Racial Bias Investigation Called for By Black and Latino L.A. Firefighters

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Paul Pringle

Los Angeles Times

(MCT)

Leaders of two organizations of Black and Latino members of the Los Angeles Fire Department have called for a federal investigation into what they allege is widespread racial bias and other wrongdoing in the agency’s treatment of employees.

The demand for an inquiry by the U.S. attorney’s office follows a Times report this week on allegations that a high-ranking white official in the LAFD received preferential treatment after he was reported to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs while on duty at the department’s headquarters.

In a letter Wednesday to acting U.S. Atty. Tracy Wilkison, Assistant Chief Patrick Butler, president of the Latino firefighters group Los Bomberos, wrote that the case involving Chief Deputy Fred Mathis “is just one of many examples that we have come to know, which demonstrates a pattern and practice of corruption and potential violations of civil rights within the Los Angeles Fire Department.”

“We all want and demand accountability and transparency from our civic leaders and government services,” he wrote. “The men and women of the LAFD deserve nothing less.”

A spokesperson for Wilkison said the U.S. attorney’s office had no comment on Butler’s letter or whether the office would conduct such an investigation.

Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas did not respond to an interview request. A department spokeswoman issued a statement indicating the agency would cooperate with a federal investigation.

“It’s the prerogative of any member organization to request a review by third party agencies, to which the Department is committed to providing its full cooperation,” the statement said.

A spokesperson for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement: “The Mayor is concerned by this incident, and expects full cooperation from members of his administration in any investigation. The City Attorney, who has both civil and criminal prosecutorial authorities, has already initiated an independent investigation of the matter, and the Mayor trusts the City Attorney to conduct it quickly and thoroughly.”

Butler and Fire Inspector Gerald Durant, president of the Black firefighters group the Stentorians, had earlier asked the Fire Commission for an investigation into how the department’s chief handled the allegations against Mathis. As The Times reported Monday, Terrazas was informed by colleagues that Mathis, the department’s top administrative executive, was under the influence at City Hall East on a day in May when the agency was battling the Palisades fire.

A complaint against Mathis was not filed for three days, records and interviews show, and Terrazas did not respond to an email from The Times asking whether Mathis was required to undergo mandatory testing for alcohol or drugs. In addition, a retroactive entry into Mathis’ timekeeping record showed that he was on sick leave the day he was reported to be intoxicated while on duty, according to documents obtained by The Times and interviews.

Butler and Durant said the department’s handling of the episode amounted to a cover-up and possibly a violation of civil rights and other laws.

Commission President Delia Ibarra turned the initial request for an investigation over to City Atty. Mike Feuer’s office. Feuer, who declined to comment to The Times, subsequently asked a Pasadena law firm to investigate.

Butler and Robert Hawkins, the executive vice president of the Stentorians, said bringing in the private firm would further shield city officials from public scrutiny. They said the LAFD is so beset by a culture of discrimination and cover-ups that only a broader federal investigation could result in reforms.

Butler and Hawkins cited earlier controversies that they said showed Terrazas and his executive team were unwilling to apply the same standards for discipline and promotions to white firefighters as they do nonwhite firefighters.

The assistant chief, who has testified for the department as an expert in disciplinary procedures, pointed to an incident in which a white firefighter was allowed to remain on the job after he was accused of punching a Black detainee in the head while the man was restrained on a gurney and tightening a towel around his face, causing him to yell, “I can’t breathe.”

As an example of harsher treatment, Hawkins said, a Black firefighter was forced to resign after he was falsely accused of lying on a document that stated he attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The firefighter had to attend the meetings because of a DUI arrest many years ago.

Last month, six Black employees in the Fire Prevention Bureau, which is responsible for safety inspections and investigating the causes of fires, sued the city, alleging the LAFD is governed by a “good old white boys club” that discriminates in granting promotions. And a Times report this month examined complaints that Garcetti has failed to keep his promises to significantly expand the ranks of female firefighters and overhaul a department in which women and nonwhite firefighters tell of feeling bullied.

On Tuesday, the day after The Times reported on the allegations against Mathis, the Fire Commission’s president sent an email to Butler saying she understood his “concern about disciplinary issues being disproportionately applied to people of color. I personally take that concern very seriously. If there is a racial component to that, then I want to get to [the] bottom of that.”

Ibarra said she would ask the department’s independent assessor to provide a report to the commission on “all the disciplinary cases dealing with substance abuse, looking at the racial angle and how the department has dealt with that, and how the department has applied discipline.”

In the letter, Ibarra also expressed her own frustrations with her work on the commission:

“I am deeply concerned that in the last year or so, people have not been listening to each other, and respecting the different experiences that all of us have in the department, as people of color (and women) have,” Ibarra wrote. “Speaking for myself, as a Latina woman, from a working class background, even as the head of the commission, I experience a level of scrutiny that males, and that white people and wealthy white people, do not experience.

“Yes, that happens even as the head of the Fire Commission.”

In an interview, she declined to comment about the calls for a federal inquiry and said she supports Terrazas as a “good leader.”

Garcetti’s office rejected a request from The Times for numerous documents related to the allegations against Mathis, a refusal that open-government experts said was a violation of the California Public Records Act.

The Times obtained copies of the complaint against Mathis and his timekeeping record from a source inside the department.

As commander of the department’s administrative bureau, Mathis is responsible for responding “to major emergencies and other incidents as head of an Incident Management Team” and for conducting “pre-disciplinary hearings and making appropriate recommendations to the Fire Chief of corrective action,” the agency’s website says. His pay is more than $350,000 a year, city records show.

The complaint, which was filed electronically, states: “It is alleged that on/about Tuesday, May 18, 2021, Battalion Chief Stacy Gerlich witnessed Chief Deputy Fred Mathis exhibiting signs of intoxication, while on duty at City Hall East. Additionally, Chief Mathis is alleged to have admitted to Chief Gerlich that he had been drinking alcohol.”

Gerlich did not respond to interview requests.

Assistant Chief Jaime Moore said in an interview that another employee told him Mathis appeared to be intoxicated. Moore said he went to Terrazas’ office sometime in the middle of that week to relay that information and said the chief “assured me that he would handle it.”

The Times’ copy of Mathis’ timekeeping record shows that he was on sick leave May 18 and May 19, entries that were made May 22.

The LAFD has long been plagued by allegations of racial and gender bias. In 1974, a federal consent decree required that nonwhite people make up at least half of new hires by the department annually. At the time, they accounted for just 5% of the firefighting force.

The decree remained in place until 2002, when the number of nonwhite employees had reached 50%.

Today, a department spokeswoman said, about 54% of the roughly 3,700-member agency’s firefighters and civilian workers are nonwhite. However, just 3.5% of the firefighter ranks are women, and complaints about racial bias beyond the hiring figures have persisted.

In 2013, after Chief Brian Cummings resigned under pressure, Garcetti’s search for a replacement took place against a background of mounting legal claims alleging bias in the agency. As part of one legal settlement, the city agreed to have the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission more closely monitor the LAFD’s anti-discrimination training program for firefighters and their supervisors.

Garcetti said then that his “priorities in bringing new leadership” to the department included “bringing a much-needed change to the culture there.” Terrazas was appointed chief the following year.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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