The continuing struggle for control between law enforcement and firefighters took an important turn this week in Colorado, as criminal charges that were filed against a Leadville Fire Captain were dropped, and criminal charges against a Lake County Deputy Sheriff were instituted.
The unfortunate situation arose on March 27, 2010, when an ambulance was called to the county jail, and firefighters also responded to assist. The deputy ordered the firefighters to leave without examining the patient, and when they refused, the captain was arrested, handcuffed, and placed in a cell. The charge was "obstruction of a governmental operation".
A subsequent outcry from local officials, as well as from fire officials across the country, resulted in an investigation, and the investigation resulted in the arresting deputy sheriff facing charges for impeding an official in a public building, official misconduct, and obstructing a firefighter.
While the entire matter in Leadville is regrettable – the reality is that these types of situations continue to occur with some regularity and usually result in firefighters being wrongfully detained and charged. The solution reached in Leadville makes sense: officers who abuse their arrest powers should be called to task to the same degree they would hold firefighters. If a firefighter at an emergency scene can be charged criminally with failing to comply with the order of a police officer, then a police officer who interferes with a firefighter in the performance of his or her duties should rightly be charged criminally with obstructing a firefighter.
You know, you never hear of a police officer arresting another police officer or God-forbid a superior officer for failing to comply with the first officer's request. Can you imagine what would happen to a police officer who arrests a police captain because the captain doesn't park his police cruiser where the officer believed he should, or did something on the scene that the officer disagreed with? It is inconceivable – yet up to this point police officers have been permitted to run ramshod over firefighters and fire officers at incident scenes where we each have lawful jurisdiction and responsibility.
I have no ill-conceived notions that the police-fire wars are over, nor even near conclusion. However, an important corner has been turned. Just as a police officer has to think twice about arresting another on-duty police officer working at an incident – police officers need to think twice about arresting firefighters who are there trying to do the right thing for the right reasons.