In 1985, the city of Martin Woods was struck by a tornado. The state law prescribed that the city alarms warning about an impending tornado could not be sounded unless an actual funnel cloud had been witnessed by a law enforcement officer and that officer had made a report to the station sounding the alarm. Martin Woods police officer Bruce Fiegel served as a volunteer fireman with Martin Woods during his off-duty hours. Fiegel took both jobs seriously—extremely seriously.
At 4 PM, Fiegel was on duty as the volunteer in charge of the Prospect fire station. He looked at the sky. It was ominous, to say the least. It was turning an ugly black and the wind was screeching. Trees were turning, birds were falling from flight. It was enough for Bruce Fiegel. He searched out the safest corner of the building, and as he headed toward a secure location, he sounded the tornado alarm. He had not seen a funnel cloud, nor had he received reports of a sighting of a funnel cloud. Ten minutes later, the tornado ripped through Martin Woods, tearing roofs off 300 houses, completely destroying four churches and a dozen houses before it devastated the downtown section of the adjoining city of Martin Groves. Five people were killed.
It was almost a Yossarian moment right out of Catch 22. Should Office Fiegel have been reprimanded for his illegal action in haste of seeking out his personal safety? Or should he have been given an award? In the words of Joseph Heller, should it be a “black eye” for the city, or a “red feather?”1 Mayor Howard Woodson had no doubts. In the wake of the disaster, there were local heroes and Bruce Fiegel was recognized as one of them. He gave the citizens of Martin Woods an extra 5, 6, or 7 minutes of warning. Most were able to get to shelter.
The irony of the story is this: one week volunteer fireman Bruce Fiegel was given an award by the city council for his quick decisive action in sounding the alarm before the tornado entered the city. Two weeks later he was fired as a police officer of the city. Decisive action is appropriate sometimes, but not all the time. Fiegel was an all-the-time action guy.
The police chief, Harmon Thomas, had received over 25 citizen complaints about officer Fiegel’s conduct as a policeman. No other officer on the small force of 20 had received as many as five citizen complaints about his or her behavior. The chief was concerned that each day Fiegel was in uniform, he was an invitation for a major lawsuit against the city. Two straws broke the camel’s back in the eyes of Thomas. A month before, Fiegel was patrolling the poor area of the city—River Woods. He noticed a car parked outside a convenience store that had suffered several armed robberies. There were four teenage boys in the car—all were African Americans. They certainly looked suspicious—to Fiegel. He reasoned that this could be a crime in progress. There was no time for a stakeout or for a call for backup. He pulled out his gun and slowly approached the car. Getting a jump on the young men, he ordered them out of the car and he had them line up with their hands on the car. He cuffed two of them as he phoned for assistance.
At gunpoint, the teenagers remained against their car as another city police car roared into the parking lot with lights flashing and sirens at full blast. As the second officer approached the car and scouted out the convenience store, the store door opened and the boys’ mother came out with a bag of milk, bread, and other goodies. The assisting officer led the retreat, uncuffing the two youngsters and offering apologies and excuses and he urged Fiegel to leave the scene immediately. The assisting officer made a report of the incident, and the parties involved—victims—filed a formal complaint.
The week before the tornado, Fiegel’s true desire to see safety on the streets came out with another blaze of action. He sensed that the driver of a car in front of his was not in complete control. After following the car for two blocks, he decided he had to pull it over. He found that the driver was intoxicated and also resistant to his orders to get out of the car. Officer Fiegel physically pulled the man from the car by force and rather briskly slammed him against the car as he cuffed him. The man was cussing at the officer and Fiegel was in a posture of readiness to strike the man when another Martin Woods patrol car came onto the scene. The other officer asked Fiegel to uncuff the man, which he did. The other officer then asked Fiegel if he had been in hot pursuit of the driver. Fiegel said he had, and that he had noticed the man’s erratic driving two blocks back. “Two blocks back?’’ asked the other officer. Fiegel confirmed the distance. The other officer informed him that the Martin Woods city boundary was six blocks back, and that the entire episode had happened in Martin Grove.
The second officer called a taxicab and asked the man if he would mind leaving his car parked on the street at the spot and take a taxi home. He asked the man if he could pay for the cab, and the man said he could. In amazement the drunken driver got in the taxi cab and left the scene, not realizing that the Martin Woods police department had made a very serious error, albeit one in the interest—to a degree—of public safety. The second officer on the scene reported the incident to the chief, and the city officials collectively held their breath waiting for the lawsuit to be filed. It never was.
The city attorney concurred that Fiegel’s behavior was inappropriate for a police officer and constituted justification for his removal. The police union said it would represent him, but that it would not present any evidence contrary to that known by the chief.
The action by Fiegel during the time of the tornado did not mitigate his other actions. Yet it bought time for contemplation. In consultation with the mayor and city attorney, Police Chief Thomas came up with a recommendation that won support of the city council. Officer Fiegel was to be placed on unpaid leave of absence pending a certification by a state police-appointed psychiatrist that he had a temperament that could enable him to return to duty. Fiegel would be dismissed from the force if he refused the conditions of his suspension.
Fiegel refused to be examined by a state police psychiatrist, and he was permanently relieved of his duties as a police officer. He remained on the Prospect station volunteer fire department staff.
1Heller, Joseph. Catch 22: A Novel. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.