Joshua Brewer, a Macon-Bibb County sergeant who was demoted to firefighter and suspended for ten weeks, and Chris Hughes, a firefighter who was fired, went before Judge Bob Herndon yesterday to appeal the discipline handed out by Chief Marvin Riggins after a rookie prank was made public on YouTube in September. According to news reports, Brewer, Hughes and their attorney James Radford made the case that there has been a long culture of hazing in the department. The men told the judge they were just following the direction of then Captain Stephanie Burke who was acting battalion chief the day a friend of Hughes' burst into the station pointing a fake gun and ordered everyone on the floor.
Chief Riggins testified that both men were candid and upfront about their involvement when interviewed during the investigation. According to the chief's testimony, Stephanie Burke did not admit she was involved in the planning. Riggins said it was later determined Burke had been dishonest and her original five day suspension was increased to 20 days and she was demoted to lieutenant.
The lawyer for the two firefighters, James Radford, said that the punishment for their roles in the prank were "excessive" because a superior, Capt. Stephanie Burke, helped organize the hoax.
Hughes testified that Burke started planning the prank three days earlier and had tried and failed to obtain a gun. Hughes said he brought the gun to work instead.
Riggins says neither Hughes nor Brewer implicated Captain Burke when he initially interviewed them, but in follow-up interviews they said she played an important part in the hoax.
Riggins testified that Burke told him she didn't know how the prank happened.
Riggins says Hughes had several previous policy violations and suspensions and said he made the decision to terminate him after looking at the whole picture.
The Chief said the prank was meant to scare two rookie firefighters and that one of them was "psychologically upset" by the fake shooting.
Hughes testified that a similar prank occurred when he was a rookie firefighter and that Stephanie Burke planned it. She was then a lieutenant.
When asked why Hughes’ conduct warranted termination, Riggins said “I felt that the behavior and conduct of Mr. Hughes was inexcusable. He had totally crossed the line.”
Riggins admitted that he couldn’t recall an instance in which a firefighter was fired or demoted as a result of a similar prank.
Brewer said supervisors used the examples of pranks involving firefighters’ genitals when explaining the anti-hazing policy, which was revised last year.
As for their claim they were following directions of Captain Burke, Chief Riggins testified that a grievance process is available for those questioning decisions by supervisors.
The judge says he will have a ruling within ten days of receiving the transcripts from the hearing. Stephanie Burke's appeal of her demotion and suspension is scheduled for January.