April 25--San Francisco's fire chief has quietly rescinded her controversial reprimand of a battalion chief whose helmet-mounted camera captured the moment when a 16-year-old survivor of the Asiana Airlines crash at the airport was run over by a fire rig.
Chief Joanne Hayes-White had initially concluded that Battalion Chief Mark Johnson violated a 2009 department general order against unauthorized filming "in the workplace" and at stations when he recorded the July 6 crash scene with a personal camera he had installed atop his helmet.
The value of Johnson's footage showing crash victim Ye Meng Yuan of China being run over by a rig -- the second of two that struck and killed her -- didn't outweigh the privacy rights of other crash survivors and firefighters, the chief said at the time. The Fire Department could be held liable for violating federal medical-privacy laws if firefighters used the footage in unauthorized fashion, Hayes-White said.
Had her discipline order stood, the department would have put a letter of reprimand in Johnson's file that could have hampered his possibilities for promotion. He was not facing suspension or firing.
Covered in foam
Johnson took command of the scene at San Francisco International Airport shortly after the crash of the Asiana Boeing 777, in which two other passengers also died. His camera footage showed the Chinese schoolgirl being run over as she lay covered in flame-retardant foam near the burning plane's left wing, and made it clear that other firefighters had not warned him or other rescue coordinators that Ye was there.
Hayes-White moved to discipline Johnson shortly after The Chronicle published still photos from his footage. By that time, however, fire officials had already learned that footage from another rig -- this one taken by a department-sanctioned dashboard camera -- showed that it had hit a clearly visible Ye when she was not concealed by foam. She was completely covered by the time Johnson's camera recorded her being run over by the second rig.
The San Mateo County coroner concluded after an autopsy that Ye was alive before the rigs ran her over.
Department officials later said they were reconsidering the restrictions on helmet cameras, which several firefighters and paramedics had been using. They said the policy ultimately would still have to preserve victims' and firefighters' privacy rights.
Mindy Talmadge, spokeswoman for the department, declined to comment Thursday when asked about the Johnson case, saying it was a personnel matter.
In appealing the action, Johnson argued that the department had never had a specific ban on the cameras. Johnson has told investigators he installed his device after questions emerged about his role in the handling of a 2011 house fire in the Diamond Heights neighborhood in which two firefighters died.
In a March 19 letter rescinding Johnson's reprimand, provided to The Chronicle by Johnson's attorney, Murlene Randle, Hayes-White said she had reviewed "pertinent information" in the battalion chief's defense and concluded the department had "insufficient evidence" to support the reprimand.
It is not clear what that evidence was. But Randle said at least one high-ranking fire official had testified at the appeal hearing that the department did not, in fact, have a specific policy against helmet-camera recording by firefighters.
Two others accused
Johnson had been accused of violating the camera policy along with two other firefighters, whose cases were unrelated to the Asiana crash, Randle said. All three firefighters are African American, and Randle said it appeared that the Fire Department was unfairly targeting blacks who used the devices.
Hayes-White also rescinded reprimands pending against the other two firefighters.
Johnson has declined to comment. The head of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association, Battalion Chief Kevin Smith, said fire officials should never have opened the disciplinary proceedings.
"It was unfair, it was unjust," Smith said, adding that Johnson "did not do anything to warrant this type of attack."
Reprimanding Johnson "sent a bad message throughout the department that getting to the bottom of something, getting to the truth, may not always be to your benefit," Smith said.
Randle said Johnson was being disciplined for doing the right thing.
"The goal appeared to have been to punish him for bringing the video to the attention of the department, which would never have disclosed what had occurred had it not been for the video," Randle said. "This amounted to punishing Mark for being honest in turning in the video."
Talmadge said the order prohibiting unauthorized filming remains in place while the department decides whether to make the policy "more specific."
Jaxon Van Derbeken is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com
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