NEWARK, N.J. -- Emergency medical service supervisors at Newark's University Hospital rode with ambulance crews yesterday in response to growing community anger over photos of paramedics participating in a hazing incident that evoked images of the Ku Klux Klan.
Nancy Hamstra, EMS director at University Hospital, spent the morning working with paramedics on emergency calls throughout the city and acknowledged the outrage.
"It's a tough time for us," she said. "But we are an emergency service and are here to provide emergency service."
Officials are still investigating the incident - first reported Friday by The Star-Ledger - that involves at least three paramedics who were fired this past week over the photos. The images show the alleged hazing last Sunday of two Northeastern University students on a clinical rotation with EMS crews in Newark.
In one photo released by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which operates the hospital and its EMS department, two students are draped in white sheets resembling robes of the Klan. A University Hospital paramedic is adjusting the sheet of one student while the other holds a wooden cross assembled with surgical tape and gauze. None of those involved was a person of color.
UMDNJ president William F. Owen, who disclosed details of the incident Friday, said investigators who have talked with other paramedics believe the incident was sparked by a racist video downloaded from the website YouTube. He said the students were apparently pressured to participate. They immediately left the campus and returned to the Boston university, Northeastern officials said.
The state medical university said it has been in contact with law enforcement officials, but UMDNJ general counsel Lester Aron yesterday questioned whether the incident could be viewed as a bias crime because it was not directed at anyone.
"This was more prank-like; hazing-like," Aron said. "It's horrendous, but it does not appear to be directed at anyone as a bias crime. It feels like a hazing. A sick hazing."
The Essex County Prosecutor's Office on Friday said it was unaware of the incident. A spokesman for the state Attorney General said yesterday the state was notified, but would not comment further.
Hamstra said many EMS crew members did not know about the incident until Friday night, when the story appeared on nj.com, The Star-Ledger's website.
"They are angry. We're all angry," she said in an interview yesterday. "We've served this city for more than 30 years and we're proud of our service and our relationship with the community."
She said she encountered no apparent hostility on the street during her emergency response calls yesterday morning and said it seemed like a typical Saturday. However, she said, she knows how people feel about the incident.
Indeed, across from University Hospital, at the Pathmark supermarket on Bergen Street in Newark, Edna Woodward, a 63-year-old city resident, said the Ku Klux Klan was nothing to joke about.
"I was saying, `Not in 2008,'
" Woodward said, shaking her head at the image she saw in her morning newspaper. "The KKK was around when I was growing up," she said, referring to her childhood home in North Carolina. "It's not something you make fun of."
Lanoni Newsome, an East Orange resident who was loading her car with groceries, said she was not surprised. "Every race harbors negativity about another race. It was in poor taste. But now we have to come together as one people and make Newark better," she said.
Angela Williams, a Newark resident, shook her head. "They shouldn't have done that. I just don't think that's right. It's racism to me," she said. "It brings it back to the old days."
The Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, longtime president of the state's Black Ministers Council and a leading figure in New Jersey's black community, said yesterday he found it troubling that paramedics were involved.
"I'm concerned that any of them might think that this kind of behavior is acceptable and you wonder if it is the first time this has happened," said Jackson, who is also pastor of St. Matthew AME Church in Orange. "Even further, I'm concerned if it reflects an attitude within UMDNJ. It's something the administration needs to look into. It may be necessary for some ongoing meetings with the university administration."
Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex) said the racial insensitivity on the part of those involved was "appalling and offensive on every level.
"There is no excuse for what these individuals did," she said. "It is my hope that the police follow the university's lead in prosecuting these individuals and that the hospital continues to do the right thing by setting up sensitivity training seminars for students and staff, so that this incident does not become anything more than an ugly memory."
However, Benny Cardona, a former paramedic at University Hospital who said he lost his job there after a run-in with a supervisor, said he found little support for minorities in his old department.
"There are a lot of things like that that have been going on for years. They don't promote minorities. The majority of the department is white," complained Cardona, who has a lawsuit pending against UMDNJ over his termination.
He said the three paramedics who were fired were taking the brunt of the blame, when others, he said, were not held accountable.
Hamstra, the EMS director, would not comment on the investigation or if any others would face disciplinary action, but she said last Sunday's incident "is not who we are."
"What I told people this morning is that we need to prove on every job that we're the professionals I know we are. We have an important job and people rely on us," she said. "Two hundred and fifty times a day, people call us, and each is an opportunity for us to prove our professionalism."
Staff writer Sharon Adarlo contributed to this report. Ted Sherman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-4278.