A Columbus Fire Division arson investigator is the subject of an internal investigation after he ordered a motorist out of a car at gunpoint in what police called a road-rage incident while he was on duty. Jeffrey L. Smith, 49, has been placed on administrative duty and his city-issued weapon taken away pending the results of the investigation, fire officials said yesterday.
The incident comes as the city is drafting a gun policy detailing when firefighters can use deadly force. The Fire Division never has had a written gun policy, though it has equipped some firefighters with guns for decades.
Fire and police officials said Smithand Michael J. Watkins started arguing while in separate cars at the intersection of Jack Gibbs Boulevard and Cleveland Avenue, near Columbus State Community College, on the morning of Jan. 2.
Smith said Watkins brandished a gun from inside his car during the argument.
Smith told investigators that's when he jumped out of his unmarked city vehicle, drew his weapon and ordered Watkins out of his car. Smith placed Watkins in handcuffs and called police.
Watkins, 35, was charged with aggravated menacing, a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine. Police found a black pellet gun in Watkins' car, according to a police incident report. Smith was not charged with a crime.
Police and fire officials said Smith and Watkins know each another and have had past differences..
City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. said his office still is gathering information about the incident.
"It's too early at this point to comment," he said.
Pfeiffer and officials with the city's Department of Public Safety previously have said that firefighters are allowed to carry guns within the city limits, but can only use them during " fire-related incidents." Those same officials insist that armed firefighters do not have the same use-of-force and arrest powers as police officers.
It's not unusual for firefighters to carry guns.
Many large departments across the state have arson-investigation units outfitted with guns and arrest powers.
There are 14 Columbus firefighters on the arson and bomb squads who carry guns while they're on duty.
A Dispatch investigation in August found that 10 of the 14 firefighters with guns were not certified by the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy. At the time, Smith was one of the 10 who was not certified.
Cleveland, Dayton and Cincinnati, and the State Fire Marshal's office, require their firefighters with guns to be state certified. Columbus does not.
Columbus also lacks a written gun policy in the Fire Division. A draft policy has circulated for nearly two years without being enacted. Pfeiffer said yesterday a formal policy is in its final stages of review and should be in place soon.
Smith has been with the division since 1998. In November 2011, he received a verbal warning and was put on administrative duty for two months after a "heated altercation" with another firefighter.
He also was ordered to undergo sensitivity training.
Battalion Chief Patrick Ferguson said Smith is not known for having a bad temper. The division would not allow Smith or his supervisor, Capt. Jeffrey Happ, to comment for this story.
Jack Reall, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 67, said he is waiting for Smith to ask the union for assistance and did not know enough about the incident to comment.
Written by The Columbus Dispatch