Armed Columbus Firefighter Arrests Armed Suspect and Sparks More Debate

Here’s another twist on the “armed firefighter” debate. An arson investigator in Columbus, Ohio is under investigation for pulling a handgun during an altercation described as a “road-rage” incident.

The incident took place on January 2, 2013 when investigator Jeffrey L. Smith, 49, began arguing with Michael J. Watkins, 35, while in traffic. Watkins brandished a firearm prompting Smith to exit his city-owned unmarked vehicle, draw his service weapon, and arrest Watkins. He then detained Watkins until police could respond and charge him with aggravated menacing, a misdemeanor. A black pellet gun was found Watkins’ car.

Smith is now on administrative duty and his city-issued weapon taken away pending the results of the investigation. Apparently Smith and Watkins have a history, although the scope of that history is not clear from initial reports.

As for the armed firefighter debate, the facts can be argued both ways: If Smith was unarmed there would be little he could do against someone brandishing a firearm. Some may say that makes him a sheep waiting to be slaughtered. Others may say having the firearm emboldened him to confront Watkins, creating a risk of injury to himself, Watkins and bystanders that otherwise would not have occurred.

What ever your take, the incident points out the need for serious thought about some of the ancillary issues that arise when guns are introduced into the workplace.

Another point was raised – perhaps inadvertently – by the Columbus Dispatch, who noted that in 2011 Smith was found to have engaged in a “heated altercation” with another firefighter, received a verbal warning and was placed on administrative duty for two months.

Does that mean that perhaps Smith should not have been issued a gun? That would seem to be the implication being made by the Columbus Dispatch in discussing Smith’s prior actions. Why else would they include that information in the story?

Does having a “heated altercation” become a disqualifier for possessing a firearm on duty? Should it? How many firefighters have never had a heated altercation with another firefighter at some point in their careers? Firehouse life is like a family. Arguments happen over promotions, overtime, vacations, politics, you name it….. One of my good friends and a mentor to me when I was a younger firefighter had the nickname of “Time-Bomb”… because he would go off on a regular basis. The only difference between him and everyone else was the frequency of his exchanges.

Will heated altercations become newsworthy events in departments where firefighters are armed? If a fire department allows firefighters to carry on-duty, should an exception be made for firefighters who have had a “heated altercation” ….or two? Or Three? What are the liability implications if a fire chief allows a firefighter with a history of “heated altercations” to carry while on-duty?

The debate continues.

More on the Columbus story.

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.
  • Andrew

    There was a somewhat similar situation in — I think — Detroit. A fire investigator lost his service weapon, and subsequently reported a second one stolen. The stolen weapon was recovered… from his son, who was allegedly involved in gang activities.

    Can you imagine the lawsuits had a city-owned weapon been used in a crime? Especially if it had been “stolen” by the city employee’s son?

    • Andrew

      I was wrong, the case I was thinking of occurred in Tampa, FL. Firegeezer has details (search for “Barney Fife”)

  • Andrew

    Aaaaand, today we see, via Firegeezer and Statter, that the same incompetent (as per his employment evaluations) has now been promoted to fire marshal in Tampa.


Check Also

Death From Gurney Fall Prompts NY Suit

The estate of a woman who died after falling off a gurney is suing the fire department that was transporting her to the hospital. Anne E. Stahlberg was being transported by a North Bellmore Fire Department ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bethpage, New York on January 1, 2017.

San Francisco Investigating On-Duty Drinking Incident

The San Francisco Fire Department is back in the headlines with another news report about on-duty personnel drinking. The department is investigating an incident that occurred last September at Station 11 where on-duty personnel were hosting a party for a member who was being transferred.