News & Politics

Media Fight DC Fire Department Over Right to Cover Inquiry of Firefighters Who Failed to Help Dying Man

News organizations attempting to cover a disciplinary hearing on Wednesday were kicked out as the proceeding got underway.

Photograph by Flickr user tyrab77.

Among the attendees at Wednesday’s DC Fire Department review of the death of a man outside on Rhode Island Avenue, Northeast, fire station on January 25 were a pack of reporters from the Washington Post and several local TV and radio stations. But the trial board’s first step was to eject anyone reporting to the public. 

In response, a lawyer representing five local television stations, two radio stations, and the Post is demanding the trial board reverse its decision when it reconvenes on Friday.

“The hearing was closed at the last minute, supposedly for ‘cause,’ but it is my understanding that no explanation of the cause was provided,” Laurin Mills writes on behalf of WRC, WUSA, WTTG, WJLA, NewsChannel 8, WAMU, WTOP, and the Post. “Given the clear public interest in this proceeding, a statement that the meeting was closed for some undefined ‘cause’ is plainly not sufficient.”

The Fire Department has been widely scrutinized in the wake of the death of Medric Mills, Jr., a 77-year-old employee of the DC Department of Parks and Recreation, who collapsed across the street from, NE, where five on-duty fire fighters failed to respond to 911 calls and pleas for help from passersby. The department’s trial board started reviewing Lt. Kellene Davis, who was in charge of the station on the afternoon Mills died, but kicked out nearly dozen reporters attempting to cover the hearing before deliberations started.

According to the District’s 2010 open meetings law, intended to keep nearly all government proceedings visible to the public, employee adjudication can be exempted. Laurin Mills—no relation to Medric Mills—tells Washingtonian that the ambiguity forced him to be less aggressive than he says he usually is when the First Amendment is concerned, calling it the “most mealy-mouthed” letter he’s written.

But the decision to close yesterday’s hearing appears to go against the wishes of city officials who oversee the Fire Department. 

“We are disappointed that the people will not be able to view the process,” a spokesman for Paul Quander, the deputy mayor for public safety, told the Post. “These are public employees on the public payroll.”

Medric Mills’s family also wants cameras in the room when the trial board resumes tomorrow. “They want their story to be told,” says Will Atkinson, a spokesman for the Cochran Law Firm, which is representing the Mills family. Mills’s daughter, Marie, who was by her father’s side when he suffered his fatal heart attack, is expected to attend Friday’s hearing, Atkinson says.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.