Report: Atlanta fire chief didn't treat gay firefighters unfairly
There is currently no indication that Chief Kelvin Cochran allowed his religious beliefs to compromise his disciplinary decisions
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s office has released a copy of the internal investigation into dismissed Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran’s management.
Reed terminated Cochran earlier this week over a religious book the chief authored that contained what some say are disparaging remarks about homosexuality. Cochran supporters say he’s legally entitled to publish those views, and that his ousting is a violation of constitutional rights protecting free speech and religion.
According to a copy of the investigation obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request, Reed officials found no evidence that Cochran treated lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees unfairly during his tenure. The report also reveals that Cochran once supported disciplining firefighters who openly supported Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s public statements opposing same-sex marriage.
The investigation sought to determine whether Cochran received proper clearance from City Hall to publish the 2013 book — “Who Told You That You Are Naked?” — how widely the book was distributed inside the department and whether the chief’s personal views impacted his disciplinary decisions.
Reed said he fired Cochran because of poor judgment and insubordination during his initial 30-day suspension. Specifically, Reed terminated the chief because he failed to receive required approval to publish the book, and then spoke publicly about the ordeal against the mayor’s request.
Cochran said he believes he’s been treated unfairly. His dismissal has become national news, with some lawmakers pointing to his case to bolster support for a host of religious liberty bills now under consideration nationwide.
Excerpts from the report include:
I. Was Publication of the Book Authorized?
The Standards of Conduct provide a clear directive to “commissioners, deputy commissioners [and] department heads” to seek approval of the Board of Ethics before the department head “may engage in private employment or render services for private interests.”1 No such approval was sought or rendered in the publication of the book that is available on Amazon.com for purchase.
At the outset of the investigation, Chief Cochran admitted that he did not inform Mayor Reed that he was publishing the book and did not have the Mayor’s permission. The only indication there was any mention of the book to anyone in the Mayor’s Office is the Chief Operating Officer at the time of publication remembering that Chief Cochran had talked about writing a book on leadership.
Chief Cochran insists Ethics Officer Hickson authorized both the publication of the book and the reference in the book to his position as AFRD Chief. His recollection is that he first contacted Ms. Hickson to determine if it was permissible to publish the book and that he later asked if it was appropriate to identify himself in the book as AFRD Chief. Ms. Hickson indicated that she did not approve publication of the book and had no authority to grant such approval. She said she told him that he would need to get the Mayor’s permission as well as a formal opinion from the Board of Ethics.
II. To What Extent Was the Book Distributed in the Workplace?
Chief Cochran stated that he provided the book to certain members of his command staff as a personal gift. He originally stated that he did not provide it to anyone who did not request a copy. The investigation disclosed that the book was distributed in the workplace to at least nine (9) individuals. Three (3) of these officers stated that the book was given to them without a request on their part.
III. Did the Expressed Beliefs Influence Disciplinary Decisions?
There is currently no indication that Chief Cochran allowed his religious beliefs to compromise his disciplinary decisions. While the fire chief has final authority over disciplinary decisions, the initiation of discipline occurs at lower management ranks for investigation by the Office of Professional Standards. Final recommendations on the level of discipline are made by a Disciplinary Review Panel consisting of chief officers that convenes to review cases sustained by OPS. This Panel then vets each case individually and recommends a level of discipline based on a preset grid that ensures consistency. The recommendation from the Panel must fall within the range set within the grid. Once the Panel forwards its recommendation to the fire chief, he then makes a decision to accept the recommendation, to reduce or to increase within the range or to refer back to the Panel for further review.
The consensus of the command staff witnesses interviewed is that Chief Cochran is more likely to adopt a level of discipline lower than what the Panel recommends. A review of the disciplinary recommendations presented to Chief Cochran from September 2012 through December 2014 shows that, of the 120 cases presented, Chief Cochran deviated from the recommendation of the Disciplinary Review Panel in three instances. In one case, Chief Cochran decreased a firefighter’s discipline for a first occurrence failure to report accident infraction from the recommended written reprimand to no discipline. In two cases involving lieutenants, Chief Cochran upgraded discipline from the recommended Category B violation to Category C. In those two cases, the vote of the Disciplinary Review Panel had been split between Category B and C, and both employees held the rank of lieutenant, which Chief Cochran considered to warrant an enhanced level of accountability.
There was a consistent sentiment among the witnesses that firefighters throughout the organization are appalled by the sentiments expressed in the book.
There also is general agreement the contents of the book have eroded trust and have compromised the ability of the chief to provide leadership in the future.
No interviewed witness could point to a specific instance in which any member of the organization has been treated unfairly by Chief Cochran on the basis of his religious beliefs.
Union president [Stephen] Borders was unable to offer any examples of maltreatment. He echoed the sentiment of distrust and disgust created by the contents of the book with the representation in the book that Chief Cochran is speaking in his capacity as AFRD Chief. He cited to an example wherein firefighters were disciplined for expressing support of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s stance on homosexuality. In that case, during the height of the controversy, a squad of AFRD firefighters took a group picture showing them in uniform at one of Cathy’s restaurants. One of the firefighters then posted the picture on Facebook expressing support for Cathy’s religious beliefs and his opinion of homosexuality and gay marriage. When a citizen complained, Chief Cochran directed the captain of the squad to initiate an OPS complaint. The complaint was sustained for a work rule violation and the firefighters were given thirty day suspensions. Borders’ opinion was that Chief Cochran should be held to the same standard.
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