Firefighter's suspension for gun incident ruled 'excessive'

Arbitrators say Fire Chief Gregory Paxton, who pulled a man out of a car at gunpoint last year, didn't deserve suspension and should be paid $20,000 for lost overtime

The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A Columbus firefighter was abusive and violent when he pulled a man out of a car at gunpoint last year but didn’t deserve his lengthy suspension and should be paid for lost overtime, arbitrators ruled this week.

Arbitrator Richard D. Sambuco reduced arson investigator Jeffrey Smith’s suspension from 80 days to 40 days, calling Fire Chief Gregory A. Paxton’s punishment excessive.

In a separate ruling, an arbitrator found that the city was wrong to keep Smith on administrative duty without overtime while deciding his punishment. The arbitrator ordered the city to pay Smith some of the roughly $20,000 he makes annually in overtime.

Smith and Michael J. Watkins got into a heated exchange while in separate cars last January at Jack Gibbs Boulevard and Cleveland Avenue, near Columbus State Community College.

Watkins brandished a gun while in his car, Smith said. Smith then jumped out of his unmarked city vehicle, drew his gun and ordered Watkins out of the car. Smith placed Watkins in handcuffs and called police. Officers found a pellet gun in Watkins’ car.

Smith and his supervisor, Capt. Jeff Happ, later learned that Watkins had a criminal record. Happ and fire union President Jack Reall said Smith deserved a commendation for getting a “criminal off the street.”

Fire investigators never questioned Watkins.

Paxton and his assistant chiefs learned of the incident two days later from a television report. Happ was asked why he didn’t notify his superiors about it. Happ was later removed as head of the arson unit.

Happ told his supervisors that Watkins “should have been shot.”

In his ruling, Sambuco called Happ’s and Smith’s behavior after the incident “a travesty of crude and ridiculous representation” of the actual events. Sambuco said Happ’s testimony “is self-serving and lacks credibility.”

Sambuco also admonished Paxton for being combative during the arbitration hearing. Sambuco suggested that Paxton was unaware of statements firefighters made to investigators before he decided Smith’s punishment.

Sambuco said he reduced Smith’s suspension because Paxton couldn’t justify it and the city’s rules for firefighters who carry guns were confusing, including when they could make arrests.

Sambuco also questioned why investigators didn’t interview Watkins. Union officials argued that Watkins was not credible, because of his criminal history.

Smith could not be reached for comment. Paxton was on vacation out of the country and could not be reached yesterday. Watkins has not returned repeated calls seeking comment.

Reall said Smith was not treated fairly because the process “was dragged out for quite some time and, in addition, there was information from the investigation that was inappropriately leaked, and the case was tried in the media.”

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