Black Kan. firefighters describe racist incidents at trial over coworker's firing

A federal court will rule whether a Black Kansas City firefighter was fired in retaliation for reporting harassment and discrimination

Steve Vockrodt
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — In 2016, Lee Jamahl Washington faced a physical threat from a fellow firefighter who worked for the Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department.

As a result, Washington, who is Black, was sent to work elsewhere for a while: Fire Station No. 10.

"It's always been known as the Black fire station," Washington testified in federal court.

According to an internal Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, memo, another co-worker remarked that "it was good Washington got sent to Station 10 with the rest of the Black people." Referenced in that same memo was a time in 2004 when Washington was disciplined for filing a complaint about the presence of a noose in a different fire station.

Station assignments in the KCKFD are spelled out in a union contract; firefighters make bids for the stations where they want to work. But Fire Station No. 10, near 36th Avenue and Rainbow Boulevard, has been characterized in a federal trial as a place where some Black firefighters were assigned, whether they wanted to go there or not.

Firefighter Jyan Harris, who is also Black, worked at Station No. 10 until he was suspended without pay in 2016 and ultimately fired in 2018. The UG investigated Harris and concluded that he turned in time cards to receive payment for seasonal work he did for the UG Parks and Recreation Department on five days he was shown working shifts for KCKFD in 2015.

Harris sued the UG, claiming race discrimination and retaliation. His lawyers contend that the Unified Government carried out a lazy and selective investigation of their client that failed to fully consider a plausible explanation for his conflicting work schedules. The investigation, they charge, was a pretext to fire Harris after he complained about harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

The trial is testing competing evidence and conflicting testimony between Harris and Unified Government officials.

But in some ways, KCKFD is on trial, too. Witnesses have testified about instances of Black KCKFD employees facing hostility in the workplace, enduring racist remarks and getting passed over for promotions in a department whose racial composition is predominantly white and serves a diverse community.

Harris' lawyers have portrayed record keeping as sloppy in the KCKFD, a department that takes up a large part of the Unified Government budget and whose union is a political force in Wyandotte County.

Harris' trial entered its ninth day Tuesday, and the case is expected to go to the 10-member jury by the end of the day. Harris' lawyers called their final witnesses Monday.

Jurors may find themselves weighing who told the truth about several crucial junctures in the last year before Harris was suspended from his job. Witnesses had vastly different recollections, or no recollections at all, about what happened.

Harris, who took the stand on Monday, was a KCKFD firefighter starting in 2004 following his military service and a stint working for the Wyandotte County Sheriff's Office.

He was injured in 2013 when a car struck him while on duty. Harris claimed in his lawsuit that KCKFD forced him to use paid sick and vacation time while recuperating from his injuries, which is something white firefighters didn't have to do.

Harris said his superiors in the KCKFD subjected him to harassment after he returned to work.

In 2015, as the Unified Government dealt with a Kansas Department of Labor inquiry of seasonal contract workers, the human resources department turned up records showing Harris signed time sheets to receive payment for five separate days of work that also matched days in which he was listed for 24-hour shifts with the fire department.

By May 2016, human resources had concluded based on those records that Harris double dipped and should be subject to discipline up to and including termination.

There's been no evidence so far in the trial showing that Harris knew he was being investigated during the first half of 2016.

Harris testified that he showed up for a meeting at City Hall on July 15, 2016, expecting to talk about his harassment claims. He started to doubt that when he arrived and saw Robert Wing, the business manager for the International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 64. The presence of someone like Wing, the union representative for KCKFD firefighters, was usually the sign of a disciplinary meeting.

According to testimony from Joe Connor, assistant Unified Government administrator, he confronted the firefighter with records that showed Harris getting paid for both fire and parks work on the same day.

Connor's memo said Harris did not dispute that on those five days that he was paid by the parks department, he worked as a firefighter. Connor's memo also said that Harris' bosses at the parks department had told him to put time down on his time sheets, even for days he didn't work.

Harris contends he didn't say those things. Instead, Harris said he told Connor that he traded his fire department shifts or used vacation time for those days it showed him working at the fire department and parks at the same time.

Trading shifts in fire departments is legal, but it operates differently than most jobs. A key difference with fire departments is the person whose shift is being covered by someone else still gets paid as though they worked that day. The person who actually works the shift doesn't get paid. The customary understanding is the shift is traded back and things even out, but a trade-back is not required under the KCKFD's contract with its union.

Harris' lawyers have seized on the apparently haphazard and incomplete nature of KCKFD's record-keeping for trade shifts in 2015 and portray the records that do exist as unreliable. At that time, it was done on paper.

Several witnesses have said that paper trade slips were often ripped up and not kept, particularly if a shift was traded only for a few hours as opposed to a full 24-hour shift.

Attorneys for Harris have only recovered from the Unified Government copies of three paper forms showing when Harris traded shifts in 2015.

"No, it's definitely not right. I traded more than this in 2015," Harris testified.

Washington, another Black firefighter who testified, said he avoided trading shifts after learning about it at the fire academy. He said cadets were told not to discuss shift trading publicly.

"It didn't seem, for a lack of better words, on the up and up," Washington testified.

Another Black firefighter, Terry Allen, said time trading slips often disappeared when they were placed in a box at the fire stations to be taken to headquarters.

"We don't really know what happens to the paperwork once you put it into the outgoing box," Allen said.

Allen, a longtime firefighter, said he should have been promoted to a driver, the next rank after firefighter, in 2011 and 2017. He passed the tests required to become a driver and ended up on lists for promotion, which were either ranked by scores on the tests or by seniority.

He said still, other white firefighters, some with less experience than him, were promoted ahead of him.

Allen eventually got his promotion last year.

"I've done everything that they asked me to do but they continued to keep on putting guys ahead of me, guys I had shown how to pump, how to drive. These guys came in, they're white and they were put ahead of me," Harris testified on Friday. "...I'll keep working hard and that's just it. I always tell my kids just keep working hard, just keep working hard, but it hurts that it took me all that time to make driver."

On Monday, attorneys for Harris moved for a mistrial after Unified Government administrator Doug Bach testified that the double dipping allegation against Harris amounted to "basically stealing from the government."

Harris' attorneys told U.S. District Court of Kansas Judge Julie Robinson that the statement was prejudicial to Harris.

The jury was told to disregard Bach's statement; there's been no evidence of any criminal investigation associated with the Harris matter, Robinson said.

"That's the kind of inflammatory language that can influence a jury's decision," Robinson said.

Ryan Denk, an attorney representing the Unified Government, said Bach's utterance was not intentional or malevolent.

In any event, it wasn't enough to warrant a mistrial.

Closing arguments are expected on Tuesday afternoon, after which the case will head to the jury.


(c)2021 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2022 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.