Uniformed black firefighter conducting inspections reported to police
Firefighters are concerned about racial bias after a black firefighter was videotaped and questioned by a resident despite being in full uniform
By Kimberly Veklerov
San Francisco Chronicle
OAKLAND, Calif. — A black firefighter conducting city-mandated inspections around homes in the Oakland hills was reported to police and, on a separate occasion, questioned and videotaped by a resident who found him suspicious, even though he was in full uniform with his fire truck parked nearby.
Several Oakland firefighters say the incidents raise concerns about safety and racial bias.
“It’s extremely unfortunate,” said fire Capt. Damon Covington, president of the Oakland Black Firefighters Association. “From the outside, it certainly appears to be unfair and unwarranted. The fire service is a microcosm of the world. Racism exists in the world, and it exists in Oakland and everywhere else.”
The unease comes amid a swirl of recent racial-profiling cases that stirred public outrage. In April, two black men reportedly waiting to have a business meeting at a Starbucks in Philadelphia were arrested after a barista called police, and in March, Sacramento police officers fatally shot Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard.
Every summer in the city, firefighters fan out to the Oakland hills to do vegetation-management inspections in which they check for hazards like tree limbs hanging over chimneys or a buildup of dead plants. The goal is to lessen the chances of a wildfire spreading out of control from house to house by creating a “defensible space” on every property.
Firefighters typically try to speak with residents before they enter their yards, knocking on doors or ringing doorbells. If no one is home, the firefighters are supposed to do the inspection anyway, going through side yards and backyards, if they can, while taking photos and notes.
Vince Crudele, who supervises the inspection program, said firefighters “absolutely” have the right, listed plainly in the California Fire Code, to conduct exterior property inspections while residents aren’t home. The department sends out pamphlets before the program begins, hosts community meetings and gets the word out through neighborhood groups, Crudele said.
Yet last month, firefighter Kevin Moore — while wearing a full uniform, with a radio and clipboard — was reported to police for doing a standard inspection.
“I try to put myself in other people’s shoes, like if I see someone in my yard, I’d ask what they’re doing,” Moore said. “That’s why I always call out, ‘Hello! Hello! Oakland Fire Department!’ Because I want to be heard. I just don’t want somebody to look out their window and see somebody in their backyard. I’m not trying to be incognito.”
His colleague, firefighter Megan Bryan, said she was an acting officer that day, May 16, and got a call from a 911 emergency dispatcher, wanting to check that they were indeed doing vegetation inspections. A resident concerned about Moore had apparently called dispatchers, Bryan said.
“I knew that he was the one on that street,” Bryan said of the relayed message. She said the incident made her frustrated and annoyed, because no one had ever called the police on her or other white firefighters for doing an inspection.
That same day, a resident emailed home security footage to the Oakland police community liaison officer for the upscale Montclair hills neighborhood. The officer forwarded it to Crudele, who watched the video and said it clearly showed Moore in firefighter gear, ringing a doorbell and doing exactly what he should have been doing.
“It’s obvious he’s doing an inspection. Kevin’s wearing his blue wool firefighter pants, he’s got a radio and (a department) jacket and shirt on,” Crudele said. “It’s unfortunate that somebody would mistake an Oakland firefighter, a professional who would go into harm’s way every day to protect citizens, as someone who was there for criminal intent. Kevin’s out there doing his job well and representing the Oakland Fire Department with the highest integrity.”
Crudele recalled the resident citing Moore’s tennis shoes as a reason he might have been an impostor firefighter, but he said it’s common and acceptable for firefighters to wear sneakers during vegetation inspections.
The Fire Department paused the inspections last month because a new software app was having technical issues again. Then Monday, shortly after the program resumed, another resident questioned what Moore, again in full uniform, was doing at his home.
Moore said he did his usual routine: knocked on the door, waited about a minute and yelled “Oakland Fire!” Then he stepped into the yard, which had no gate, and started noting the many vegetation hazards in his paperwork.
As Moore was finishing up, he said he turned around to find the resident outside near the front steps of the house, video-recording him on a cell phone.
“He kind of startled me,” Moore said. “He says, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ I say, ‘We’re here doing our annual vegetation inspection.’ Then he asks for ID. I say no problem. He takes a picture of my ID and says I need to get a different one. I’ve had that ID for years. It’s kind of dark, and I’m more of a dark-skinned black guy, but you can still see me.”
Moore said he suggested that if the resident were still concerned, he could simply look out onto the street where “a big red fire engine is right there.”
Eventually, Moore said, the resident stopped questioning him and started making excuses for his vegetation problems.
Firefighters declined to say exactly where the incidents occurred or name the residents.
City records show that Moore, who recently transferred to station 24 in Montclair, from one in the flats of East Oakland, was among a group of firefighters honored by the City Council for “bravery and heroism” in 2008 when they jumped into a ravine to save passengers trapped inside an overturned vehicle during a rainstorm, then waded through the canal in search of an ejected 10-month-old baby.
Bryan, who was worried about Moore’s safety given the recent interactions, said she plans to pair up with him during inspections so that she can do the yard walk-throughs while he takes notes. She said it shouldn’t be Moore’s — or other black people’s — job to soothe the fears of community members harboring prejudice.
“It’s our work to do with other white people, to check our implicit biases and racism,” she said. “It’s not fair to him, and it’s actually not safe for him to be going into these backyards due to the sociopolitical climate.”
Allan Brill, president of a crime prevention council and neighborhood association in the nearby Glenview district, said that while burglaries are a concern and “there are always people casing the neighborhoods,” what happened to Moore was “infuriating.” He said his group has hosted forums on combatting racial biases.
“A black person in the neighborhood, with or without a uniform, being reported to police is a tragic reality that’s been exacerbated in the last few years by the racist policies coming down from our federal government,” he said.
Dan Robertson, president of the Oakland firefighters union, said the incidents involving Moore were unfortunate.
“It’s sad we have to deal with this in our town, but despite how we’re treated, we will continue to serve all the residents and visitors to Oakland with a high level of service, without judging,” he said. “We help everyone.”