How a Racist Scandal at the F.D.N.Y. Led to Its Biggest Suspensions Ever
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When his fellow cadets at the fire academy gave Kareem Charles a racist nickname in 2015, he said, he chose not to "escalate the issue." Black firefighters had warned him that speaking up about racism went against the culture at the New York Fire Department.
But after the murder of George Floyd more than a year ago touched off protests against racism and violence in policing, the culture inside New York City's firehouses deteriorated beyond repair, Mr. Charles and other Black firefighters said.
White firefighters shared racist messages and memes on their phones mocking Mr. Floyd's dying moments. They gloated about how police could "legally shoot Black children." And lieutenants discussed turning fire hoses on protestors, prompting debates about whether the tactic would work, because "wild animals like water."
After several Black firefighters saw the messages and complained, the department quietly suspended nine firefighters without pay, for periods ranging from a few days to six months. One of the firefighters is set to leave the department after his suspension concludes, the commissioner said.
A spokesman described the punishments as the most severe discipline ever handed down in the history of the department, which rarely terminates its members or suspends them for long periods of time.
But to many Black firefighters, they fell far short of addressing what they see as deeply rooted problems in a department that has struggled for decades to improve its culture, and that leaders acknowledge has tolerated racism, sexism and harassment.
"At first, it feels like you're part of something," said Mr. Charles, who left the department in December. "And then it feels like sort of a lie. And you feel like they just needed you for numbers."
Fire departments have rarely received the same level of public scrutiny with respect to racism as police departments, at least in part because firefighters lack the authority to use deadly force.
There are more than 11,000 firefighters and fire officers in the New York Fire Department, making it the nation's largest. It is more overwhelmingly white than its police counterpart: 75 percent of firefighters in New York are white, compared to 47 percent of police officers, according to departmental data.
In recent years, department leaders have embraced diversity initiatives and welcomed historically diverse classes into the academy. Daniel A. Nigro, the Fire Department commissioner appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014, said in an interview that the department was working to become more inclusive. He also admitted fault.
"We've welcomed the folks in and now we have to make them feel welcome," Mr. Nigro said. "We have to make them feel as if they belong. And in some cases, we failed."
In reporting this article, The New York Times reviewed the racist messages and internal communications and spoke to more than a dozen active and recently retired Black firefighters, as well as others familiar with the department's inner workings.
The portrait that emerged is of a rigid culture born from the department's overwhelmingly white and conservative ranks, one that has clashed with recent efforts to diversify the department and bring in new Black recruits at a time of pitched racial and political polarization.
Mr. Charles said in an interview that he was called "Kool Aid" by other firefighters in the academy. In a complaint shared with The New York Times, a Black firefighter in Brooklyn said he overheard white firefighters call George Floyd a "piece of shit."
Alonzo Baker, another Black firefighter, filed a complaint with the department stating he was assaulted by a white civilian in the firehouse, who was drinking with white firefighters after hours and called him a racial slur.
Another active Black firefighter, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution, shared an image of a white colleague's social media profile, which The Times independently verified. One mem on the page showed an image of a white man being smothered by a naked black woman.
"This man can't breathe," the meme read, "but you won't see that on the news."
During last year's protests, three white fire lieutenants suggested turning fire hoses on protestors to disperse them, the department confirmed, an echo of some of the worst images to come out of the civil rights movement.
Only after several Black firefighters sought help from Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who is now the Democratic nominee for mayor, did the department issue guidance against using the tactic.
The Fire Department is currently under the watch of a federal monitor to focus on diversity, who was put in place in 2011 after a lawsuit determined the department had discriminated against Black and other minority applicants in its post-9/11 hiring process.
Still, employees have regularly accused the department and individual firefighters of discrimination and harassment in the years since.
"I hate to ask people for patience when it's not me that's suffering, it's them," Mr. Nigro said. "So while we've made progress, of course, there is such a long way to go."
A culture disrupted
As recently as 2019, wariness of women and people of color joining the department was written into a Fire Department training bulletin for managers.
"Motivation in firefighting is largely a matter of team building," one section read. "Team building encounters special problems when the team has to readjust to new members, minorities or females, or members who are problems because they do not behave."
Frank Dwyer, a department spokesman, confirmed that the guidance, which was originally written in 1997, had remained in training materials until it was removed in 2019, as part of a departmentwide effort to purge outdated language. "This does not reflect the F.D.N.Y. today," he said.
Not everyone agrees. In New York City and beyond, firehouse culture is unique. Men--and, less frequently, women--work together for what can be 12- or 24-hour shifts, eat meals together, and spend time living in a shared space when not on call.
But firehouses are also notoriously crass, where bare-knuckled humor and hazing can veer into harassment, racism, bigotry and sexism.
Regina Wilson, who joined the department in 1999, said she remembered a noose being found in a Black colleague's gear, which led to a department investigation. More recently, she said, she learned of firehouses that used toilet paper printed with the face of former President Barack Obama, and had pictures on display that depicted him as a monkey.
Firefighter Wilson called out the department's leadership for failing to create a safe work environment.
"This is a brotherhood, right? Don't tell me about brotherhood," she said. "Don't tell me, 'We'll never forget,' and we'll take care of you and your family when you're gone, when you're not taking care of me while I'm here, I'm working, I'm alive."
Paul Washington, a captain at a firehouse in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, said firefighters often tried to explain away their misdeeds.
"Guys use all kinds of excuses--'Well, it's a dangerous job,' or 'It's so much stress'--and they blow that part way out of proportion to justify their racist and juvenile behavior," Captain Washington said.
Those realities forced an older generation of Black firefighters to develop their own coping mechanisms. Captain Washington, who joined the department in 1988, rose through the ranks to start the department's first majority-Black firehouse. Firefighter Wilson helped coordinate the lawsuits that forced the department to diversify. She was later elected president of the Vulcan Society, the fraternal order of Black firefighters within the department.
By 2014, and after a slew of legal challenges led by the Vulcan Society, the Fire Department had begun a concerted effort to recruit from Black and brown neighborhoods; in a class of probationary firefighters that graduated this week, 41 percent of graduates identify as people of color.
But Black firefighters say those recruitment efforts were never coupled with a change in culture. Organizational directives like sensitivity classes and mandatory implicit bias training have come from on high, but the rank and file remains overwhelmingly white and used to department traditions.
A political landscape upended by former President Donald J. Trump also affected the environment, Black firefighters said, as colleagues have frequently displayed political loyalty to Mr. Trump in the firehouse and while in uniform.
Several firefighters provided The Times with pro-Trump paraphernalia being displayed openly in their houses, along with flags with the "Don't Tread on Me" logo and the Betsy Ross design, both of which have been adopted by far-right extremist groups. One picture showed a sign-up sheet labeled "Firefighters for Trump."
In contrast, Delroy Hunter, a Black firefighter who serves in Queens, says he once received a request from a firehouse superior to remove a symbol representing civil rights icon Malcolm X from his helmet. He refused.
Firefighter Wilson said the Vulcan Society had warned department leaders that they were recruiting minority firefighters into an unwelcoming environment.
"That's what's most disturbing, they made excuses for the bad behavior after they didn't plan for it," she added. "They mad excuses for the hostile environment they created."
Last October, department leadership sent out a memo reminding members that the American flag was the only flag permitted to be flown in firehouses. And amid the national debate about racism in policing, Mr. Nigro renamed the department's most esteemed medal, noting that it previously bore the name of an unapologetic racist and segregationist.
Their commissioner said the gap between leadership's directives and their enforcement among the rank and file was what he was seeking to fix.
"People say there's a firehouse culture. Part of that is a great thing," Mr. Nigro said. "It's even greater when we say, 'we're a great team, we're a great family. Our family now looks different.' And that's a big positive."
Thirty minutes of chaos
For a half-hour window last April, Black firefighters had an unfiltered view into the racism in their department.
A secret, anonymous text message thread between a group of white firefighters was leaked to those who had been intentionally excluded. It included over 40 racist memes, comments and jokes about Mr. Floyd's death.
In one meme, a Sesame Street character refuses a salary when becoming a police officer, because "being able to legally shoot Black children is payment enough."
Elsewhere, participants in the chat compared Black people to wild animals, before another person responded, "wild animals behave better."
Another image showed a faked image of a dating profile for Mr. Floyd. His "match" was a white man's knee.
The group was dissolved shortly after Black firefighters were added to it, but reports of the messages soon made their way to Khalid Baylor, the then president of the Vulcan Society.
Mr. Baylor said he consulted with the group's executive board, and together, they decided to request an investigation from the Fire Department's front office.
Mr. Nigro said he felt "revulsion" when he saw the images and language that had been shared. He said that when those involved were confronted, they defended themselves by saying they had though the images were funny. The department has not identified the firefighters involved.
"A man died in the street, and you're using that image as some sort of humor?" Mr. Nigro said.
A department spokesman also confirmed that three fire officers were reprimanded for "inappropriate comments" regarding using water hoses on protestors.
The spokesman said the department encouraged all officers to report instances of racial discrimination, and that its rules prohibited retaliation for those who came forward. In 2014, a diversity advocate was assigned to the fire academy to increase accountability.
But Black firefighters said those who filed formal complaints were often treated as pariahs. The need for witnesses and an investigation ensured colleagues were aware their behavior was reported.
"Any strange outsider, especially if they're from a marginalized population, they don't get a welcome mat," said Jennifer Taylor, the director for the Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends at Drexel University. "They have to prove themselves."
Still, most of the Black firefighters said their problems with the department were confined to the firehouse, and they trusted their colleagues while they were out on the job, fighting fires.
Many spoked in similar terms as the commissioner, telling newer Black firefighters to "keep the faith," even as the pace of change can be slow.
Firefighter Wilson believed the job was worth fighting for.
"These white firefighters know the value of this job. That's why they drive an hour and a half to come work in Bed-Stuy and Brownsville," she said. "Why can't people that live in these communities have that value and worth?"
Credit: Astead W. Herndon and Ali Watkins from The New York Times