Ohio Fire Dept. Revamps On-Duty Firearms Policy

March 28--A Columbus Fire Division captain has been stripped of his duties and his city-issued firearm as the division has adopted a use-of-force policy to better protect the public.

Fire Capt. Jeffrey Happ has been removed as head of the division's arson unit and put back on regular fire duty for not properly notifying superiors that an arson investigator ordered a driver out of a car at gunpoint during what police said was a road-rage incident while he was on duty.

Happ also told a supervisor that the arson investigator, Jeffrey Smith, should have shot the driver. Smith, 49, is on administrative assignment pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

The incident followed a Dispatch investigation last summer that found that 10 of the 13 firefighters who carry guns on duty were not state certified and the division had no written gun policy.

That investigation prompted Chief Greg Paxton to push for a gun policy that he signed off on last week.

"This has been my No. 1 priority since I became chief," he said this week. "We have people who have the potential to use deadly force to protect themselves and the public, and I wanted to ensure we're acting within the law with a clear policy and give them the best training to protect and serve."

The 20-page policy says firefighters who investigate crimes such as arson can carry guns and are allowed to use them only during a fire-related incident.

It also states that firefighters "may" be required to become state certified through the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy and are not allowed to carry their city-issued guns while off duty.

The word may gives future fire chiefs discretion on the level of certification required, Paxton said. "As long as I am chief, any new investigators will have to be state certified."

The 13 firefighters with guns are on the arson and bomb squads. Those firefighters without state certification will not have to get it but will receive additional training. Paxton said he is terminating relationships with outside law-enforcement agencies such as the U.S. Marshals Services that would use firefighters in a police role to serve warrants and arrest criminals across the region.

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 67 had input on the policy and supports it, said Jack Reall, the union president.

But members want to see how it's implemented, Reall said. " Like anything new, we have to see how it's used in practical terms, and nothing is going to be perfect." George Speaks, the city's deputy safety director, said the policy also limits the city's liability.

"The policy narrows the scope of authority to fire-specific crimes and requires more training and education, which will help," he said.

Happ's successor for arson commander will have to be state certified, Paxton said. Happ led the arson unit for seven years. He agreed to be transferred to regular firefighter duties. A written reprimand will be placed in his file.

An internal investigation found that Happ did not notify his superiors for two days after Smith sent him an email explaining that he had pulled Michael Watkins out of his car at gunpoint and put Watkins in handcuffs. His supervisors learned of the incident through news-media reports.

After fire administrators confronted Happ, he made such statements as, "If I had been there, (Watkins) would have been shot" and that he was "going to put Firefighter Smith in for an award."

Happ told investigators he did not mean to offend his supervisors, and he apologized. Battalion Chief Patrick Ferguson said yesterday that Happ would not be available to comment. Reall said Happ has a distinguished career and thinks that he was not disrespectful.

Smith emailed Happ hours after the Jan. 2 incident and gave this account of what had happened:

Smith was on Cleveland Avenue near Columbus State Community College when Watkins cut him off in a Chevy Malibu. Smith lowered his window and yelled, "That was a stupid move you just done back there."

Watkins called Smith an "idiot," among other things; got behind Smith's vehicle; and brandished a gun.

Smith jumped out of his vehicle, drew his gun, ordered Watkins out of the car and called police.

Officers found a black pellet gun in Watkins' car. Watkins, 35, was convicted of aggravated menacing, a first-degree misdemeanor, and sentenced to 25 days in jail.

lsullivan@dispatch.com

@DispatchSully

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