AFRICAN AMERICAN TO RUN L.A. FIRE DEPT.
Veteran firefighter Douglas L. Barry will be named acting chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department today, the first African American in the agency’s history to assume the top job.
Barry, 53, will take over Jan. 1 for outgoing Fire Chief William Bamattre, who resigned last week amid uproar over harassment and racial discrimination in the Fire Department.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s senior advisors said the mayor expects Barry, a 31-year department veteran, to work aggressively toward ending discriminatory practices that have resulted in multimillion-dollar lawsuits and triggered two critical city audits.
“The mayor wanted to find a person for the interim who is a change agent and ready to create momentum and action for the department, who knows it well, who has served it well, and also who has the leadership skills and shared vision for excellence,” said Robin Kramer, the mayor’s chief of staff.
Barry’s elevation to acting chief also serves an important political purpose for Villaraigosa, who has come under withering criticism from some African Americans for vetoing a $2.7-million settlement granted to a black firefighter who had sued the city for racial discrimination.
Those critics complained that Villaraigosa yielded to public outrage over the size of the settlement to Tennie Pierce, whose station house dinner was laced with dog food by other firefighters in 2004, rather than deal with the broader question of discrimination in the department.
Appointing a black chief, even on an interim basis, could go a long way toward mollifying some of those critics.
But some of the city’s African American leaders viewed Barry’s selection as only a first step in a broader effort to address hazing and harassment practices that have defied solution.
“Just appointing an African American is not enough. It has to go much further,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. “The key is the support and the tools and an aggressive attack on the culture of racism in the department.”
The interim chief, now an assistant fire chief managing the day-to-day operations of the department’s Fire Prevention Bureau, will take over an organization that has grown more diverse in the last decade but is still riven by accusations of racism, sexism and a hostile work environment.
‘Agent of change’
Barry could fill the post for as long as a year while city officials conduct an extensive search for a permanent replacement. That would give him time to make the kind of key promotions and changes among top administrators that could help the permanent chief become the “agent of change” advocated by the mayor.
Barry’s central challenge, say fire commanders, will be to put in place a command staff that embraces wholesale changes in department culture and sends a forceful message that hazing, racism and sexism will not be tolerated.
Barry, reached by phone Sunday evening, declined to comment until he is introduced by Villaraigosa.
But several people inside and outside the Fire Department voiced confidence in his ability to tackle its many troubles, saying his three decades of service at virtually all levels of the organization suit him to the task.
Barry has worked as a firefighter, engineer, battalion chief, chief of staff and assistant chief.
“We’re extremely happy about this opportunity,” said Capt. Armando Hogan, president of the Stentorians, which represents African American firefighters in the department. “This gives us a chance to move forward and work toward changing a culture of unprofessional, condescending and disrespectful behavior.”
Fire Commissioner Genethia Hudley-Hayes said Barry told her that he had been the victim of hazing in the department but chose not to take part in the practice.
“I am very impressed with his ... thoughtfulness. He operates on a very even keel,” Hudley-Hayes said. “I think that stepping in front of this laser, he will take this in stride.”
Born and raised in the South Bay, Barry attended Narbonne High School, Los Angeles Harbor College and Cal State Long Beach. He joined the Fire Department in 1975 and progressed through the ranks.
In 1993, he became a battalion chief, overseeing firehouses in South Los Angeles in the wake of rioting that erupted after the Rodney G. King verdicts.
Those who observed Barry say he was able to build bridges between the department and the community.
“He was solid and is a man of integrity who is very personable and open-minded,” said veteran Capt. Scott Gould, who served under Barry in South L.A.
In the wake of a scathing 1994 city audit of the department that found widespread sexism and racism, Barry often accompanied former Fire Chief Donald O. Manning to the City Council’s Personnel Committee, which was investigating the allegations. (Barry was promoted to assistant chief in 2004.)
In 1996, he was appointed chief of staff to Bamattre, who a year earlier had been brought in to clean up the department’s fraternity-like image.
His experiences, including tenure on the department human relations committee, will help Barry as he guides the force in the coming months, say fire officers who worked with him.
“He’s up for the task,” said Capt. Henry Olvera, a 31-year-veteran who worked with Barry on the human relations committee that was formed to address problems raised in the 1994 city audit. Olvera is a leader in Los Bomberos, a group that represents Latino firefighters on the force.
Many of the issues identified by that report were echoed in an audit earlier this year by City Controller Laura Chick. Her survey of new recruits and minority and female firefighters found that most African Americans and women reported either experiencing or being aware of harassment within the department.
Those tensions erupted publicly in the Pierce case. The former firefighter sued the city after the dog food incident at his Westchester station.
The City Council agreed to settle the lawsuit and pay Pierce $2.7 million.
But a public uproar followed, stoked by a talk radio station that posted pictures on its website of Pierce engaging in the hazing of other firefighters.
Critics of the settlement also questioned whether placing dog food in Pierce’s spaghetti amounted to racism, considering that the firefighter’s nickname was “Big Dog.”
Villaraigosa vetoed the deal, and the council last week failed to override the veto.
Battered by the controversy, most council members sided with the mayor.
The mayor has said he is committed to rooting out racism in the department.
Villaraigosa offered Barry the job last Thursday evening during a meeting between the two in the mayor’s private City Hall office, Kramer, his chief of staff, said.
Barry, who Hudley-Hayes said was facing retirement within 14 months, wasn’t interested in the permanent job, sources said.
That fit with Villaraigosa’s plan: He did not want an interim chief to fill the job permanently. Instead, he intends to look within the department and outside for a long-term chief.
Some of the department’s deputy chiefs who serve directly under Bamattre have expressed interest in his job.
But first, Barry gets his shot. Villaraigosa will introduce the incoming interim chief during a morning news conference today at the location of Barry’s last field posting, Fire Station 66 in South Los Angeles.