Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Arrests Black Eye for AFD
By Jeff Proctor
Journal Staff Writer
Deputy Fire Chief Craig Sadberry on Tuesday went to have a talk with a group of cadets who hope to soon be firefighters.
The topic of conversation: A recent spate of arrests in which six firefighters have been jailed in as many months on charges including DWI, assaulting a police officer, aggravated battery and domestic violence.
He showed the cadets a story from Tuesday morning's Journal detailing one of the arrests.
"I asked them, 'What's the first word you see in that headline?' " Sadberry said. "It's 'firefighter.' I told them there were 50 DWI arrests over the weekend, and only one made the news. Firefighters are held to a higher standard, and rightly so.
"I told the cadets that if a guy from Municipal Waste goes out and does his job in record time or if he gets a DWI it won't make the news. But if (firefighters) administer oxygen to a cat or get a DWI it'll make the front page. It's a two-edged sword, but it's part of the job."
Discipline for the firefighters arrested this year has ranged from a week without pay to termination, Sadberry said.
AFD does not have a set-in-stone policy on how a firefighter is to be disciplined after an arrest, he said, for DWI or any other charge. The severity of the allegations, arrest history and the firefighter's past performance within the department are factors in how someone is punished.
Sadberry called the six arrests this year a "definite spike."
"It's a problem," he said, "but I don't think we have a bigger problem within the department than any other segment of society does. That said, we see the effects of alcohol-related crashes and other incidents on the job every day. That should be enough of an eye-opener. There is absolutely no excuse for firefighters to be doing that."
Omar Di-Ningrat, 62, was the most recently arrested firefighter. He was picked up early Saturday on a DWI charge, his second.
Sadberry said he gave Di-Ningrat a form with 10 questions giving him the opportunity to explain what happened. He'll have until Aug. 4 about 10 days from the arrest to complete the form and return it to Sadberry.
From there, Sadberry will discuss the case with city attorneys and city human resources and make a determination on how Di-Ningrat will be disciplined.
That's all standard procedure, he said. AFD does not have a formal internal affairs division.
The city of Farmington has seen a similar rash of city firefighters charged with drunken driving.
Five Farmington firefighters, in addition to three police officers, have been arrested for DWI in the past 16 months, City Manager Rob Mayes said.
Farmington decided this month to fire any city employee convicted of DWI and to make employees use unpaid time off, rather than paid leave, while they wait for their criminal cases to be resolved.
"The bottom line is that we need to lead by example. Our employees work for a government entity that is charged with maintaining the public trust, and this is a stand we need to take," Mayes said.
With AFD, each case is considered individually, Sadberry said.
n Lawrence Baca was fired after he was arrested in January on suspicion of DWI.
n Dominic Otero was arrested in late June on suspicion of threatening his children and driving drunk with them in the car. Otero was demoted two ranks, from lieutenant to firefighter second class. The demotion will cost Otero about $8,700 a year in pay.
n Lawrence Otero was recently arrested on a domestic violence charge after an incident with his wife. He was suspended for a week without pay.
n Michael Quiñones was arrested in February on suspicion of assaulting a police officer outside a Downtown bar. He was suspended for a week without pay.
n Raymond Sanchez was charged with aggravated battery after he allegedly choked his wife in April. Sanchez was suspended without pay for two weeks.
Sadberry and Fire Chief Robert Ortega plan to visit stations around the city in the coming weeks to talk to firefighters about the recent arrests and the bad publicity that has come with them.
He said AFD employs about 700 firefighters, and a few getting arrested gives the department a black eye.
"Shows like 'Rescue Me,' 'Ladder 49' and 'Backdraft' are highly dramatized," Sadberry said. "They tend to capture some truth, but there are also some pretty inaccurate stereotypes of firefighters out there. Most firefighters coach little league, go to church on Sundays, have a wife and kids. They drink a few beers at the weekend barbecue, but they are responsible and the do the job the right way."
Journal staff writers Leslie Linthicum and Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report.