ORLANDO, FL — An Orlando firefighter who was demoted last year after he admitted to using a racial slur derogatory toward black people has been reinstated to his old position.
The City of Orlando will also have to pay Nickolas Tuten about $10,000 in back pay.
An arbitrator said his punishment wasn’t fair, even though he admitted to using the N-word.
Investigative reporter Daralene Jones also learned the department has dealt with at least three other incidents like this in recent years, according to an attorney during his opening comments at an arbitration hearing.
Interim Fire Chief, Rick Wales, admitted he has also used the slur.
Tuten and his crew were preparing for desert when he blurted out, “let the n***** eat first.” During an interview Tuten said, “Roger made a comment about me eating dessert first and made a comment, I know there are different discrepancies about exactly what was said, but he said something about my weight. And I responded to him, or just as a general comment, “No, let the (n*****) eat first.”
Tuten told the arbitrator earlier this summer as he fought to be reinstated to his previous rank that his use of the word was not intended to be malicious. A city attorney disagreed.
“There is no way to sugar coat the conduct. Calling someone the N-word is reprehensible,” he said, adding, “Quite frankly, he is fortunate that he remains employed.”
Tuten has remained employed, but the arbitrator ruled this month that the city must reinstate him to his previous rank of engineer, which comes with more pay and is more of a supervisory role.
During the arbitration hearing, Wales was called as a witness, though he didn’t hear the comment. Attorneys asked him about Tuten’s character, and he agreed the comment doesn’t help with the direction the fire department is trying to go in terms of becoming more diverse, but said he didn’t believe the comment was intended to be malicious, either.
When asked if he had ever used the N-word, Chief Wales said, “I probably have.”
Wales went on to say that he is not racist.
A city spokesperson told Channel 9 that they have since had a follow-up conversation with Wales about that statement, saying:
The City of Orlando does not tolerate the use of racial slurs in the workplace and is committed to fostering an environment that is inclusive, respectful and diverse. Following the arbitration, the City Attorney’s Office reviewed the statement and further questioned Chief Wales. It was found, that in his 28-year career as an Orlando Firefighter, he has never used a racial slur and has continuously demonstrated that he upholds the city’s standards of inclusion and diversity in both his personal and professional life. As the interim fire chief, Chief Rich Wales has worked to ensure that all Orlando firefighters feel valued in the workplace and are treated with dignity and respect. Additionally, he has been pivotal in the city’s efforts to strengthen the diversity of the department and ensure that it is reflective of the community.
Tuten is a third-generation firefighter who worked his way up to engineer. The Orlando Fire Museum is named in honor of his father.