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Baltimore’s newest fire chief nominee raises questions

Should past troubles disqualify fire service leaders from holding the top spot, and are some troubles too serious to uphold the public’s trust?


Chief James Wallace, left, was nominated in July by Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott, right, to lead the city’s fire department.

Photo/City of Baltimore

The nomination of a new chief for the City of Baltimore has raised concerns – plus many questions – from some members of the public and the fire service.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott has nominated James Wallace as the new department chief. Wallace has been a member of the Baltimore Fire Department for 33 years, rising through the ranks to his most recent position as director of the Office of Emergency Management. Wallace has been praised for his leadership of this office during the coronavirus crisis.

[Read next: Baltimore mayor addresses fire chief nominee’s past pipe bomb charges]

Since the nomination, it has come to light that Wallace had some legal troubles in his past. Specifically, according to public records, he was charged with possession of pipe bombs and possession of explosives without a license, and later charged but not prosecuted for assault, use of a deadly weapon, battery and destruction of property. These incidents occurred 30 years ago, when Wallace was a new paramedic with the department. The charges related to the pipe bomb incident were expunged from Wallace’s record in 2021, meaning court records of the incident were removed from state files.

Now Wallace, with the pending approval of the Baltimore City Council, is set to become the next leader of the city fire department – and people have mixed feelings about this.

Mayor Scott has stated, “One mistake during your youth and standing up to protect your family are not disqualifications for public service, nor does it diminish thirty years of stellar service to Baltimore City … we all deserve the opportunity to grow and demonstrate our true character.”

Others have expressed reservations about having someone with this history in a leadership position within the department.

But the fact is, this person is already in a leadership position in the department and has been for some time. His past may not have been widely known, but it has been a fact since the incidents occurred.

Another interesting factor in this case: Baltimore has had a “Ban the Box” law in place since 2014. This law makes it illegal for private employers to conduct a criminal record check or ask an applicant if they have a criminal history before they are given an offer of conditional employment. More than 150 cities, along with 37 states, have some form of Ban the Box laws on the books, according to the National Employment Law Project.

It used to be that any type of criminal record would disqualify someone from public service as a firefighter. That is changing. For example, California has recently engaged with a program called the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), a nonprofit organization that provides career support to formerly incarcerated firefighters and those currently incarcerated in California’s Conservation Camps who are interested in careers in the Wildland and Forestry sector.

Individual municipalities and jurisdictions must decide whether they want to hire or retain firefighters with criminal records. But once they are hired and included, they are members and should have equal opportunities and responsibilities within that organization.

And yet, being chief of the department is different. There was the case a few years ago where firefighters in Illinois quit en masse to protest the appointment of a convicted arsonist as chief of department. Yet there had been no similar backlash when he was appointed as assistant chief the previous year.

In addition to leadership and management responsibilities, being fire chief is also a political role, especially in larger departments. Fire chiefs have relationships with a wide range of other leaders in the community and serve as figureheads for the department. It’s a symbolic role as much as a functional one. Chiefs represent every firefighter, and embedded in this representation is an assumption of complete trust.

The general public’s tolerance for flawed leaders has increased in recent years, but there are still limits. Fire chiefs must recognize that they will be held to a different and higher standard than they were even in a previous and only slightly less responsible role. If there are questions or factors that create a distraction for a chief fulfilling all their responsibilities, including those symbolic ones, then those factors must be dealt with head-on, with full transparency.

In the case of the prospective chief in Baltimore, people have questions and deserve to have them answered, even for actions taken decades ago. This is the only way for trust to be built and maintained.


Read next:

Trust in the fire service: Earned or assumed?

Trust should never be taken for granted, but it also has to be given to be earned

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.