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Firefighter Hazing, Police Abuse, and Officer Indictments in Texas

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One of the harder-to-stomach stories of the past week has been the account of what happened in Ellis County’s volunteer fire department. According to an affidavit, eight firefighters were arrested after what’s been described as a “hazing activity” from January came to light: 

Authorities say a rite of passage at a Waxahachie fire station crossed the line, leading to felony sex charges against five volunteer firefighters.

The firemen were arrested Monday on accusations that they used a sausage to sexually assault a man at the station in January, officials said. A woman is also accused of recording the deed on a cellphone.

The alleged attack occurred Jan. 20 at the Emergency Service District 6 Volunteer Fire Department in Waxahachie, Texas Rangers spokesman Lonny Haschel said. The victim reported the incident to authorities last week.

The language being used to describe what’s alleged to have happened in Waxahachie is interesting. We see phrases like “cringe-worthy” and “crossed the line,” but what we’re talking about couldn’t be more clear: five men at the fire department have been accused of raping another firefighter with a broom and then a sausage, one woman is accused of filming the rape, and the chief and assistant chief have been accused of tampering with a witness (presumably by attempting to cover up the rape). 

As the Dallas Morning News reports, some firefighters are concerned about how these rape allegations might taint the public’s perception of those in service:

“We have a lot of that [hazing] in the fire service,” said Jeff Dill, a licensed counselor and fire captain in the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in northeastern Illinois. “We kinda test the new person to see if they’ll be there in our time of need, support us and have our back. But this is way beyond that. It’s criminal.”

Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, said he feared that the alleged assault would expose larger problems in the fire service culture, and that others would begin coming forward with similar stories of abuse. If they do, it may tarnish the profession much as cellphone videos have changed the national narrative about police officers.

“That would be a shame,” Dill said, “because most of these guys are just trying to serve their communities.”

“Bad apples” do ruin things for everyone else, and the vast majority of people in public service may be good guys trying to keep others safe. But as anyone following the news in a post-cellphone world is aware, there are many cases in which the bad apples are otherwise indistinguishable from the good ones. 

Stories like the shootings caught on camera in South Carolina and Tulsa have drawn a lot of attention in the past week, but one doesn’t need to look outside Texas to see abuses of authority.

In Harris County in recent months, a sheriff’s deputy was arrested for beating his girlfriend with a motorcycle helmet; an HPD officer was arrested by federal agents on drug charges; and indictments were finally laid down following an investigation into horrific conditions at the county jail. Last month, the family of the victim of a mentally ill man who was shot by Dallas police (six seconds after they knocked on his door and saw him holding a screwdriver) released a video of the shooting. In Austin, a hearing is under way that would shield APD detective Charles Kleinert from prosecution by the state of Texas after he shot an unarmed man

Representative Jason Villalba, a Republican from Dallas, proposed a controversial bill that would have made it illegal to film a police officer in the line of duty. Fortunately that bill has been shelved. Villalba denies a connection between the rash of recent high- and low-profile violent police incidents and his decision to not seek a public hearing for the bill. But the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any political will in Texas for new restrictions on how the public interacts with the police is telling. 

(Image via Flickr, by Meherun Faruque)

(A previous version of the story included a photograph of a Waxahachie Fire Department truck. The firefighters in question are not members of the Waxahachie Fire Department. The incident occurred at Ellis County’s Emergency Services District 6. The ESD6 address is listed in Waxahachie.) 

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