Fire chief post stirs controversy

A Facebook post on South Lane County Fire and Rescue (SLCFR) Chief John Wooten’s personal page seeming to advocate for the shooting of rioters drew controversy on Tuesday.

“So, I made the comment we should shoot the rioters and someone asked me how I could possibly do that. I replied it depended on distance, wind, temp, humidity and a few other variables but once I had the calculations done it would be a matter of breathing control and trigger squeeze,” read the post on Wooten’s page.

The post began circulating more widely online following a KEZI News report Tuesday morning.

Responses on social media from Cottage Grove community members were split, some admonishing the post and others supportive.

“Good for him. If you shoot a couple of them, they might think twice,” posted one commenter.

Others treated the matter with more concern.

“If he made those comments, we deserve an explanation,” posted another.

In response, SLCFR issued a statement.

“The district has been made aware of a news story run by KEZI indicating Fire Chief John Wooten stated on his ‘personal’ Facebook page that rioters should be shot,” the statement read. “Chief Wooten did not make any statement in his official capacity as fire chief. The chief’s personal Facebook page was hacked and has since been taken down.”

SLCFR could not make it clear to The Sentinel if the alleged hacking took place before the controversial post was made or afterward.

Wooten has been on vacation since last Thursday and was not available for comment, said SLCFR Division Chief Joe Raade.

Meanwhile, “We’re just trying to do our best here to keep serving the public,” Raade said.

Later the same day, Mayor Jeff Gowing and City Manager Richard Meyers released a statement.

“We are saddened after reading the report of the alleged statements made by the South Lane County fire chief. The City of Cottage Grove will not take a position on the situation until all the facts are known,” said the statement.

The city went on to express its “disgust and total disapproval” of actions that led to the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis, Minn., black man who died as a result of being restrained with a knee to the neck by white police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25. For the past week, Eugene and many cities throughout the nation have seen daily protests, rallies and rioting sparked by the death of Floyd.

“We are also saddened by the violence and destruction that have unnecessarily tainted the lessons that should be learned by George Floyd’s pointless death,” read the city’s statement. “Violence toward others and destruction of property is not the answer and does not strengthen the message that needs to be made.”

Speaking on his own behalf, SLCFR Board President Joel Higdon also issued a statement to media outlets.

“For now, I wish to let the public know that I have spoken with district staff and leadership and I am convinced that the district remains committed to protecting the health, safety and welfare of everyone in our community, regardless of political stance or race,” he said. “The district will continue to serve our entire community with compassion, professionalism, and care. We are aware that the fire chief may have posted offensive content on his personal Facebook page. I want to be clear: such posts do not reflect district views and I do not condone such language. The board will be meeting very soon to discuss this matter in detail.”

A remote executive session held by the SLCFR board is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight (June 3) to discuss the possible discipline of a public officer. Though the public may not attend executive sessions, public comments can be emailed to [email protected]

The concern that rioting may spread to rural areas has been voiced on social media of late, though a peaceful protest was held in Cottage Grove last Friday evening without incident.

While Eugene protests have largely been peaceful, downtown Eugene businesses and city property were damaged and destroyed by rioters and looters on May 29 and the morning of May 30 after an initially peaceful protest swelled to a size of hundreds of people. On Sunday, a citywide curfew went into effect from midnight to 6 a.m. and 11 people were arrested during a downtown protest.

Protests continued Monday night, though no rioting was reported.

“The protest groups tonight were making efforts to stay on the sidewalk at times and, although they did block traffic, there were no concerns that drew out the need to intervene tonight,” said Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner in a news release about Monday’s protest. "The group exhibited care in the way they were moving through the community and should be commended."

This is an evolving story and subject to updates.


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