EVANSVILLE, Ind. — An Evansville Fire Department employee recently disciplined for using a racist slur is now tasked with working as a liaison on diversity issues.
Fire Inspector Chad Emsweller used the slur while telling what he believed to be a joke, Evansville Fire Department Chief Mike Connelly said.
Connelly recommended that Emsweller be suspended for five days without pay because of the incident and be demoted in rank.
But the Evansville Fire Department Merit Commission, which has the final say on disciplinary issues, had other ideas.
“I’m looking at giving him a promotion vs. a demotion,” Commissioner Talmadge Vick, who is black, said in a video recording of the commission’s Jan. 14 meeting.
Vick declined to speak with the Courier & Press for this story, but he said at the meeting that the problem is widespread, and demoting Emsweller, who is white, wouldn’t solve it.
“I have a recommendation for you to talk to a diversity trainer who’s from the Evansville area, who has a Ph.D., who is a (University of Evansville) graduate, who understands Evansville and this environment,” Vick told Connelly.
“What I’m going to recommend also…is that Chad (Emsweller) be a liaison to work with the diversity trainer, with yourself and with our commission,” said Vick, who offered to give Connelly the name of a diversity training company.
Vick said he wanted the department to set up something akin to an 800 number that would allow EFD employees to report incidents of harassment or discrimination.
Emsweller would be tasked with bringing those complaints to the attention of the chief and the commission, to whom he would present quarterly reports. Get the Daily Briefing newsletter in your inbox.
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The commissioners voted unanimously for the disciplinary action, which upholds the five-day suspension and also puts Emsweller on a year-long, zero-tolerance probationary period.
“Talmadge Vick was very insightful in proposing a pathway to a solution to keep this problem from occurring in the future,” Connelly later told the C&P.
He said the liaison position would allow the department to be more proactive on diversity issues.
What that exactly means remains unclear.
The C&P left Emsweller a voice message asking to discuss his new position, but Connelly called back in his place.
“The new role has not yet been defined,” the chief said.
The C&P left Emsweller a second message requesting his comments on the incident itself. That call was never returned, but the inspector did express remorse to the commission for his actions.
“I just want to thank the board. I think it’s an excellent idea, and I am more than happy to do this and make up for the very stupid and insensitive thing I did,” he said. “I look forward to working with all of you on this.”
‘Not just a one-off’
Vick said the department needs to change. He said he’s heard from both active and retired firefighters and believes this incident wasn’t “just a one-off.”
The problem, which Vick called systemic, is on Connelly’s radar.
“I know that race relations in the city are an issue,” the fire chief said.
Only nine of the department’s 282 employees are black, according to EFD statistics. That’s slightly over 3 percent in a city that’s almost five times as black.
For other races, the numbers are even more abysmal. One EFD employee is Native American and one more is classified as “other.”
“The goal for this fire department is to recruit, retain and promote a diverse workforce reflective of the community we serve,” Connelly said.
The EFD has tried to improve diversity within its ranks for a while. To that end, the department has held a career fair to attract black applicants.
Connelly said there are resources from national firefighting organizations at the EFD’s disposal to promote a more inclusive workplace.
“It’s going to be a matter of taking those national templates already in successful implementation and bringing them to Evansville,” he said.
Connelly is also part of Building Respect and Integrity in Diverse Greater Evansville, or BRIDGE, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving cross-cultural dialogue and understanding.
He said the group is working on projects, right now a survey, with the aim of making Evansville a more inclusive place.
“The entire city is trying to address the problem,” Connelly said. “And now, we’re in the spotlight.”