PORTLAND, OR — A Portland firefighter who got drunk and unleashed racist slurs against a Black hotel clerk in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was attending work-related health training in August, was suspended without pay for six months by the fire chief and ordered to complete diversity training.
Portland firefighter Nicholas Perkins, who has been with the Fire Bureau for 13 years and most recently worked at a North Portland station, acknowledged the city had cause to fire him and signed a last-chance agreement that requires him to complete one-on-one implicit bias training and not challenge his discipline.
“When Portland Fire & Rescue received the complaint, we immediately launched an investigation,” Chief Sara Boone said in a statement sent to firefighters Tuesday as Willamette Week prepared to publish a story on the firefighter.
She called the firefighter’s actions “appalling,” ones that “shook me to the core as both a Black woman and chief of a public safety bureau,” and said she appreciated the hotel clerk’s courage for reporting the incident to the Fire Bureau.
“The woman who suffered so much from this abhorrent act asked for us to make sure that this doesn’t happen again: I keep her request close to me as I lead the work for change,” Boone said in a prepared statement.
Perkins was involved in peer fitness training, attending a health and safety symposium in Nashville last August when the encounter occurred and prompted a call to the Nashville Metro Police, according to Fire Bureau records.
After drinking at bars in Nashville, Perkins returned to his hotel early on Aug. 18, 2019, and used his credit card, instead of his electronic room key, to gain access to the hotel. When he was unable to get in, he started banging and kicking on the door, according to his disciplinary letter.
Over a front door phone, he yelled at a hotel clerk, a Black woman, “I have my key, you Black (expletive) … you Black (racial slur), open the door.”
The clerk was scared and called the hotel assistant manager, Will Lawrence, who could hear Perkins through the phone continuing to beat on the door and using the racist slur, according to the chief’s disciplinary letter.
Police responded, but the clerk did not want to press charges, the letter says. A Tennessee corrections officer who was staying at the hotel also witnessed Perkins banging and kicking on the door and told investigators Perkins was so intoxicated that he “fell on the police officer when he arrived,” the disciplinary letter said.
City Council member Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the Fire Bureau, had sought Perkins’ firing.
The fire chief suspended Perkins for six months after interviewing Perkins but also placed him under a last-chance agreement, meaning he could lose his job for any bureau policy violation during a five-year period from the date the agreement was signed. The chief signed the last-chance agreement on May 26.
Hardesty signed off on the discipline. Perkins signed the discipline letter on June 12, records show.
Perkins, in his meeting with the chief, said he wanted to apologize to the front desk clerk the next morning, but was asked to write a letter instead, which he did. He told the chief he recognized that his actions “showed significant and shameful issues with anger, alcohol, and race,” though he said he never thought he had issues with race, according to the disciplinary letter. He expressed “deep personal pain” by his actions and said he was sick to his stomach when he read transcripts of the hotel clerk’s statement, the letter said.
Boone found Perkins violated the city’s workplace rules against harassment and discrimination and represented discourteous treatment of people and offensive conduct.
“The violations were of such an egregious level as to cause severe distress, emotional trauma, and fear from the complainant, which is the antithesis of who we are as public servants and the oath we have sworn to uphold,” Boone wrote to Perkins. “Again, while I appreciate the steps and ownership you have taken regarding these events, I must consider the harm to the standards we hold as a Bureau and as a City. Your use of targeted racial slurs against a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, and while representing PF&R on official City business is simply unacceptable and violates the core values of the City and the Bureau.”
But the chief said she decided not to fire Perkins after he expressed “deep contrition” and a “true commitment to explore the racism he had never known to be a part of himself.”
Under a separate last-chance agreement, Perkins acknowledged the city had just cause to fire him. He agreed to complete an “Equity 101″ online course offered by the city, engage in a discussion guided by an equity mentor, complete one-one-one implicit bias training delivered by the city, donate $5,000 to one of a selected group of nonprofits that focus on racial equity and refrain from drinking alcohol.
The chief also obtained an agreement with the firefighters’ union to require diversity and equity training of its leadership.
Under a memorandum of understanding signed June 10, the firefighters union leadership along with the Fire Bureau command staff will receive equity and diversity training over the next year, provided by Markisha Smith and the firm Diamond Law Training. It will include implicit bias training, microaggression theory and other trainings, according to the memorandum. The city will provide for Smith’s services, and the union must cover services offered by Diamond Law Training. Training will start when it’s safe for firefighters to meet in person.
Alan Ferschweiler, president of the Portland Fire Fighters Association, said the union supports the suspension. “It is our moral and ethical duty to conduct ourselves in a professional, respectful manner at all times. We apologize for failing to meet those expectations and we must learn from our mistakes,” he said in a statement.
The union hired an independent investigator to travel to Nashville to do a separate inquiry into the allegations because the city’s investigations “are not as thorough as the union would like” at times, Ferschweiler said.
The union sought independent verification of the account of Perkins’ statements to the hotel clerk as Perkins’ memory was “very spotty,” the union president said.
“There’s a lot he did not remember,” Ferschweiler said. There also was no video footage with audio found of the encounter, Ferschweiler noted.
On July 25, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, in response to an appeal from Willamette Week, ordered the release of Perkins’ discipline letter, last-chance agreement and a memorandum of understanding between the Portland Fire Fighters Association and the Fire Bureau.
Then-District Attorney Rod Underhill found the documents in this case “do shed light on the issues of structural reform, race, and public employee union involvement in the disciplinary process.”
From The Oregonian