Fallout From Racial Bias Case Forces L.A. Fire Chief to Quit

Fire Chief William Bamattre announced his retirement yesterday amid a racially charged furor involving an African American firefighter who was served spaghetti mixed with dog food.
Fire Chief William Bamattre announced his retirement yesterday amid a racially charged furor involving an African American firefighter who was served spaghetti mixed with dog food. (By Nick Ut -- Associated Press)
By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 2, 2006

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 1 -- The Los Angeles fire chief was forced to resign yesterday amid a political firestorm sparked when the City Council offered a huge legal settlement to a black firefighter whose colleagues served him dog food.

The ouster of the fire chief capped weeks of racially divisive controversy over the dog-food incident, which some called a prank and others a humiliating racial attack. After the Los Angeles City Council offered the firefighter a $2.7 million settlement last month, local radio talk show hosts ridiculed the size of the award and urged listeners to send cans of dog food to council members.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) vetoed the proposed settlement but also began distancing himself from Chief William Bamattre, who is white. In response to a question at a news conference Wednesday, Villaraigosa said he would be proud to have the department headed by an African American, a woman or a Latino.

Bamattre was recruited in 1995 to transform a department bashed by repeated discrimination lawsuits from women and minorities. Earlier this week he called his revisions in the department "an organizational failure" and "a personal failure." Bamattre said with no harsher punishment than a 30-day suspension at his disposal, he could not force the changes he sought.

The recent action is just one in a string of lawsuits by female and minority Los Angeles firefighters, 12 percent of whom are black, 53 percent white and 29 percent Latino.

In his lawsuit, firefighter Tennie Pierce, a 6-foot-5-inch 19-year veteran of the department, alleged that in 2004 fellow firefighters served him a plate of spaghetti laced with dog food, laughed as he ate it and barked at him for a year afterward. Pierce, 51, sued alleging racial discrimination, retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Pierce nearly wept as he told the city council this week: "This is wrong. If four black firemen did it to a white fireman, I would stand up [with] the white fireman and say it was wrong."

Pierce admitted he took part in hazing rituals himself after photos publicized by radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou showed Pierce and others spraying a bound firefighter with water and helping shave a firefighter's groin. Pierce told the City Council he considered those pranks that did not rise to the level of what he suffered.

The firefighters who served Pierce the dog food said they were trying to humble Pierce, who called himself "Big Dog."

Council member Herb Wesson said yesterday that he thinks the city will lose money by allowing Pierce's case to go to trial. An audit last year, which would likely be admissible in court, describes a culture of racism and sexism in the Los Angeles Fire Department, Wesson noted.

"If I were his attorney, I'd be salivating right now," he said. "She goes in with so much ammo, I'm flabbergasted that we're not settling."

Wesson added: "When the fire alarms go off in the fire stations in L.A., our guys, and ladies, do a great job. It's when they get back to the dormitories, I just don't know what the heck happens."


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