Ex-firefighter alleges racial hostility

Former Arundel official criticizes environment in Annapolis department

January 15, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Annapolis Fire Department officials tolerated a hostile working environment in which managers regularly used racial epithets and displayed favorable treatment toward white employees, a lawyer and retired Anne Arundel County Fire Department battalion chief said yesterday.

David Bruce Hays spoke at a meeting of a task force created by Mayor Ellen O. Moyer to examine why the city's 101-person Fire Department has only nine black employees.

City officials quickly cast doubt on Hays' allegations.

"How much credence can you put in unsubstantiated claims?" asked Moyer, who did not attend the meeting and said she was not aware of any formal complaints by black firefighters about racial harassment.

In his only specific allegation yesterday, Hays said two city battalion chiefs told inappropriate jokes and used racially derogatory terms over nearly 15 years. Hays said he objected but never made a formal complaint, partly because he worked for the county department.

Hays said derogatory terms were so commonly used in the city department that Chief Edward P. Sherlock Jr. must have been aware of them.

"I find it almost impossible to believe [this could happen] without the chief of the department's knowledge or willing blindness," said Hays, who retired from the county Fire Department nearly a year ago and has represented firefighters in department hearings.

Several other firefighters said at the meeting that they also endured racial slurs and preferential treatment of white firefighters, though none had filed formal complaints.

Sherlock and other top department officials did not return e-mail messages or telephone calls yesterday.

Paul Garvey Goetzke, a former city attorney who is a counselor to the mayor, said, "The city of Annapolis does not tolerate racially improper remarks. If Mr. Hays has an allegation, he should file it, and we'll look into it."

The Annapolis Fire Department once operated under a federal consent decree requiring that 30 percent of its employees be minorities.

The decree expired in the late 1990s. Racial hiring levels became an issue again in the fall during contract negotiations between the city and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1926, which represents most city firefighters.

At yesterday's meeting, Hays said minority firefighters were sometimes treated differently from white firefighters at department hearings. During disciplinary or termination hearings, whites could often ask for leniency, but one of his black clients was not given the same opportunity, Hays said.

Lt. Clarence E. Johnson Sr., vice president of the Black Fire Fighters Association, said that one person made a derogatory remark to him during his nearly 30-year career but that he had heard of many other incidents.

Johnson said he has received no support from Sherlock or others on the command staff when seeking promotions.

Dallas Lister, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1926, agreed that the city department has not done enough to hire or retain minority firefighters.

"The Fire Department and city administration must accept that the practices used over the last 16 years have been extremely ineffective," he said.

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