The Washington Post’s Justin Jouvenal brings us the first update in months on the sexual harassment and discrimination allegations that surfaced after the April suicide of Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff. As a Fairfax County resident, what I find disappointing is that it’s now the end of August and it’s left up to a reporter to try and pull out some information. Instead, there should have been a pro-active transparency effort by county officials. The silent treatment is the same tactic that caused great trouble for the Fairfax County Police Department and county leaders after a bad shooting by an officer.
There are very few details in the article on what the department is really doing about these serious allegations (see the excerpts below). Chief Richie Bowers still hasn’t told us how big of a problem the female employees of the department think this issue is, despite announcing months ago that he would meet with the women under his command.
There is no update on how investigations have been handled since internal affairs investigator Guy Morgan was put on administrative leave over concerns about racy images on his Facebook page. There have also been allegations how Morgan handled his investigations.
The most disappointing part of the article may be the knee-jerk statement from Fairfax County that said harassment complaints are properly handled. Sounds like the lawyers worked overtime on this:
All county employees are required to participate in training regarding sexual harassment and hostile work environments. Allegations of harassment are taken seriously and fully investigated.
How does Fairfax County know that statement is factual? At a minimum they should tell us each allegation of complaints not being taken seriously or fully investigated has been fully investigated and is unfounded. But there is no indication from anyone that is actually the case.
Remember, there is also an allegation from the one of the highest ranking women in the department that the chief’s command staff did not properly investigate at least one female firefighter’s complaint. That battalion chief now has a discrimination suit against Chief Bowers claiming she was passed over for promotion because she spoke on that firefighter’s behalf.
The article had no update on the consultant that Fairfax County said in April it was going to contract with to deal with these issues. As I have said before. they really don’t need a consultant. What they need is an independent outside investigation looking at each of the complaints, along with the department’s practices.
An independent investigation is the only way you have a chance to be fair to all involved. If there were actual discrimination and harassment issues, settle the suits, deal with the “bad actors” and fix the problems. If the investigation tells us this was all overblown, tell us that too.
With a significant number of complaints, a truly independent look is what will provide the best chance for fairness to all employees and, at the same time, start to repair damage to the department’s image.
Instead, the response to reporter Justin Jouvenal’s questions gives the strong impression Fairfax County leaders have put this problem in the hands of the county’s attorneys. That’s the very same group of people whose advice helped cover-up the details of the police shooting and damaged the reputation of a well-respected police department. I’m not a fan.
Fairfax County Fire Chief Richard R. Bowers Jr. declined to comment on specific allegations leveled against his department, citing ongoing litigation, but said that the department has worked hard to include women and said the proof is in the numbers.
The 1,400-member Fairfax department has about twice the number of female firefighters as the national average. Bowers said any large organization will encounter the type of issues Fairfax is facing.
“Do we have bad actors? We certainly probably do,” Bowers said. “When those bad actors display something that is inappropriate, they are dealt with.”
Bowers said the department has made changes. They include revised policies for investigating sexual harassment claims, mental-health training and a summit on suicide prevention. He said that one of the efforts — handing out pocket-size cards with suicide hotline numbers — helped head off another suicide in the department.