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Uniontown fire chief downplays altercation

| Friday, June 14, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Shellhammer of Uniontown demonstrates in front of the Fayette County Courthouse on May 1, 2013.

A Fayette County fire chief who is shown on an Internet video cursing at a bystander this week said his 40-year career should not hinge on a single incident.

“Nobody should judge me on one incident,” said Chuck Coldren, Uniontown fire chief, in a phone call on Thursday.

“I've devoted 40-plus years of public service to the city of Uniontown,” Coldren said. “I've always been totally professional. People who don't know me have no right to judge me.”

Christopher Shellhammer, 25, of Union Street, took a video of Coldren using profanity during a verbal confrontation at about 12:30 p.m. Monday at the corner of Lawton Avenue and Berkeley Street.

Uniontown Mayor Ed Fike said the nature of the call — a bomb threat — may have contributed to Coldren's reaction.

“They were at a bomb scare, where people are in harm's way, and you're trying to keep people out of harm's way,” Fike said. “It's not like Chuck is a mean, degrading, terrible person, because he isn't.”

Shellhammer said he went to the area to find out why firefighters and police were in his neighborhood when Coldren, whom he does not know, approached him as he made a video of the scene. Shellhammer backed away when Coldren, who was wearing civilian clothes, identified himself as the fire chief and told him to leave.

When Shellhammer advised the chief to tape off the area, the video depicts Coldren approaching him and launching into the tirade.

“I am just standing there recording, and he goes off,” said Shellhammer on Thursday. “It caught me completely by surprise.”

Coldren declined to discuss the incident in detail.

A portion of the video was posted to YouTube and as of Thursday had received more than 15,000 views.

Fike said the chief's behavior is out of character for the typically “laid back” firefighter, but he said he will talk with Coldren when he returns from vacation to hear his version of the incident.

“For him to come unglued like that, somebody had to provoke him,” Fike said. “But we're going to open this up and find out exactly what caused this.”

Additional footage of the incident that Shellhammer shared on Thursday with the Tribune-Review shows that in the minutes leading up to the confrontation, Shellhammer was quietly shooting video of the scene as he approached. The additional footage has not been posted to YouTube.

Shellhammer said he typically takes video when police are in the area.

In recent weeks, he and his mother, Kathryn Jones of Uniontown, have staged protests outside the courthouse and police station in Uniontown. He said he makes videos to guard against any possible claims of wrongdoing on his part.

“I've heard too many stories of people getting harassed by cops, and I've been harassed by them, so video is my only recourse,” Shellhammer said.

Shellhammer said the protests are intended to draw attention to alleged abuse of power by authority figures, including elected officials, judges, police and others. During one such protest in May, Shellhammer walked in front of the courthouse with a chain around his neck and arms, carrying a sign that read, “Criminalized by Poverty.”

“We try to bring attention to the double standard that exists between those in power, and those on the streets,” Shellhammer said.

Shellhammer said he wants Coldren to be removed as fire chief.

“I want the chief removed, or criminal charges filed,” Shellhammer said. “If that were me, talking to them like that, they would have Tased me and thrown me in jail.”

District Attorney Jack Heneks said he has not seen the video and declined comment. Police Chief Jason Cox was unavailable for comment.

Fike said he will review the video and speak with Coldren before deciding whether any personnel action is warranted.

“There are two sides to every story,” Fike said. “We have to look at the video and talk to Chuck to get to the real cause of it to determine whatever the reprimand will be, if anything.”

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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