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Fire Chief Apologizes for Portrayal of Video

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In one of the most raucous and extraordinary city Fire Commission meetings in memory, Chief Donald O. Manning apologized Tuesday for inaccurately characterizing a controversial video of female recruits as a blooper-type film instead of as a hedge against potential sexual harassment claims or lawsuits.

“I would like to apologize to the board if there is a feeling that I did not provide all the information,” the chief said. “The information you received from me was to the best of my knowledge.”

Manning told the five-member oversight commission that, although he had been briefed by his top subordinate, he had not personally read the results of the investigation he had ordered into the affair and thus testified last week with limited knowledge.

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In recent days, the videotape, which shows women trainees making repeated mistakes, has become a lightning rod for highly charged emotions over the department’s treatment of women and minorities--a controversy triggered by a scathing city audit last month.

Among other things, the Personnel Department audit concluded that minorities and women have not only been frozen out of top management positions but in some cases have been harassed out of the department.

The bitterness stirred up by the matter repeatedly spilled into Tuesday’s meeting, where more than 200 firefighters jeered the commission, accused the panel of engaging in a “witch hunt” against one of the nation’s finest departments and praised their chief.

“I don’t know why you can’t get all the facts before you start pontificating in front of the media,” shouted Capt. Ken Buzzell, president of the 3,000-member firefighters union as his colleagues--decked out in dark blue uniforms--gave him a standing ovation. “Murderers and rapists get more due process.”

Firefighter after firefighter echoed that theme as the hearing’s decorum steadily deteriorated--until firefighter Don Jones walked to the podium and the audience fell quiet. Two years ago, Jones was honored with the Medal of Valor for pulling a female firefighter from a burning building during the 1992 riots.

Jones, who is black, said he had not planned to speak but was compelled to say something after hearing so many colleagues say that widespread harassment and discrimination are not problems on the 3,100-member force.

“Rampant discrimination exists in the department,” the 12-year veteran flatly declared.

For years, Fire Commission meetings have been held with little interest, and commission members, who are appointed by the mayor, are virtually unknown to the public. But Tuesday’s meeting was a sharp departure, signaling that the department has moved into an era of greater scrutiny. So many people were expected to attend the meeting--including the media--that the hearing was moved to larger quarters.

When Manning was called to testify shortly after the hearing began, he was sharply questioned by Commissioner Leslie Song Winner, who has positioned herself as perhaps the chief’s toughest critic on the board.

She asked Manning to explain why he had testified before the commission last week that the investigation he ordered had concluded that the tape was meant to be humorous and was not intended to ridicule the department’s women recruits. In fact, the report stated that the tape was intended to document mistakes of selected firefighters who training officials suspected might later claim mistreatment or harassment.

Manning explained that he and his staff had hastily prepared their presentation on the video the morning of the Dec. 6 board hearing in response to an article in The Times that day, which detailed the tape’s footage.

“It really did not become an issue until that morning,” the chief said.

Manning said he scrambled to find someone connected to the video’s production, and fire officials were able to contact Capt. Steve Owens, who was introduced by the chief during the earlier board meeting as the man solely responsible for producing and editing the video.

Owens then took full responsibility for the tape.

But, according to the chief’s own investigation, Owens was ordered to document the poor performances of women trainees by his boss, Capt. Donald M. Carter.

“It is very difficult for me to understand why you wouldn’t know about Capt. Carter,” a disbelieving Winner told the chief. He answered that his top assistant, Deputy Chief Gerald Johnson, did not mention Carter’s name during a briefing on the probe that morning or the main reason the tape was made.

“I don’t recall Capt. Carter’s name coming up at all,” Manning said.

After Manning spoke, Johnson was called to testify but was not questioned about his briefing of the chief. Instead, the commissioners wanted to know why he had not said anything during the previous hearing he attended when Owens took sole credit for the tape.

Johnson said he did not feel it was necessary to correct Owens’ testimony because he wanted to pursue the matter privately. He said he did not believe the commission was the proper forum for such fact-finding endeavors.

“I don’t see how that helped Capt. Owens,” Winner interjected.

“It’s not our practice to conduct investigations at a public hearing,” Johnson said.

Until that exchange, the hearing was relatively sedate, with occasional shouts of “Let him speak! Let him speak!” as Winner probed the chief and Johnson.

But the simmering emotions exploded when union President Buzzell stood up in the audience and shouted at the commissioners, demanding that Carter and his training staff be allowed to defend themselves.

“You seem so quick to drag their names through the mud,” he snapped. “Would you please give us an opportunity to let them tell their story.”

As the applause filled the auditorium at Parker Center, where the meeting was held, the man responsible for making the video was allowed to take the podium.

“All I can tell you today is the truth,” said Carter, a 20-year department veteran, wearing his black dress uniform with his white cap at his side. “I have never been guilty of sexual harassment.”

He then recounted how many of the female recruits--and some males--in the academy class were not even capable of performing 10 pushups, let alone handling the grueling task of battling blazes. During the course of the academy training, he said, he heard from his staff that some women were alleging harassment.

“I was told that there was some grumbling going on from certain recruits that this was a sexual harassment issue,” Carter said.

“This tape was meant to cover me and my staff,” Carter said, adding later: “I slept pretty good knowing that the tape was in my garage. If I had to do it again, I would.”

Several other training captains in the academy took turns corroborating Carter’s testimony.

Conspicuously silent, however, was Owens, who sat rigid in his chair throughout the hearing. He was not called to testify, and he declined to be interviewed by reporters. “I can’t talk to you right now,” he said.

After testimony by most of the key players in the video affair, numerous speakers--including several Latinos--lauded the department’s affirmative action policies, saying no one had ever blocked their paths to promotions.

“If the politicians get their way, making promotions by race and gender, then worse than the stroke of any bigot’s pen, I will be stripped of my dignity as a Latino,” declared Lawrence Fiero, a 17-year veteran.

At one point, Commissioner Larry Gonzalez scolded the audience.

“I wish the department would get off the defensive,” he said, telling firefighters to “act like city employees” as they interpreted him.

A female firefighter demanded to know how Winner had obtained a copy of the tape before other commissioners.

“Answer the question! Answer the question!” firefighters shouted at Winner.

“I think this a wonderful show,” Winner said. “I think what is significant is that there is a great deal of denial here.”

Fire Dept. Under Fire

* The report of the audit of the Los Angeles City Fire Department, is available on TimesLink. Also available are details of the Fire Commission’s reactions. Look in the State & Local section. To order a package of stories on the controversy, call the Times on Demand order line. Press *8630. Select option 1. Order No. 5512. $4.

Details on Times electronic services, B4


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