting the officer’s incident report) that he “was not [arrested], disbelieving, again telling me he was a [Seattle] firefighter,” refused to take a breath test, returned to the bar, was refused service, fought with the bouncer, and was finally arrested for disorderly conduct. The arresting officer had to threaten him with a taser. (He had previously entered a DUI deferred prosecution agreement and failed to fulfill its conditions.) Despite Mr. Karthauser’s fight with the bouncer, defiance of the arresting officer, and repeated explicit appeals for special treatment, the Department’s response can hardly be characterized as disciplinary at all: The Department discontinued his driving while his license was revoked, and forbade him to work while wearing an electronic monitoring device. The usual “future similar misbehavior” part of Mr. Karthauser’s disciplinary notice referred to criminal convictions and DUIs but did not even mention requests for special treatment.
The Union’s second example is Firefighter Mike Duncan who was DUI on a boat. According to the police incident report he “made it very clear that he was a Seattle Fire Fighter and stated that he had been a firefighter for fifteen years, he also continually asked for professional courtesy.” Moreover, according to the incident report, he was “loud and obnoxious” while in custody to the extent that a State Police Sergeant told him that “another derogatory remark toward another police officer [and] he would just go straight to jail;” and said to an officer, “If you had a bullet in your chest alongside the road, lets see if you’re smiling then.” He was arrested for ‘felony harassment, threatening to kill a police officer.” The police declined to press the threat charge; Mr. Duncan apologized for his actions and sought treatment for his alcohol problem; and the Department took no disciplinary action at all.
Standing in stark contrast to these "public servants” and their alleged public misdeeds is former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran.
Chief Cochran did not beat up a homeless person, he has never been accused of domestic violence, and he does not have a single DUI on his record. Like Ward, Farrell, Bullene, and Howell, however, Chief Cochran was suspended (though without pay), and like Farrell, Bullene, and Howell, he was subsequently terminated. Considering the misdeeds described above, as well as the slap-on-the-wrist punishment received by Karthauser, and the complete lack of punishment for Duncan, one would expect that Chief Cochran engaged in activity that was especially appalling, particularly in light of his stellar credentials:
Chief Cochran’s Employment History
- 1981: Joined Shreveport Fire Department as a firefighter
- 1985: Promoted to Shreveport’s Fire Training Officer
- 1990: Promoted to Shreveport’s Assistant Chief Training Officer
- 1999: Appointed Shreveport’s Fire Chief on August 26
- 2008: Appointed Atlanta’s Fire Chief
- 2009: Appointed by President Obama as the U.S. Fire Administrator for the United States Fire Administration
- 2010: Returned to his position as Atlanta’s Fire Chief
Chief Cochran’s Professional Affiliations
- Member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ (“IAFC”) Southwestern Division and Safety, Health and Survival Section
Chief Cochran’s Community Involvement
- Salvation Army, Board Member
- Norwella Council Boy Scouts of America, Board Member
- Alliance for Education, Board Member
- Volunteers of America, Board Member
Chief Cochran’s Education
- U.S. Fire Administration National Fire Academy
- Wiley College, Bachelor’s Degree in Organizational Management (1999)
- Louisiana Tech, Masters Degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology (2004)
Chief Cochran’s Accolades
- Named Fire Chief of the Year in 2012 by Fire Chief magazine.
- In 2014, Atlanta received—for the first time in its history—a Public Protection Classification rating of “Class 1” from the Insurance Services Office, indicating an “exemplary ability to respond to fires.” Only 60 cities nationwide achieve this rating, according to Mayor Kasim Reed.
With this history of dedicated service and excellence, you could reasonably conclude that Cochran must have done something outrageous—like running through the city starting fires, or salacious—like allowing female escorts to use department resources for sexually-suggestive photographs, to justify his suspension and subsequent termination. (Ironically, the latter scenario has actually occurred under the leadership of Cochran’s successor, and a lieutenant involved was suspended—you guessed it—with pay while an investigation is conducted.) And yet, in the lawsuit Cochran filed against the city and mayor of Atlanta, Cochran states he was fired for his Christian faith, pursuant to which he, in his personal time, “wrote and self-published a non-work related . . . religious book that expresses his religious beliefs about God’s purpose for our lives.”
If you’re thinking there must be more to the story, you’re right. Chief Cochran had the audacity (my tongue firmly in cheek) to include in his 162-page, self-published book a few short sections concerning sexual morality; specifically, he stated that God created sex for marriage between a man and a woman, and that sex outside this context—including homosexual acts—is contrary to God’s will. In other words, Cochran put pen to paper and endorsed the understanding of marriage that has—recent events notwithstanding—endured for millennia. An understanding that is explicit in the Bible, and that is shared by all major religions.
Importantly, the lawsuit points out that “[d]uring his seven years as Atlanta’s Fire Chief, Cochran never discriminated against, and was never accused of discriminating against, anyone based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other protected characteristic.” Even more importantly, after Chief Cochran was placed on unpaid leave, the city investigated him, conducted interviews with employees and concluded Chief Cochran did not discriminate against anyone. Nevertheless, the mayor fired him, claiming it was necessitated by “the need to tolerate diverse views.” (Note the irony in firing someone for holding a disfavored view in an effort to promote diverse views!)
Since I can’t possibly explain this, I will sum up. If you are fire department personnel, there are at least three surefire ways to be placed on administrative leave* and face termination**:
- Allegedly beat up a homeless person for taking too long to order food;
- Commit a "series of poor decisions” and "conduct unbecoming of a fire chief,” which may or may not include assault and battery on your estranged wife; or
- Build a 30-year career on a foundation of integrity, ascend to the highest fire administration post in the country, be named the Fire Chief of the Year, return to your previous post at the behest of the mayor, and, in your free time, write a self-published book encouraging men to “fulfill their purpose as husbands, fathers, community and business leaders-world changers.”
* Though only the third “infraction” will result in an unpaid suspension.
** DUIs and physical altercations with police officers are apparently not offenses you need to be overly concerned about.
If you are humming “one of these things is not like the others” in your head, you’re not alone.
Yesterday, the mayor and city of Atlanta argued that Chief Cochran’s lawsuit should be dismissed. They essentially asked the court to decide that any expression less than an emphatic and unequivocal endorsement of same-sex marriage is verboten. They seek a reality in which Chief Cochran’s expression of his beliefs—on his private time—is akin to the physical assault of homeless people.
Chief Cochran is not the first to be punished for seeking to live a life of authenticity—for seeking to freely exercise his religion and express his beliefs. Other victims include Elaine Huguenin of Elane Photography in New Mexico, Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers in Washington, Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, and Blaine Adamson of Hands On Originals, all of whom have faced serious repercussions for exercising their rights of conscience, freedom of speech, and/or free exercise of religion. And there are countless additional examples.
Kelvin Cochran is not like the others. And while he has no interest in a food fight, he is willing to stand and fight to protect freedom of belief and conscience…both his, and yours.
What to Do If You Find Yourself in a Similar Situation as Kelvin Cochran
Do you know someone who is being burdened by laws that infringe on their religious freedom and could potentially force them to violate their faith? Encourage them to contact ADF or call: 800-835-5233.