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Panel Challenges Fire Dept. Bias Report : City Hall: Committee has sharp words for findings of no wrongdoing in probe of discrimination against female recruits.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Members of a Los Angeles City Council committee on Wednesday sharply questioned the findings of a Fire Department investigation of allegations that bias existed against female recruits, saying they could not understand how the department found no wrongdoing even though some of the accusations were corroborated by more than one firefighter.

“I am very, very disturbed,” said Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, chairwoman of the Personnel Committee. Goldberg also said she was concerned because some transcriptions of interviews in the investigative report differed substantially from tape-recordings of the same interviews.

The investigation was ordered by Fire Chief Donald O. Manning in December after Capt. Bassanio Peters testified before the committee that he heard members of the department’s training staff express contempt for female recruits, saying they were not tough enough for the grueling task of fighting fires.

Some of Peters’ testimony was corroborated by two male firefighters interviewed during the investigation. They reported hearing the chief in charge of the training division and the department’s female sexual harassment counselor remark that women are good only for “consoling (accident) victims” and that “females have no business being on the Fire Department.”

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During the two-hour hearing, the three council members on the committee pointedly questioned the fire officers who conducted the investigation about their methodology and whether they agreed with all the findings of the 44-page report.

But the sharpest exchange occurred when Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has positioned himself as Manning’s toughest critic on the committee, called the chief to the council dais and asked if he agreed with the investigation’s conclusions.

“Do you stand behind it?” Ridley-Thomas demanded to know.

“I don’t stand behind it,” Manning responded, saying he had not had a chance to thoroughly read the report. “We haven’t evaluated it.”

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Noting that the report was completed March 8, the councilman accused the chief of repeatedly refusing to accept accountability for discrimination problems in the 3,100-member force.

“This issue is far too important to not give it priority concern,” said an angry Ridley-Thomas.

Concerns about whether the Fire Department has discriminated against women and minorities were first raised in a harshly worded city audit released in November. Among other things, the Personnel Department audit concluded that the Fire Academy was the focal point of problems in a department in which about 40% of all female recruits have washed out over the past seven years--twice the failure rate of males.

In the middle of the bias controversy was the 1993 Fire Academy class, in which Peters served as strength and conditioning coach. He said derogatory statements by members of the training staff compelled him to testify before the Personnel Committee in December.

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Although several firefighters corroborated some key points of Peters’ testimony, investigators dismissed the allegations as unsubstantiated or misinterpreted--a conclusion repeatedly challenged at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Do you concur personally with each of the findings?” Goldberg asked Battalion Chief Millage Peaks, one of the investigators.

Peaks conceded that he did not agree with all of the report’s conclusions. “I got some problems with the fact that some of the allegations were substantiated,” he said.

Peaks, who is African American, then suggested that part of the problem might have been that the other investigators--one white, the other Latino--may not have been sensitive to issues of gender discrimination.

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“When you have never experienced racism,” he said, “you can’t understand it.”

At the end of the hearing, Peters told council members that the department tried to discredit him during the investigation. Peters said he was asked questions such as who he dated during the training academy and who he is currently dating. “The focus of the investigation was on me,” he said.


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