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Calif. fire captain demoted after strip club scandal investigation

The San Jose Fire Department Engine 4 captain was disciplined for violating public trust and the city’s vehicle use policy


Photo/Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/TNS

By Katie Lauer
Bay Area News Group

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A San Jose Fire Department Captain was demoted after a bikini-clad woman was filmed exiting a city fire truck before entering the Pink Poodle strip club in October, according to city officials.

It’s unclear exactly when the demotion occurred, but it was reportedly the only action taken after the video taken on South Bascom Avenue went viral on social media eight months ago — attracting international media coverage.

On Oct. 5, fire crews for Engine 4 were dropping off an unauthorized male at his workplace, the Pink Poodle, according to an April 25 memo from Fire Chief Robert Sapien. While the engine sat outside the strip club, a woman approached the firefighters, who initially refused to allow her in the truck for a ride-along but relented when “she persisted,” the two-page memo said.

The firetruck then drove around the club, dropping off the woman at approximately 9:10 p.m. She was reportedly in the truck for 4 minutes. The caption of the video — shared widely by San José Foos, a popular community-focused Instagram account — read, “Only in San Jose do you see a stripper come out of a fire truck.”

The fire truck then traveled roughly two miles away to AJ’s Bar, a bikini bar on Lincoln Avenue, before returning to the station at 9:20 p.m. The memo did not offer an explanation for that visit but stated that the employees involved did not challenge their punishment after an investigation concluded in February.

Although Sapien apologized in March, he refused to elaborate on what disciplinary action was taken and who bore the brunt of that decision.

While then-mayor Sam Liccardo called for “heads to roll” when the scandal broke, the new information raises questions about how the city handled the investigation.

The news of the SJFD shift captain’s demotion was published by the city manager’s office within a formal discipline report, which covered events that occurred between Jan. 1 and June 5. The captain, in part, violated San Jose’s policy on the use of city and personal vehicles, according to the document, and the decision was not appealed.

City officials confirmed Thursday the report referred to the Pink Poodle video, but it’s unclear when and how the information was shared widely with lawmakers.

[PREVIOUSLY: Chief shares details about Calif. firefighters’ strip club scandal]

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan — who was “disappointed and frustrated” in April about the lack of public disclosures — said Thursday that he will continue to push for greater transparency from city hall.

“The former fire captain violated public trust — and I believe his demotion held him accountable,” Mahan said in a statement. “I know that if we had been able to share this information with the public immediately, it would have assured our residents that no matter your title, actions have consequences. When the public asks, we need to answer.”

It appears that demotion is not a common response to misconduct within SJFD. Public records dating back to 2010 list that a large majority of discipline within the fire department only resulted in suspension, dismissal or a temporary step reduction.

The second most recent demotion was in 2017 when an unidentified fire department employee violated policies regarding city ethics, workplace violence and the department’s rules and regulations. In 2012, a senior hazardous material inspector with SJFD was demoted for not performing the duties of their position.

Prior to news of the demotion coming to light this week, the city refused to offer details about the nature of any discipline and kept any documents hidden from the public, despite repeated attempts by reporters and a media attorney to unearth them through records requests and communications with city attorneys.

Internal communications obtained by NBC Bay Area show that Liccardo’s public statement caused distress within the city’s fire department.

In its lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court, the news organization is pursuing records pertaining to the city’s investigation into the Oct. 5 incident and subsequent disciplinary measures fire department officials say were taken against the employees involved.

“A fire engine is a critical public asset that’s supposed to be on call at all times in case of an emergency. It’s not a party bus,” Frank Pine, executive editor of the Bay Area News Group, said in a statement. “In this case, an engine was removed from service for an undisclosed amount of time by unidentified personnel and the city’s position appears to be that the privacy of the city employees involved trumps the public’s interest.”

San Jose spokesperson Carolina Camarena said that demotion related to the Pink Poodle incident was “fair and the process (was) conducted within the civil service rules.”

“We can now focus on keeping our city safe,” Camarena said in a statement, “from things like the three-alarm fire that took place yesterday, and reminding our community that fireworks are dangerous and illegal.”

Staff writer Gabriel Greschler contributed reporting to this article

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