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SF Fire head arson investigator claims retaliation

Capt. John Darmanin said he was demoted because he spoke out about the understaffed unit’s backlog of incomplete investigations


San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — The acting captain of the San Francisco Fire Department’s arson task force was reassigned to his former rank of lieutenant after speaking out at public meetings about the understaffed unit’s backlog of incomplete investigations.

Department officials say former acting Capt. John Darmanin’s reassignment was part of a realignment of the unit, and nothing out of the ordinary. Darmanin called it a demotion, and said it was done because he publicly connected the unit’s shortage of investigators with the hundreds of incomplete investigations awaiting review.

“It’s retaliation,” he said Tuesday.

Darmanin, a 34-year veteran of the department, stepped into the role of acting leader of a unit of five investigators and one civilian employee about 16 months ago, he said. In 2004, the unit had 11 investigators, a civilian employee and a lieutenant.

He said after a month, he started asking for more investigators, and was told to essentially “rubber stamp” some of the investigation reports to clear the backlog. Darmanin refused, and the backlog grew from about 50 when he started to 450.

He said the unit needs to conduct a large number of investigations.

“If there is a fatality involved, we have to investigate that. If there is an arrest involved, we have to investigate that as well. The evidence we collect is how they prosecute. Arsonists get away if we do not do our job right.”

Darmanin said he went to Fire Commission President Andrea Evans and Board of Supervisors President London Breed directly to voice his concerns. He also spoke out at fire commission meetings. He said his efforts were ultimately successful — the city’s budget now includes funding for nine investigators, a civilian employee and a lieutenant, in addition to the captain — but not before he said he angered the department’s top brass.

Especially after he said he filed complaints with both the state Department of Justice and the city’s police department when management tried to take care of staffing by assigning an unvetted firefighter to the unit, “the damage was done,” Darmanin said. “I had gone outside the family.”

On Oct. 13, he was informed the department was “moving in a new direction,” and that he was to return to his former rank of lieutenant. Darmanin is currently on leave, but said he will return, even though he’s certain that officials were trying to force him into retirement through the reassignment, which would affect his pension.

Mindy Talmadge, a spokeswoman for the department, said this was not the case.

“It’s not a demotion,” she said. “This happens in the department all the time. There are positions that need to be filled and they put people in from a rank below to fill a position in an acting capacity. Many times, people are returned to their permanent rank. It happens all the time.”

She said the department had always intended to increase the staffing of the arson unit, and said the backlog was a “concern.”

Darmanin’s reassignment, Talmadge said, was in no way retaliation for speaking out.

“That would be an unethical thing to do and this department does not operate like that,” Talmadge said. “It would be crazy for an administrator to do something like that and open themselves up (to legal action) in that manner.”

Capt. Attica Bowden is now heading the unit. Darmanin said he plans on appealing the decision, and plans on staying with the department because he doesn’t want to retire in the midst of controversy.

Though he is upset, he said he doesn’t regret the actions he took to ensure that the unit had enough investigators.

“The arson unit is in a lot better shape than it was when I got there,” he said. “It was a small price to pay to get the job done.”

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