Orlando fire chief resigns after federal discrimination investigation

Orlando Fire Department Chief Roderick Williams resigned Thursday after it was determined he and two deputy chiefs discriminated against a female employee


ORLANDO — Orlando Fire Department Chief Roderick Williams resigned Thursday after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined he and two deputy chiefs discriminated against a female employee.

“I regret that during my tenure there have been allegations that have hurt the department and the City of Orlando,” Williams said in a letter submitted Thursday afternoon. “While I categorically deny the allegations against me, I believe the focus of the Orlando Fire Department should be on serving and protecting the residents of Orlando and not on my leadership or my position.”

The EEOC said its investigation determined evidence “supported [the woman’s] allegations that she has been subjected to discriminatory harassment; conduct; and differential treatment by both Deputy Chiefs.” Williams also subjected her to “continuous retaliatory conduct” and sexual harassment, the EEOC said.

Orlando Fire Department Chief Roderick Williams resigned Thursday after it was determined he and two deputy chiefs discriminated against a female employee. (Photo/OFD)
Orlando Fire Department Chief Roderick Williams resigned Thursday after it was determined he and two deputy chiefs discriminated against a female employee. (Photo/OFD)

The city has not said whether the two deputy chiefs referenced in the investigation will remain in their current positions.

The EEOC’s report was released by the city earlier Thursday in response to a public records request. In a statement, Barber said the city was “disappointed” with the federal agency’s findings.

“One of our core values at the City of Orlando is to ensure that everyone who works here is treated with dignity and respected in the workplace,” Barber said. “We are disappointed the EEOC has found this didn’t occur within the Orlando Fire Department in this particular case.”

Williams was not available for comment Thursday, Fire Department spokeswoman Ashley Papagni said.

The commission’s probe was initiated after an OFD assistant chief filed complaints in 2017, alleging she was treated differently than her male counterparts and passed up for promotions based on her gender.

She also accused Williams of inappropriately hugging her on multiple occasions, including times she said she “could feel Chief Williams physically aroused,” according to the city’s investigation. She told an investigator Williams also made comments to her about her body and said “I wish you were mine,” records show.

The commission completed its investigation last week, almost a year after the city concluded its probe, which was conducted by an investigator with a Tampa law firm who determined there was not sufficient evidence support the woman’s claims.

“[E]ven if these incidents occurred, they are not sufficient to constitute a violation of Title VII or the Florida Civil Rights Act,” attorney Sacha Dyson of the Thompson, Sizemore, Gonzalez & Hearing firm said in her report.

The EEOC called the city’s investigation “faulty and biased,” saying Orlando officials “failed to take reasonable steps to conduct a fair and objective investigation.” The city’s sexual harassment policy is also “deficiently outdated,” the commission found.

The city disputed the EEOC’s description of Dyson’s probe Thursday, saying the city’s policy had been revised recently and assertions of a flawed investigation were “simply inaccurate.”

“This investigation was completed by a highly regarded employment law firm, located in a different City, with no ties whatsoever to the City of Orlando nor any of its employees,” Assistant City Attorney Andrea Morgan said in a letter to William Sandhez, director of the EEOC office in Puerto Rico that investigated the case.

Morgan said 26 people were investigated during the course of the city’s investigation, “unlike the EEOC investigation that was confined to a paper review.”

Over the past six months, Barber said Fire Department and city officials, including Mayor Buddy Dyer, have met to discuss discrimination and inclusiveness issues within the male-dominated firefighting culture.

As a result, Barber said the Fire Department has implemented additional inclusiveness and anti-harassment training sessions, and created “physical changes at fire stations to ensure women have private, secure areas.”

Dyer also delegated two of his staff members to launch a task force focused on finding strategies to recruit more women to the department, Barber said.

“We understand that changing the male-centric culture that exists in firehouses across the country will not be easy, but with consistent focus and commitment, we can make changes,” Barber said in the statement.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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