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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Demonizing Josie Dimon

Posted By on Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 11:08 AM

You know, being an alt-weekly editor is all about presenting alternative points of view. And since Josie Dimon is being treated as the devil -- the paramedic most blamed for the death of Curtis Mitchell during "Snowmageddon" -- I'll be the devil's advocate.

Dimon does have her champions. But righteous anger seems like the more popular response to the news that an arbitrator says the city must give Dimon her job back. On a gut level, rage seems a perfectly understandable response.

But it shouldn't be the only one.

Disclosure: I claim no special expertise here. I've mostly followed the story as a reader. Which means I have no more, and no less, expertise than many of those calling for Dimon's head. 

And maybe I'm burned out. Years ago, I came to the conclusion that if you ever felt wanted justice for being mistreated by a public-safety worker, you better prepare for disappointment. It's very difficult, for example, to charge such people with crimes based on what they do "in the line of duty." Even if you fire them for misconduct, meanwhile, union arbitration rules often result in them getting hired back. Dimon's case is not unusual.

That's why when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl tried to fire Eugene Hlavac for an alleged act of domestic violence, I urged restraint -- even though Hlavac had been accused of similar behavior before.

Nor was I particularly surprised when Paul Abel was cleared by a court after he pistol-whipped an innocent guy who ended up shot by accident -- all while Abel was off-duty and out drinking.

Generally speaking, the only "justice" one gets in these matters comes from a legal settlement when somebody sues. That's how it was in Abel's case -- and I've gotta feeling that's how it will be in the death of Curtis Mitchell too. 

But Dimon's reinstatement, it seems, is generating much greater public outcry than most such cases. (Though some critics have also directed some ire directed at Abel, too.)

On the one hand, the stakes are much higher here: Somebody died.

On the other hand, somebody easily could have died in the Abel situation. And unlike Hlavac, Dimon's career prior to this incident seems relatively uncontroversial. Nor was Dimon the only person involved in the incident that led to her firing. Other ambulances also failed to come to Mitchell's door.

Dimon, of course, is the only person caught on tape using obscenity. And all the 9-1-1 personnel involved in Mitchell's case, only Dimon can be heard expressing the sentiment that "this ain't no cab service."

In fairness, however, Dimon isn't the only person who can be heard sounding indifferent to Mitchell's fate. During a prior recorded conversation also on the tape, you can dispatchers discussing the fact that, because of all the snow, they can't drive the ambulance to Mitchell's residence. And they, like Dimon, barely seem to contemplate the possibility of walking to his home.

"Oh well, he'll be fine," one says of Mitchell. 

"I hope so," the other replies. "If he's not, I mean, we did the best we could do."

Admittedly, Dimon's sentiments are expressed on a much different, more antagonistic, level. Listening to them, it's hard to imagining your own loved being taken care of by a paramedic who talks like that. 

But here's the thing: The doctors who treat the patients saved by paramedics? Not every word that comes out of their mouth ennobles the human spirit either. People in high-stress jobs sometimes sound like assholes, especially when talking to coworkers. Happily, most of us don't have those interactions recorded. 

Which raises another point. I think it's intriguing that Ravenstahl's office publicly released 9-1-1 tapes in the matter on March 24, just weeks after the incident. 

Compare that to the administration's handling of, say, its stonewalling about police actions during G-20. Or its ginger handling of the Jordan Miles incident, where despite early promises to release a report to the public, nothing has happened in more than a year.  

It's worth noting that in Pennsylvania, 9-1-1 tapes are not public records. Judges or other officials can release them if they decided "that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the interest in nondisclosure." But that's their call, and as far as I can tell, they are under no obligation to be consistent. (City Paper, for one, has had requests for tapes in unrelated matters -- but cases we'd argue are clearly in the public interest -- rejected.)

Could it be that administration officials were more willing to release material in this case ... because doing so could take the attention off their own sins? (Ravenstahl and his public safety director were, famously, out of town the night the storm struck, celebrating he mayor's birthday.) The case could be made.

I won't say Dimon is being made a scapegoat here. We generally think of "scapegoats" as being innocents. And Dimon was involved in the chain of events that led to Mitchell's death.

But is she bearing more than her share of the blame? That's a different question.

Just for the sake of argument: Let's assume that, as the arbitrator's report suggests more than once, Dimon has been a city employee for more than a decade, and has generally been a good one. And let's also assume that Dimon is telling the truth when she told her supervisors "[w]e physically walked calls both before and after this call."

If these things are true, can we judge her professional attitude by what a few seconds of tape? And if we set aside what she says on the tape, was her behavior any worse than that of other ambulance drivers who also didn't go to Mitchell's door? And hey -- at least all those paramedics were on the scene during a natural disaster. Not everyone in the chain of command can say the same. 

To some people, I realize, none of those arguments change the facts. For them, saying Dimon had a sterling career prior to Mitchell's death is like asking Mrs. Lincoln how she enjoyed the rest of the play. For them, Dimon should be treated purely on the basis of what she did, or failed to do. Nobody else's actions, or inactions, have any bearing on the question. You can't argue against a speeding ticket by pointing to how other people drive. And even if everyone else in this matter should be fired, that's not a reason for Dimon to keep her job. 

If that's your argument, OK. I've done my best devil's advocacy. We probably even agree that there is something deeply wrong with the arbitration process.

But such issues call for a broader conversation. And making Dimon the archfiend, it seems to me, here makes that conversation less likely.

Is Dimon being singled out? Sure feels like it. And maybe we ought to save some of our anger for a bigger fight.

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