Chokehold leads to Tenn. firefighter's suspension

The firefighter was suspended for putting a colleague, who passed gas in front of him, in a chokehold until he lost consciousness

The Lebanon Democrat

LEBANON, Tenn. — A Lebanon firefighter and mixed martial artist was suspended for two weeks after he placed another firefighter in a chokehold until he lost consciousness. 

Lebanon fire Chief Chris Dowell suspended firefighter Stephen Westbeld for two weeks and placed him on probation for one year for his involvement in the incident. Dowell also placed Tommy Chaffin, the victim in the incident, on probation for six months for engaging in horseplay, which is a violation of city policy. 

Two witnesses, firefighters Adam Sumeral and Joe Simms, received written reprimands from Dowell for improper conduct in the use of cellular telephones, videoing horseplay. 

Mayor Philip Craighead also gave Dowell a written reprimand for failure to thoroughly investigate potentially dangerous horseplay of employees under his command. Craighead listed corrective action to “make all employees aware of dangers of horseplay and stop immediately.” Craighead also said, “if this happens again, suspension may occur,” in Dowell’s report. 

“I thought he should have had handled it better,” Craighead said.

All of the reports were given to the employees Monday. 

“It was basically two good friends aggravating each other, but I took it a little more serious than Chris,” Craighead said. “Everything worked out all right, but I wasn’t happy and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. They will still pay the consequences.”

According to a statement from Sumeral received by The Democrat through an open records request, a series of incidents started nearly three months ago when Chaffin would go to where Westbeld was, pass gas and leave. 

“So one day, Stephen was at the computer, and Joe Simms and I were as well,” Sumeral said in his statement. “Tommy came up, passed gas and walked to the TV room. Stephen stood up, and I think he said, ‘here it goes,’ and went to the TV room. Stephen then put Tommy in a hold, and Tommy tried to get out. Tommy slumped down, and Stephen let go, and also helped him up.”

Sumeral said the two firefighters then both laughed about it and neither was mad or going at one another. He said no other incident was caused later, and neither showed any anger after. 

Chaffin also submitted signed statements denying any malicious or cruel intent. He also said he had no health issues as a result of the incident, was not humiliated by it and did not intend to retaliate against anyone involved, physically or legally. 

Chaffin also waived his right to a departmental hearing. 

“These are two men who are awful good at their job,” Craighead said. “They work with each other and clown around with each other. It could have caused a lot of issues. I think we did it harshly enough and got everyone’s attention that it’s not going to be tolerated. 

“We could have had a funeral for one and another in jail. Fortunately it didn’t come to that. I think this will be a life-learning situation that will make them better at their jobs.”

Acting personnel director Lee Ann Crosslin disagreed it was horseplay in an incident report she sent to Craighead on July 23. It was Crosslin who initiated an internal investigation into the incident. 

“It is my opinion that this is workplace violence and not horseplay,” Crosslin said in the report. “It is also my opinion that a written disciplinary action should be taken on all that were involved and knew of this incident. A departmental hearing should take place on Mr. Westbeld and should consider a suspension or termination for his action.”

Westbeld’s two-week suspension started Monday. 

Craighead said he was unaware of a video of the incident existed, but city finance director Robert Springer said in the report he was told a video of the alleged event was made and in the possession of several city employees. 

“I was also made aware of the possibility that the video may be given to a local television station,” Springer said in the report. “…This case highlights the critical need for citywide training on all forms or workplace violence as soon as possible.”

In response to the potential for a video of the incident to surface, Craighead said, “If it comes to light, we will deal with it. I have been told both ways.”

Copyright 2014 The Lebanon Democrat
All Rights Reserved

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