- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

The head of the District of Columbia fire department's arson unit stripped his investigators of their firearms and arrest powers for a week to set up "legal protocols" and "mitigate potential liabilities," fire officials said.

The investigators will get the weapons and authority back today, now that the review is finished, said department spokesman Alan Etter.

But some department officials, including members of the arson unit, said the order jeopardized investigative work.

The revocation had "a very negative impact on [members of] the arson investigation division being able to do their jobs professionally," one official told The Washington Times.

Ronnie Few, chief of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, ordered Fire Marshal Adrian Thompson "to take the actions needed to mitigate potential liability," Mr. Etter said.

"The chief understood they [arson investigators] have been walking around for years with no legal protocols for carrying and using firearms," Mr. Etter said. "There was nothing legally authorizing them to do that. Essentially, it was a lawsuit waiting to happen."

A fire department official disputed Mr. Etter's account, saying "all this was worked out when they first got their powers" to carry weapons.

He added that granting arson investigators arrest powers and firearms is standard in most departments across the country.

Beyond that, fire department officials said, Chief Few's order hindered casework and put investigators at risk.

"Anytime our arson investigators cannot enforce their full powers in the regular course of the investigative work, that's a bad thing," the official said.

Being unarmed while tailing or interviewing suspects is risky, and in one recent case, the loss of powers might have let a suspect go, sources said.

After an arson in the 3000 block of 30th Street SE on Saturday, a witness at the scene pointed out the suspect to an arson investigator who had been stripped of his arrest authority and weapon, according to sources familiar with the incident.

"The investigator was powerless," a source said. "The suspect was right there on the scene, and he had to say, 'sorry, call the police.' "

Mr. Etter, who was aware of the incident, said proper protocol was to call police, or the investigator could have made a citizen's arrest.

"That's what the steps are supposed to be," he said. "You have someone you want to arrest, you call the police."

Members of the fire investigation division have had arrest powers for at least 20 years, and six investigators, including Fire Marshal Thompson, have carried firearms for about three years.

Those officials went through six months of training on firearms use, arrest techniques and other topics at the Metropolitan Police Department's training academy.

Marshal Thompson's decision irked members of the arson investigation unit, who issued an anonymously written statement yesterday saying they had voted "no confidence in the Office of the Fire Marshal."

"The fire marshal had made and continues to make irrational decisions that have proven to be impractical, ineffective and detrimental to the safety and well-being of members of this unit and the citizens" of the District, the statement said.

The order and fire marshal's action "reflect a level of incompetence that have reversed most, if not all, of the progress made by the [unit] in the last three years," the statement continued.

"These decisions have not only affected the safety of our communities; they have been financially wasteful to the department and the city."

Marshal Thompson through Mr. Etter, the department spokesman yesterday declined to respond to the statement because it was anonymous.

Chief Few's mandatory review one of the first in his "top-down revamping" of the department likely was the start of "a bonehead scheme" that could further derail rank-and-file support for the chief, one official said.

Some firefighters already were grumbling that Chief Few passed over local veterans and instead promoted a former colleague from Georgia, Gary Garland, to acting assistant chief of services.

Mr. Etter defended the chief's order, saying it was part of the overhauling of a troubled agency that would ruffle some feathers but improve the department.

"Chief Few has identified some areas which can be strengthened," Mr. Etter said. "He has given [Marshal] Thompson the authority and the responsibility of making those changes as best he can. [Marshal] Thompson is making the moves he thinks are necessary."

Some members of the arson unit will be transferred within the next week, Mr. Etter said.

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