Private deal in noose case angers black firefighters Guardian Knights say public hearing is needed

October 02, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Leaders of a group of black Baltimore County firefighters are attacking the county's decision to reach a private settlement -- rather than hold a public hearing -- in the case of a white firefighter accused of leaving a noose in a black co-worker's gear.

"We don't feel that justice was served in any respect," Guardian Knights President James Artis said about the agreement under which Walter L. Brewer III, a firefighter in the Towson station, RTC returned to work yesterday after a monthlong suspension for another incident.

But Brewer -- who was docked 15 days' pay for comments he admits he made seven years ago to the same black co-worker -- denied involvement in the noose incident and said he never intended anything racially offensive by his earlier comments to co-worker James G. Shelton.

"What I said was a mistake, and I paid for that," Brewer said. "He and I have never had a problem."

Though Brewer said he could not recall specifics, he and Douglas L. Steele, his lawyer, said the comments were intended as a joke that Steele said was "misinterpreted as a racial statement." Brewer said no complaint about the remarks had been made before.

Three county government sources close to the investigation said Brewer jokingly asked Shelton if the image of a gorilla on a television screen was Shelton's brother. Brewer refused to comment on that specific allegation.

Shelton, who declined to comment yesterday, reported in December twice finding a rope shaped into a noose in his gear in the Towson firehouse. A six-week police investigation failed to produce enough evidence for criminal charges.

Brewer was suspended without pay Sept. 2 after a departmental investigation of the incidents. Under the settlement reached Tuesday, the county dropped departmental charges in the noose incidents but docked Brewer for the earlier comments.

Steele said Brewer also was ordered to take fair practices sensitivity training, in addition to training all county firefighters are required to take.

Government officials cited personnel laws guaranteeing privacy in refusing to comment on the settlement yesterday. But county government sources say the settlement may have been the result of fear that weak evidence might produce no punishment.

The Guardian Knights, however, say the case was handled poorly by the county.

"By never going to a board or a hearing, the whole process failed," said Artis, speaking for the group's five-member board. Trial boards are public unless the defendant requests that they be private.

Artis said the Guardian Knights are critical of the police investigation. "It was handled at precinct level instead of going to a special unit. Why?" Artis said.

"A lot of people in the department take fair practices as a joke," he said. "Nothing they [white firefighters] say would surprise me."

Battalion Chief Mark Hubbard, a department spokesman, conceded that "a lot of people go into fair practices training thinking that they already understand the issues." But he said the most important point about a particular comment is "not how it's intended but how it's perceived."

Brewer's wife, Terri, and his sister Kelley Roche defended him yesterday, saying he is a good firefighter who is not a racist but was merely caught up in a sensitive situation.

"He absolutely did not have anything to do with this noose. His gear was next to Shelton's. That's why the finger was pointed at him," Terri Brewer said.

She also said her family was hurt by the tension of her husband's monthlong suspension and the pressure of what she feels was an "unfair" investigation.

Roche defended her brother as "an individual who has kindness, good-heartedness and integrity" and "is devoted to his job and his county in body and mind."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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