Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Douglas L. Barry, who took office two years ago with a mission to reform a highly respected agency that had become tarnished by allegations of racism and retaliation, will retire at the end of August.
Barry became the department’s first African American chief in 2007 after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa chose him to replace then-Chief William Bamattre, who was forced to retire amid race and gender bias allegations that cost city taxpayers millions of dollars to settle.
The scandals included a black firefighter who was fed dog food at a Westchester firehouse and a female firefighter who alleged she was run off the force because she was black and a lesbian.
Barry said Thursday that city officials, including the mayor, had asked him to remain as chief but that he was ready to retire after 34 years with the department.
“It’s time for me to open a new chapter in my life and spend more time with family and my friends,” Barry, 55, said at a news conference.
Among his main accomplishments, Barry said, were instilling “renewed morale and renewed optimism” in a department riven by controversy when he took over.
Barry’s announced departure comes at a crucial time for the 3,586-member department. The next chief will be responsible for carrying through with reforms such as streamlining the complaint and investigation process. The new chief will also face a difficult task of managing an agency facing $56 million in budget cuts, which Barry said could result in shutting down ambulances and fire engines.
“I think it will be the most challenging time ever to be the chief of the L.A. City Fire Department,” said Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, which represents the department’s rank and file.
He praised Barry’s leadership and said the next chief would “have to be a strong advocate and be willing to speak up.”
A spokesman for Villaraigosa said the mayor would be naming an interim chief in the coming weeks.
In a statement, Villaraigosa credited Barry with helping turn around a department culture that fostered a hostile work environment and for leading firefighters through catastrophic wildfires and September’s Metrolink train crash in Chatsworth that left 25 dead.
“At a moment of great challenge for our firefighters, he proved to be the right man at the right time to reform the department and cultivate a culture of respect, tolerance and mutual understanding in our firehouses,” Villaraigosa said.
Described by firefighters as a likable, honest colleague, Barry joined the department in 1975 and rose through the ranks. In 1993, he was a battalion chief overseeing firehouses in South Los Angeles in the wake of rioting that erupted after a jury acquitted four police officers of beating Rodney G. King. Those who observed Barry said he was able to build bridges with the community.
“Both back then, and now, he’s always been very fair and personable,” said Capt. Scott Gould, who worked under Barry in South L.A.
Capt. Alicia Mathis, who has filed a retaliation complaint against the department, said Barry’s biggest accomplishment was forming the Professional Standards Division.
The unit is staffed with civilian and uniformed personnel charged with investigating allegations of bias, racism, retaliation and other workplace issues. Previously, complaints were handled by captains working under a system that lacked uniformity, proper record-keeping and clear operational guidelines, according to two city audits.
“I think there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Mathis, who lauded Barry’s leadership.
“He stepped in when the organization and membership needed him,” she said. “He always had the good intention of the firefighters in his heart.”