Ready… Fire… Aim

On December 23, 2009, a Superior Court Judge in New Jersey, dismissed internal administrative charges against three Atlantic City firefighters who were suspended in the aftermath of a sensationalized case, the likes of which brought in such headliners as Reverend Al Sharpton.

The case arose in September, 2009 when four teenage black girls alleged that a white firefighter lured them into a fire station and committed lewd acts in May of 2009. The girls filed a lawsuit against the firefighter and the Atlantic City Fire Department prompting a public outcry for justice. In a rush to respond to the public uproar, the Mayor of Atlantic City, Lorenzo Langford,  promised that “heads will roll”.

Meanwhile, the firefighter at the center of the controversy vehemently denies the accusations and claims he was not even on duty the day the girls allege the incident occurred. Nevertheless, Firefighter Richard Williams, along with two captains and a firefighter were suspended after the story broke on September 16, 2009.

In a strongly worded decision handed down just before Christmas, Superior Court Judge Valerie Armstrong ruled that the city has “seriously violated” the due-process rights of three firefighters, Captain Kevin Munn, Captain Elwood Faunce, and firefighter Andrew Lubaczewski.  The three were alleged to have failed to intervene in the incident.  Judge Armstrong dismissed administrative charges against them saying “This is not how the process was intended to work.”

The decision is viewed as the second major setback for a group of activists who support the four girls, including Reverend Sharpton’s National Action Network. On December 3, 2009 the state’s Attorney General’s Office declined to file criminal charges against any of the firefighters.  The activists, who have been holding rallies and protests, have pledged to press their case at the state capitol and in Washington, DC.

Williams’ attorney, Joseph Levin, is quoted as saying “based upon the decisions of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, I would implore the politicians and other community activists to stop utilizing the unsubstantiated allegations for political gain.”

Attorney Michael Mackler, representing Captain Munn, said he has already notified the city to expect a lawsuit from his client. “Sadly, this is yet another example of this administration’s penchant for disregarding the law and doing whatever it wants, all at the peril and expense of the taxpayers of Atlantic City,” said Mackler, calling it “a politically motivated public spectacle … an example of election-cycle politics at its worst.”

Where the truth lies is anyone's guess. One important piece of advice that applies equally whether you are shooting a gun, or bringing disciplinary charges against firefighters: the order is ready, AIM, fire….  Politics and media hype cannot be allowed to force you to fire before you aim. You might miss your target… or you might hit innocent people.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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