The owner of the website where the cyber-bullying of Nicole Mittendoff and other Fairfax County firefighters occurred is critical of the comments made by Chief Richie Bowers (video above) during a press conference yesterday (Friday). Cary Wiedemann of Fairfax Underground says the problem isn’t his website, but rather the people with knowledge of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department who are posting on his site (see video below).
WTTG-TV/FOX5 reporter Jennifer Davis says she has a court document that raises the issue of how long Fairfax County has known about this problem:
In court documents that Fox 5 obtained, it shows that just three months ago, as part of an official police investigation, the ‘Fairfax Underground’ site administrators were asked to remove profane and indecent information written about a different female Fairfax County firefighter. The administrator of the site says rather than attacking him, its time the fire department looked within at the culture its creating.
You do have to wonder, if there was police involvement, why Chief Bowers and the fire department weren’t informed of this online bullying problem targeting a firefighter. The chief made it clear he was not previously aware of such a problem. Midway through the press conference (9:13 on the video at top) Bowers was asked, “Have you ever dealt with an online bullying allegation before during your tenure in the department?” His reply, “I have not.”
In listening to the entire press conference there were some things missing that, as a county taxpayer, I would like to have heard from the chief. My hope is these were just oversights following a very stressful and tragic few weeks.
- Chief Bowers told reporters, that prior to Mittendorff’s disappearance, no one in his department — career, volunteer, or civilian — has ever notified him or his administration about the harassment of Mittendorff on Fairfax Underground. I’m sure that’s possible, but this in itself is cause for concern and something I would like to have heard the chief talk about.
- There was no clear acknowledgement by Chief Bowers that the harassment via the Internet and social media extends well beyond Mittendorff and goes back for many years. Nicole Mittendorff’s suicide just exposed us to these dark and ugly truths about one aspect of life in the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department.
- There should have been more clarity from the chief that the issue for him isn’t really whether Mittendorff’s suicide is connected to the bullying (Virginia State Police says it isn’t — see vide below). It would be extremely tragic if there was a connection, but the fact that this problem exists at all should be the real focus.
- The chief said that Fairfax Underground is blocked from all county computers. That’s admission by county officials of the known issues with the site. Fairfax County and its fire department have long been topics on Fairfax Underground. Why didn’t Chief Bowers acknowledge that someone for the department or the county should have been monitoring the website? That seems like a no-brainer.
- Separate from the awful rumors and harassment on Fairfax Underground are some pretty serious and specific allegations about the department. The chief didn’t say, and I didn’t hear a reporter ask, if those claims are being investigated. If there is validity to any of those allegations, it would be a starting point for investigators to get information to eventually expose much that has been going on.
Finally, I would like to have heard a much stronger and clearer message from Chief Bowers about the investigation he’s launched. This should have included a promise to follow-up on all allegations that have surfaced because of Mittendorff’s death. There should have been a vow from the chief to go where the evidence takes them, whether it’s to a fire station or a chief’s office. I’m surprised there wasn’t a more forceful request from Chief Bowers that his firefighters and the public come forward with information that could help investigators, along with a mechanism to receive those tips. The investigation should also focus on missed opportunities by this or previous administrations to deal with these problems before there was a crisis.
Most important, based on Fairfax County’s history, I would like to have heard a commitment from Chief Bowers to transparency. The news of the last two weeks has not been good for the image of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department and the fire service in general. Fire chiefs all over the country are looking at how Chief Bowers and his department deal with this serious problem. Sunshine — in the form of regular and timely updates, with specific information about actions taken and details uncovered — is the antidote for both the tarnished reputation and for this ugly issue that has remained in the dark for way too long.