Truth, the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. Lies, I suppose, are there to cover up whatever inconvenience remains.
I wasn’t in Occidental Park when an incident involving two Seattle firefighters, a female professional and a group of homeless folks went down, so I don’t really know what happened.
But we do know this. Scott Bullene, Richard Howell and Mia Jarvinen were arrested and charged with fourth-degree assault and malicious harassment. Their three-week trial ended in acquittal last December. During closing arguments, Jarvinen’s attorney advised the jurors, “Don’t over think this stuff.”
They didn’t. An innocent verdict came after less than two hours of deliberation.
During the trial, two very different versions of events emerged.
In the prosecution’s version, the intoxicated trio came upon a small group of homeless men lounging on the Fallen Firefighters memorial when Jarvinen began muttering about misuse of her tax dollars and how she was “sick of it.”
Things quickly escalated, with Jarvinen kicking a man in the head; Howell punching, kicking and stomping him; and Bullene beating a one-legged homeless veteran with his own walking stick. The incident came to an end when Bullene was stabbed in what police justified as self-defense.
In the defendants’ version, the trio came upon a homeless man urinating upon the firefighters memorial and asked the men to leave, saying that their actions were “disrespectful to our brothers.” Instead of leaving, one homeless man simulated anal sex between his walking stick and a kneeling fireman statue. Then, surrounded by a hostile and angry crowd, they acted in self-defense.
Now the fired firefighters want their jobs back. Both are lifers in the Seattle Fire Department, each with more than twenty years on the job. The City of Seattle is opposed.
I recently found myself at their arbitration hearing, describing how the beatings affected the reputation of the fire department within the homeless community.
Bullene sat directly across from me. He didn’t look like his pictures. His face was more beefy and florid, and he seemed older than his 46 years. He mostly looked down, but when his eyes occasionally met mine, I saw something approximating shame.
Howell, seating across and several people down the table, was expressionless throughout, his gaze fixed vaguely on the conference room window. Neither said a word.
I described why Real Change worked with the city, business community, faith leaders and human service providers to organize the Stand for Compassion event in response to the beatings.
I described how the fire department parked their trucks by the event stage, and how firefighters showed up in dress uniform. I recalled a conversation with the SFD chaplain, who said the event was an important part of the healing that had to take place.
I described how Chief Dean and Mayor Murray spoke. Both of them said the beatings were out of line with the values of our city, and that a detailed investigation would be held.
That investigation happened, Bullene and Howell were fired, and the city charged all three under the state’s hate-crime statute. Now, we’re waiting for the last shoe to drop.
Seattle Fire Fighters Union Local 27 attorney Mike Duchemin had just one question for me. He snuck up on it, beginning with “Would you say that homeless people have a street code,” and ending with, “Would that moral code include urinating on a firefighters memorial statue.”
“It would not,” I said. Peeing on public memorials, after all, is frowned upon by homeless and housed alike.
As are brutal beatings and drunken rages by trusted public servants.
The city mediation with the firefighters union is the last chance there is for justice to finally be served.
Let’s hope the process gets all the thought it deserves.