The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday ordered the Fire Department to review its disciplinary procedures in the wake of a Times investigation that showed the agency’s leaders failed to take prompt action against a high-ranking white officer who was reported to be under the influence on duty.
The panel voted 13-1 to approve Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez’s motion to have the department, with assistance from the city attorney’s office, examine its procedures “for behavioral, discriminatory and retaliatory complaints, including record keeping of complaints as categorized by gender or ethnicity.”
Rodriguez said in the motion that The Times inquiry “brought to light troubling information about alleged discrimination based on race and gender as well as disciplinary problems.”
The newspaper disclosed last month that Chief Deputy Fred Mathis, the department’s top administrative executive under Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, was reported by colleagues to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol while overseeing the agency’s operations center at City Hall East. Terrazas’ staff did not file a complaint against Mathis for three days, even though department policy requires immediate action when a firefighter is suspected of being intoxicated.
In addition, a retroactive entry in Mathis’ timekeeping records listed him as being on sick leave the day he was reported to be intoxicated on duty, documents obtained by The Times show. The incident occurred on May 18, when the department was battling the Palisades fire.
Two organizations that represent Black and Latino firefighters contended that Mathis received preferential treatment that was part of a long-standing pattern of the department brass favoring white men, including in disciplinary matters. Leaders of the organization also accused Terrazas and his staff of trying to cover up the Mathis episode.
The U.S. Justice Department subsequently said that it was “carefully reviewing” allegations that the LAFD has engaged in civil rights violations and other wrongdoing in its treatment of employees. The Stentorians and Los Bomberos, the Black and Latino firefighter groups, respectively, had called for the federal inquiry, and an organization representing women firefighters expressed support for the probe.
Assistant Chief Patrick Butler, president of Los Bomberos, said Tuesday he did not trust the Fire Department to conduct a review of its own procedures. “That doesn’t hold any water,” Butler said. “The department is continuing to cover this up, and we don’t have confidence the department will do the job.”
Rodriguez said in a statement: “I’m committed to ensuring greater transparency and accountability when instances suggest preferential treatment for personnel in any city department, including LAFD.”
She did not respond to a question of how she could be sure that a self-review by the department would be thorough and accurate.
In June, six Black employees in the Fire Prevention Bureau, which is responsible for safety inspections and investigating the causes of fires, sued the city, alleging the LAFD is governed by a “good old white boys club” that discriminates in granting promotions.
And a Times report in July examined complaints that Mayor Eric Garcetti has failed to keep his promises to significantly expand the ranks of female firefighters and overhaul a department in which women and nonwhite firefighters tell of feeling bullied.
The LAFD has long been plagued by allegations of racial and gender bias. In 1974, a federal consent decree required that nonwhite people make up at least half of new hires by the department annually. At the time, they accounted for just 5% of the firefighting force.
The decree remained in place until 2002, when the number of nonwhite employees had reached 50%.
Today, about 54% of the roughly 3,700-member agency’s firefighters and civilian workers are nonwhite, according to the department. However, just 3.5% of the firefighter ranks are women, and complaints about racial bias beyond the hiring figures have persisted.
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