A former Seattle firefighter who was criminally charged with assaulting homeless people in Occidental Park last year deserved to be fired despite his acquittal, a labor-management arbitrator has found.
Although he was acquitted of criminal charges in the alleged assault on homeless people last year, a former Seattle firefighter will not get his job back after an arbitrator determined he instigated the attack and then lied to police about it.
The ruling by labor-management arbitrator and mediator Howell L. Lankford upholds the city’s firing of Bob Howell, one of two former firefighters who made headlines in March 2014 when they were accused of attacking a group of homeless people in Occidental Park.
Howell and the Seattle Fire Department declined to comment Thursday. The firefighters union did not return calls.
Lankford’s ruling was recently released by the city in response to a public-disclosure request by The Seattle Times.
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Howell, former firefighter Scott Bullene and Bullene’s girlfriend Mia Jarvinen were arrested on March 14, 2014, and charged in Seattle Municipal Court with assault and malicious harassment for allegedly attacking a group of homeless people at the park.
Howell, 48, and Bullene were fired in August 2014 after an investigator hired by the Seattle Fire Department determined, among other things, that the two had been aggressors in the fight and that their conduct damaged the department’s reputation.
The three were acquitted in a jury trial in December, but Bullene and Howell were not reinstated by the department. Howell and Bullene appealed the decision and were initially backed in their quest by their union.
Bullene, however, was arrested in connection with an alleged road-rage incident in Bellevue while he was in the middle of arbitration proceedings and the union subsequently dropped its support of him. Bullene is facing a second-degree-robbery charge in connection with the Bellevue incident.
In his challenge to his termination, Howell and the Seattle Fire Fighters Union, Local 27, claimed that the Seattle Fire Department was influenced by “inflammatory” media coverage of the incident and had failed to prove that Howell actually committed the acts, which brought about his discipline, especially in light of his acquittal.
According to the arbitration decision, Howell and the union also claimed Howell’s punishment was disproportionate to that imposed on other firefighters who were not terminated despite “misconduct that was more serious than what is alleged in Howell’s case.”
Lankford, the arbitrator, wrote that he attempted to eliminate the potential media influence by relying primarily on the eight 911 calls from witnesses as the events in Occidental Park were unfolding.
“I find those 911 calls — which are in the record” to be “by far the most dependable and by far the most convincing part of the record,” he wrote.
Quoting from transcripts of the 911 calls, Lankford said witnesses reported a bald man in a Seattle Sounders jacket — later identified as Howell — was the primary instigator and aggressor.
The first 911 caller described seeing a homeless person lying on his back near the Fallen Firefighters Memorial and the man in the Sounders jacket swinging at the man on the ground, hitting him, kicking at him and then, attempting to “stomp the guy.”
Another 911 call came in from a Pierce County deputy prosecutor who told dispatchers that two men in Sounders gear and a woman seemed “so angry. I would call them the aggressors.”
Lankford also wrote that the “beyond reasonable doubt” burden of proof in a criminal trial is higher than that in labor disputes and the city need only show that “clear and convincing evidence” showed Howell was an instigator in the attack.
Lankford also said Howell lied to police when he told them: “There’s a white girl being assaulted by a black gentleman in the park there,” and when he claimed he had been attacked by a black man in a hoodie for “no reason.”
According to the arbitration ruling, Howell acknowledged that he had been drinking on the day of the assault and that he had since sought treatment for alcoholism. In Howell’s appeal, the union names three other Seattle firefighters who were involved in alcohol-related incidents but not terminated.
In one case, a Seattle firefighter was arrested for felony harassment and threatening to kill a police officer after he was taken into custody for boating while under the influence, the arbitration decision says.
That firefighter was “loud and obnoxious” to police, continually asked for “professional courtesy,” and finally — in an apparent reference to his being a medic — said, “If you had a bullet in your chest alongside the road, let’s see if you’re smiling then.”
According to Lankford, the fire department responded by saying the incidents were not comparable.
“The firefighters to whom Howell compares himself did not actively engage in fighting; they did not threaten a vulnerable population; they did not show animus toward a protected class; and their actions were not broadcast on the night news and did not generate the negative publicity for the Fire Department that Howell’s did.”