Incoming Los Angeles Fire Chief Douglas L. Barry pledged Monday to end a frat-house culture that has allowed hazing and discrimination to fester in fire stations, even as he insisted that the problems were limited in scope.
"I know that we can stop hazing and horseplay," Barry, a 31-year Fire Department veteran, said during a news conference at a fire station in South Los Angeles. "I know that we can address the department's history of discrimination and exclusion."
Barry, 53, an assistant chief, will be the first African American to lead the department when he takes over as acting chief Jan. 1. He will serve for as long as a year while city officials conduct a search for a permanent replacement for Chief William Bamattre, who resigned last week amid an uproar over harassment and racial discrimination in the department.
Bamattre had complained that he did not possess the authority or the tools to discipline rogue firefighters or to change the culture of a department that has faced repeated criticism over its treatment of minorities and women.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa named Barry to the interim post to do just that, calling him a change agent who can hold the line on hazing -- a practice with a long tradition in the department but one that some firefighters say has led to harassment.
Former members of the Fire Commission predicted that Barry, as a short-timer, would face the same difficulties as Bamattre in trying to revamp a department beset by discrimination lawsuits and city audits calling attention to issues of racism and sexism.
Last month, Bamattre told City Council members that the maximum punishment he could impose was 30 days' suspension. That, he argued, did not give him sufficient authority to root out persistent problems.
"The chief can simply cajole, plead and hope that a bunch of the guys will go along with him," said David Fleming, a former Fire Commission president. "His hands are tied. The public just doesn't understand what goes on in that department."
Villaraigosa also faced criticism in the African American community over his choice of Barry.
African American leaders questioned whether the mayor had tapped the incoming chief as a public relations ploy to mollify critics upset with him for vetoing a $2.7-million legal settlement for a black firefighter who sued the city after co-workers fed him a spaghetti dinner laced with dog food.
The council approved the settlement last month and then, amid a public outcry over the size of the payout, failed to muster enough votes to override the mayor's veto.
Among those wondering about the mayor's intentions was the Rev. Eric P. Lee, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles.
"This was a move to quiet the storm of controversy," Lee said. "I'm concerned with the shallowness with which this seemed to come about."
Villaraigosa said he chose Barry because the firefighter came highly recommended from the rank and file, department command staff and unions. Barry has worked his way up the chain of command during three decades on the force, serving as a firefighter, an engineer, battalion chief and chief of staff to Bamattre.
In a meeting last week, Barry, who is set to retire in about 14 months, told Villaraigosa that he didn't want the job permanently. That's what Villaraigosa wanted to hear. His aides said he did not want to make the interim chief permanent to keep the selection competitive and avoid the appearance of a done deal.
"I asked Chief Barry to serve in this position because he's the best person for the job," Villaraigosa said. "He doesn't have an ax to grind. He's not looking for a promotion. He just wants to do the job. The more I talked to him, the more I'm impressed. This is the right man for the job."
Villaraigosa introduced Barry at Fire Station 66, the assistant chief's last field posting. Several members of the department's command staff, fire union leaders and fire commissioners were on hand.
Union leaders, who have been accused by former fire commissioners of trying to thwart department reforms, said they welcomed the chance to work with Barry.
"I've known Chief Barry for years. He's a straight shooter. He's got integrity," said Steve Tufts, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City. "He's got the respect of the membership and he's always done the right thing. That's very important."
But Barry will have his hands full in the months to come. Villaraigosa laid out an aggressive agenda for his incoming chief, working in tandem with the Fire Commission: Implement a disciplinary process; create an equal opportunity unit where employees can report problems; and spearhead a recruitment strategy to bring more women and minorities into the department.
The Fire Commission adopted a plan in May to address those goals and others, and commissioners said they expected Barry to play a leading role advancing their agenda.
"He can effectively and aggressively implement our recommendations," said Fire Commission President Dalila T. Sotelo.
Barry said he's up to the task. He told Villaraigosa that he intends to visit the department's 103 fire stations, where he will deliver a single message:
"First, we want to create a culture that is respectful of everyone and inclusive of everyone," Barry said. "We have to have a system in place to deal with those behaviors when they do occur, so the message is sent clear that they will not be tolerated."
He added: "I firmly believe that the vast majority of the members of this department do not participate in hazing, do not participate in horseplay, do not discriminate."
Begin text of infobox
Douglas L. Barry
* Served for 31 years as a firefighter, engineer, battalion chief, chief of staff and assistant chief, and commanded or supervised stations in South Los Angeles, the Wilshire Boulevard corridor and the harbor area.
* In 1995, led the Operations Office overseeing management of department discipline, workers' compensation, wellness and risk management; was liaison to the city attorney's office and the Police Department.
* In 1996, was chief of staff to Fire Chief William Bamattre; principal Fire Department liaison to the City Council and mayor's office.
* In 2004, assistant chief over a region that included Los Angeles International Airport and the Port of Los Angeles.
* Born and raised in the South Bay, attended Narbonne High School in Harbor City, Los Angeles Harbor College and Cal State Long Beach.
* Married; father of three adult daughters; lives in Rancho Palos Verdes; treasurer/trustee and deacon of Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in San Pedro.
Source: Los Angeles mayor's office
Los Angeles Times