NEW HAVEN, CT – Fire Chief Allyn Wright Tuesday suspended for 15 days without pay a firefighter who allegedly posted a Facebook comment using the N-word.
The firefighter, a lieutenant with 20 years on the job, will be suspended from Sept. 1 through Sept. 30, according to a general order Wright issued.
Wright wrote that the lieutenant violated department rules “not limited to” Rule #16G, forbidding the use of “obscene, immoral or disrespectful language”; and Rule #16H, forbidding “conduct in any manner prejudicial to the good name and reputation of the Department.”
The spark for the suspension was a comment posted to the Facebook page of an anti-immigrant group called “English and Proud.” “Wake Up England! Chased by Muslims with machetes—South Yorkshire police don’t want to know!” the group’s Facebook item read.
In screen shot of the page that began circulating among members of the department, and then city officials, beginning noon Monday, a comment appears in the name of a New Haven firefighter. It shows the picture from his Facebook page. The comment reads: “In the U.S. we call them niggers.”
Hours later, that comment was not visible on the English and Proud Facebook page.
A screenshot of the post circulated among department members Monday evening. It quickly reached the attention of top city officials including Mayor Toni Harp, who called the post “unacceptable behavior” that “has to be addressed.”
“It is an action that is unbefitting an officer in our our public safety service,” Harp said.
Wright sent the firefighter home Monday night from his post at the Morris Cove firehouse, then issued the suspension on Tuesday. The 15-day suspension is the maximum he can issue without action by the Board of Fire Commissioners, which can choose to take additional punitive action. “I’m definitely not going to tolerate it,” Wright said of the posting Monday night.
City Corporation Counsel John Rose Jr. said Tuesday afternoon that it is his “understanding” that the firefighter has denied posting the comment.
In a meeting with the fire chief Tuesday morning, the firefighter neither admitted or denied the allegation, according to fire union President Jimmy Kottage, who was present.
“He apologized and regretted that it was on his website,” Kottage said. “He needs time to look at his options.” Kottage called the chief’s action appropriate pending a review and possible stricter discipline by the commissioners.
The city is in the process of drafting a policy on employees’ social media use.
Chief Administrative Officer Mike Carter said a draft is near completion, at which point it will be shared with unions.
Kottage did not defend him Monday night. He called “that kind of language unacceptable.” He also said he supports a “strict” social media policy that bars employees from posting racist comments.
Separate from social media policy, the posting would constitute conduct unbecoming a firefighter, potential grounds for discipline, according to Carter.
“If true, this is extremely disturbing. And this has no place in the city of New Haven, not in the past, not now, not in the future,” said city labor relations chief Marcus Paca.
William Augustine, head of the New Haven Firebirds, the organization of black firefighters, called for the commenter’s firing “if it’s proved true.”
“The public won’t want that man coming in their house knowing he said that,” Augustine remarked. “I don’t care if he was drunk; there’s no reason to put something like that up there. Especially dealing with the public as a firefighter in New Haven, where a great proportion are minorities. If he did it, he needs to be punished. Even on the job now that’s going to cause a hostile work environment.”
This is but the latest in a string of racial controversies plaguing the fire department in recent years. Veteran Firebird Gary Tinney said it proves again that “we need diversity training.”