Garcetti names first female fire chief as LAFD faces harassment complaints
Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday chose a veteran female deputy chief as the next leader of the Los Angeles Fire Department — a decision that follows months of public complaints and infighting at the LAFD about the alleged harassment and hazing of female firefighters.
If confirmed by the City Council, Deputy Chief Kristin Crowley would be the first woman to lead the LAFD in its 136-year history.
“Chief Crowley is a leader of exceptional character,” said Garcetti, appearing with Crowley on Tuesday in Elysian Park. “That brilliance and that commitment propelled her rise through the ranks of the LAFD.”
Female firefighters and civil rights advocates on Monday called on LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas to resign after reports of abuse, harassment and retaliation of female firefighters in the department.
A 22-year veteran of the LAFD, Crowley was the department’s first female fire marshal and the second woman to earn the rank of chief deputy. She is the program director for the LAFD’s youth development program.
Garcetti’s selection of Crowley comes at a tumultuous period for the fire agency. A small but vocal group of firefighters is suing over the city’s vaccine mandate. Hundreds of firefighters have been home following exposure to COVID-19.
At the same time, there has been growing scrutiny on allegations of harassment and hazing at the department. A highly anticipated survey of the LAFD’s workplace culture released in November found that more than half of female firefighters reported bullying and harassment as sources of conflict. Just 13% of female firefighters believe the LAFD is interested in their well-being, the survey found.
Asked about those complaints, Crowley on Tuesday said there would be “accountability.”
“The intention here and now is to ensure that all of our members, both women and men, come to work and feel safe and feel heard,” Crowley said. “If that type of behavior is occurring, that will not be tolerated. Period.”
Robert Hawkins, vice president of the Stentorians, which represents African American firefighters, praised Crowley.
“The Stentorians stand ready to assist Chief Crowley with bringing equity, inclusion and fairness to a fire department culture that so badly needs it,” Hawkins said.
Garcetti also announced that LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas, 61, who has led the agency since 2014, would retire. The fire chief previously had announced that he planned to depart this year.
Kris Larson, president of the Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service, was one of several individuals and groups who urged Terrazas in October to resign, saying he had failed to respond to members’ complaints about the treatment of women and minorities.
Larson said Tuesday that the Women in the Fire Service board met with Garcetti shortly after she spoke out about Terrazas. She said Garcetti and the board discussed potential candidates to lead the agency and whether to hire outside the department.
“She has a great reputation among women,” Larson said of Crowley.
Garcetti took office in 2013 vowing to significantly expand the ranks of female firefighters and overhaul a department in which women and nonwhite firefighters have reported feeling bullied.
However, the mayor failed in his first benchmark — to ensure that 5% of the department’s firefighters were female by 2020.
The department has 117 female firefighters, or about 3.5%, according to a Jan. 5 LAFD report.
The agency has seen better numbers when it comes to leadership position — more than 10% of individuals in those roles are women, Garcetti said Tuesday.
The Times reported in July that advocates for women have been dismayed by what they view as the mayor’s slow progress to change the LAFD culture.
A 2019 survey of female members found that members had a positive experience in the recruit academy but reported widespread sexism once they deployed to fire stations.
At a Board of Fire Commissioners meeting in September, Women in the Fire Service head Larson described feces being left by men on the floors of bathrooms at firehouses. Female firefighters refuse to file complaints because they fear retaliation, Larson told the panel.
Garcetti, who was nominated by President Biden to be ambassador to India, is waiting on the Senate to take up his appointment. He said he wanted to ensure “dependable” and “knowledgeable” leadership following Terrazas’ retirement.
Some viewed Crowley’s appointment by Garcetti as a political maneuver to help his career as he seeks his next positions.
Less than 4% of L.A.'s firefighters are women. Many say their ranks are so small because of a hostile, sexist culture pervading the city’s Fire Department.
“It’s about Garcetti trying to boost his own legacy,” said former LAFD Assistant Chief Patrick Butler, and former president of an LAFD group for Latino firefighters. “And covering for the failures of Terrazas.”
Butler called Crowley a “fantastic person” but said there should have been “open process” selection.
Freddy Escobar, president of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City — the union representing firefighters — would not say whether the mayor consulted the union when picking Crowley.
“We’re excited for her,” Escobar said. “She’s gone through the ranks, she’s got respect of the members.”
Defending the LAFD culture, Escobar disputed the findings of the workplace assessment study that concluded there was bullying and harassment at the department.
“There’s no systemic problem of issues regarding gender or race [at the LAFD]” Escobar said. He blamed one of Garcetti’s appointees — Rebecca Ninburg — for bringing up “incidents that occurred years ago.”
Escobar has repeatedly clashed with Ninburg, as well as another former Garcetti appointee, at fire commission meetings on issues about the treatment of women at the LAFD.
Asked about Escobar’s comments, Ninburg said the LAFD’s “refusal to acknowledge and act on systemic issues of racism and sexism has perpetuated the harassment and abuse that minority and female firefighters have been forced to endure.”
Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.