City backs Ind. fire chief accused of racism

Gary Mayor Jerome Prince addressed the racism allegations against Fire Chief Sean O'Donnell in a video posted Monday

Tyler Wornell
The Times, Munster, Ind.

GARY, Ind. — City officials are standing by the fire chief in response to what the Gary mayor dubbed a "rash of ugly, negative postings and whispering in our firehouses" that have challenged the chief's character.

On Monday via a 10-minute online video, Mayor Jerome Prince addressed what the city called a divisive social media campaign against Gary Fire Department Chief Sean O'Donnell, who is white.

Prince called for an end to the disparaging innuendo he said has been spread in recent months by some Gary fire employees and other residents, including some sitting in positions of authority within the city, which has a majority black population.

"For those of you in the Gary Fire Department, or related to the department, who are spreading vicious rumors and lies, enough is enough," Prince said in the video. "You are harming the morale and the rank-and-file of the department and its leadership. You are creating divisions that can harm each other and the residents we are sworn to serve. You are also feeding into the disease so many of us decry these days, and that is racism."

The video comes amid a growing national reckoning on issues of racial injustice within divisions of law enforcement and communities of color, though city officials were hesitant to link the two.

Prince announced last week the creation of a police reform commission to study law enforcement practices following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Floyd's death has spurred both peaceful and violent protest throughout the country.

A Gary city spokesman said members have not yet been assigned to the new commission, but the city is open to all input.

Prince did not go into extensive detail about the nature of comments made about O'Donnell. The fire chief, taking the podium briefly during the online video, said he believes recent comments on social media had been prompted by O'Donnell's request of a firefighter to wear proper uniform attire.

O'Donnell said he since has felt his character fall under attack.

"I am a firefighter first and foremost. This job is a passion and a calling to me and many others. It's the greatest job in the world," O'Donnell siad. "Recently, some of my brothers and sisters have taken up another calling. They have went on social media and in our firehouses spreading vitriolic rhetoric about who they think should be fire chief based on skin color, not character, and spreading a false narrative that I do not support black culture and let other races do as they please."

The fire chief called the allegations baseless, saying he took an oath to serve the entire community regardless of race.

O'Donnell was one of several appointments made as Prince assumed office at the start of the year. The mayor said he didn't consider race, ethnicity or appearance when he selected leaders for his incoming administration.

"When I selected (formerly) Lt. Sean O'Donnell to lead the Gary Fire Department, I selected him because of his commitment to saving lives and property in the city of Gary, his experience, his record and, most importantly, his content of character," Prince said. "Those are the only factors I needed."

The fire chief is a 22-year veteran of the Gary Fire Department and was the elected president of Gary Firefighters Union Local 359 at the time of his appointment.

O'Donnell said in the video his record as a firefighter is unblemished and noted he has never been the subject of an investigation based on race.

"If you want to divide and tear us apart based on lies, rumors and innuendos, maybe this is not the department or community you want to serve," O'Donnell said in the video.

When asked by The Times for further explanation of this statement, O'Donnell declined to say whether there were fire department personnel he felt should not be working for the agency.

"My job is to create a cohesive unit where we all work together," O'Donnell said. "We just need to be a team."


©2020 The Times (Munster, Ind.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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