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County Fire Officers Cleared of Race Bias : Inquiry: A white captain and battalion chief were accused of harassing two black dispatchers. They were reprimanded for violating other department rules.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County Fire Department announced Thursday that a four-month investigation had cleared two veteran white officers accused by the County Black Employees Assn. of racial harassment.

The department said investigators had determined that the actions of a fire captain and a battalion chief in separate incidents involving two black women dispatchers last November were “not racially motivated.”

As a result of the inquiry, however, both officers--whom fire officials declined to identify because of privacy rules--received letters of reprimand for violation of departmental regulations, a spokesman said.

The Black Employees Assn. identified the officers as Capt. Michael Lee and Battalion Chief David Basiley. William Ruffin, representing the association, called the findings a “whitewash.”

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“For the department to take any disciplinary action against the accused officers clearly shows a racist act happened,” he said. “We are disappointed that the discipline is not more severe. . . .

“It again shows how the Fire Department system exonerates white employees and crucifies black employees.”

Clyde Johnson, president of the association, promised that his organization will not let the matter rest. “We have a grand jury looking into this whole matter involving the black dispatchers,” he said.

The incident involving the captain included allegations that he had attempted to intimidate or demean Melvina Lay at the Los Angeles County Fire Dispatch center on Nov. 5 by donning a white candy bag with eye holes holes cut into it to simulate a Ku Klux Klan hood.

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The dispatcher said that Lee then pulled the bag’s drawstring around his neck “as if he was hanging himself. I couldn’t believe it when I saw what he was doing. I was shocked. He was laughing. He thought it was funny.”

Lay said Lee snatched the mask off his head before others in the room could see him.

Fire Department investigators said they determined that the captain had the bag on his head for “approximately 12 seconds” and quickly removed it when a white woman dispatcher saw the bag and said, “Oh, the Ku Klux Klan.”

“No,” the captain was quoted as saying in reply. “The Unknown Comic,” referring to a comedian who performs a routine with a brown paper bag over his head.

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Investigators said they determined that the captain made no racial comments before or after he put the bag on and took it off.

“It was concluded that the fire captain was not attempting to simulate the Ku Klux Klan. . . . Nevertheless, his behavior violated a department rule that requires a fire captain to be dignified in his relations with subordinates and maintain good order and discipline within his unit.”

As a result, the Fire Department said, it issued a written reprimand.

Lay and another black dispatcher, Michele Morton, also were involved in an incident the next night when they were confronted as they were leaving an off-limits office away from the dispatch area and held until the arrival of sheriff’s deputies.

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When the deputies arrived, investigators said, a battalion chief explained that there had been a series of thefts from offices and asked that a woman deputy search the dispatchers.

Both women consented to a pat-down and no county property was found on them, investigators said.

“The battalion chief’s actions were not found to be racially motivated, but (the actions) were in violation of departmental rules,” investigators concluded.


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