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Federal inquiry targets bias in LAFD

Times Staff Writer

Federal officials have launched an investigation into allegations that racism and discrimination have been allowed to flourish within the Los Angeles Fire Department.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, the office of interim Fire Chief Douglas L. Barry confirmed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission inquiry and said the department was fully cooperating.

“The Los Angeles Fire Department takes all workplace environment issues seriously,” the statement said.

“It has been and remains our goal to create a positive workplace that supports all our members.”

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The probe by the EEOC, which is charged with enforcing federal antidiscrimination laws, has been going on for at least several weeks, according to sources familiar with the action.

It was unclear whether federal officials were focusing on specific cases or conducting a broader inquiry, but investigators from the commission’s Los Angeles office were seeking to interview several Fire Department employees and review internal records, said the sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“They’re real serious about it,” one source said of the EEOC probe.

The action by the federal agency is significant because it marks a heightened level of scrutiny of allegations that have vexed the department for more than a decade and that helped prompt the resignation of two fire chiefs.

Any finding of discrimination could force fire officials to make widespread changes in the way internal complaints are investigated and tracked.

The probe comes as the city is narrowing its search for a new fire chief to replace William Bamattre, who stepped down in January after acknowledging that race and gender issues prevented him from effectively leading the 3,900-member force. Sources say that about half a dozen candidates from inside and outside the department are being considered for the job.

Among the top challenges facing the new chief will be solving what have become costly problems for the department and taxpayers.

In recent months, Superior Court juries have awarded a total of more than $11 million to three firefighters who sued the city for harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

The bulk of that money -- $6.2 million -- was awarded to a former female firefighter who said she was harassed because she was lesbian and African American.

Another high-profile trial is scheduled to begin next month. In that case, black firefighter Tennie Pierce filed a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit after firefighters at his Westchester station mixed dog food into his spaghetti dinner in 2004.

The City Council voted to pay Pierce a $2.7-million settlement. But Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed the offer after a public outcry and the release of photos showing Pierce participating in firehouse hazing.

Allegations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation have been partially supported by several city audits, which faulted department officials for allegedly allowing hostile work environments and failing to fully implement recommended reforms such as setting up systems that specifically track discrimination complaints.

Unlike the recommendations in those audits, any measures ordered by the EEOC would be mandatory.

Anna Park, head regional attorney for the EEOC, said Friday that federal law prevents her from disclosing any ongoing investigation.

Speaking generally, however, Park said that if the commission finds evidence of racism or discrimination in a city agency, it will require the city to pay monetary awards to complainants and enact measures such as training and tracking systems. The commission would also require follow-up documentation showing how those efforts were working.

If city officials refuse to cooperate or fail to comply with EEOC mandates, Park said, the case will be forwarded to the Justice Department for possible legal action.

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robert.lopez@latimes.com


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