Willamette Week is reporting on a racist incident that occurred in August 2019 connected to Portland Fire & Rescue and I want to speak directly to the public about the incident and my decisions regarding discipline in this case.
Soon after I was sworn in as Portland Fire & Rescue’s first Black fire chief, I was notified about an incident involving one of our firefighters who was at a conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The allegations in the report were appalling and shook me to the core as both a Black woman and chief of a public safety bureau. Reading the initial report, my reaction was anger that this could even occur and a deep sadness for the harm caused to the victim.
What happened: One of our firefighters got drunk and when he found himself locked out of his hotel, he became verbally aggressive with the Black woman working the front desk and used derogatory and offensive racial slurs to intimidate her.
The woman reported the incident to Portland Fire & Rescue the next day. She wanted to inform the bureau about the incident, not to get the firefighter dismissed, but because she wanted us to take action to make sure something like this never happened again.
First, I want to thank this woman for having the courage to come forward and report this incident. I also want to acknowledge the grace in which she made her intentions known. As we moved forward through the investigative and disciplinary process, she remained centered in my heart with each step. I am truly sorry that one of our employees caused her the type of pain that all Black women experience and know on a visceral level, myself included.
As head of the bureau, I had to keep an unbiased perspective during the investigation to keep the process fair. I maintained neutrality and objectivity as I considered all the evidence. In the end, the final determination of discipline was mine and mine alone.
At the conclusion of the investigation, I spoke at length with the firefighter in question. Based on my interview with him, his deep contrition, and how he expressed a true commitment to explore the racism he had never known to be a part of himself, I decided not to terminate him but to continue to extend that grace the victim offered with mercy. I also weighed the damage this incident had on the public trust, especially to the Black community. Ultimately, I created a discipline package based more on a restorative justice model where the road to redemption will require work and commitment from the employee.
The firefighter’s discipline includes the following: a six-month unpaid suspension and a Last Chance Employment Agreement that has built in steps to give this employee the tools he needs to not only confront his own racism, but to actively become anti-racist. Elements of the Last Chance Employment Agreement include a multi-step education process led by Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights where this firefighter will be teamed up with a racial equity mentor; a requirement that he donate $5,000 to one of a selected groups of non-profits that focus on racial equity; a course of outside racial equity training; and a requirement that he not drink alcohol.
This firefighter will have to walk a long path to earn the trust of his co-workers and his community, but he will not walk alone. In response to this incident, the union that represents firefighters and PF&R administration signed a binding agreement for leadership of both entities to engage in multi-level bias and anti-racism training. As an organization we have much to learn from this incident and as an organization we must change. The woman who suffered so much from this abhorrent act asked for us to make sure that this doesn’t happen again: I keep her request close to me as I lead the work for change.