Texas city FD criticized for handling of sexual harassment complaints

Austin firefighters' union representatives said harassment complaints were minimized or "swept under the rug"

Katie Hall
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin fire Capt. Christine Jones said she had just finished giving a training session about sexual harassment last year when she became the target of exactly the kind of treatment she had cautioned against.

The things that her colleague fire Capt. Roger Scarcliff told her that day, she said, were like a "one-way barrage of inappropriate comments."

Union representatives criticized the Austin Fire Department for its handling of sexual harassment complaints at meetings of the city's Public Safety Commission.
Union representatives criticized the Austin Fire Department for its handling of sexual harassment complaints at meetings of the city's Public Safety Commission. (Photo/J.Köster via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

"He begins just lobbing sexist and stereotypical comments at me from across the room," Jones, who is the vice president of the Austin firefighters' union, told Austin's Public Safety Commission on Monday. "I asked him not to stereotype me, and I just kept working. He just continued this all day long. ... Insinuating that I wanted to talk about hair or makeup or clothes, saying that I should be doing the cleaning, because women are supposed to do the cleaning."

According to a disciplinary memo, Scarcliff then told Jones she might later "teach us a class on the difference between a bitch and a whore."

However, Jones said, what she found the most appalling was Fire Chief Joel Baker's response to her complaint.

"I believe that Captain Scarcliff did not act with malice or with the intent to discriminate against Captain Jones due to her gender, but rather, I believe this behavior is more appropriately characterized as horseplay among co-workers," Baker wrote in Scarcliff's disciplinary memo. "Finally, I believe Captain Scarcliff's apology to Captain Jones was sincere when he realized he had offended her. Despite these acknowledgments, the fact remains that Captain Scarcliff failed to treat a coworker with respect. This behavior in the workplace, especially in front of subordinates, is unacceptable for any firefighter, let alone a captain."

Scarcliff, who did not deny making these statements in interviews with investigators, was suspended for one day, the disciplinary memo says.

Baker ultimately said that Scarcliff did violate the Fire Department's code of conduct but not its harassment policy. His conclusion differed from the one reached by the Fire Department's professional standards officer, who earlier had determined that Scarcliff violated the harassment policy, documents show.

"That means that Chief Baker actually removed that charge," Jones told the public safety commission Monday. "I have never gotten an explanation as to why he determined that this was not harassment. ... This was not a banter. This was not a back-and-forth. This was not one insult retaliated with another insult. This was a one-way barrage of inappropriate comments. It was not horseplay, and how it can be misinterpreted to be that, I still have no idea to this day."

Baker has since apologized to Jones.

"I do stand by my disciplinary decision with regards to the incident involving Capt. Scarcliff from the training department," Baker said. "However, I do and I did regret the use of the word 'horseplay,' and I did apologize to Capt. Jones shortly after it was brought to my attention that she took issue with it."

Jones said the incident is indicative of how harassment is minimized at the Austin Fire Department.

Fixing harassment policies

When asked Wednesday about Jones' complaint and how Baker handled it, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said in statement that the city's Human Resources Department is exploring how to provide in-person training on sexual harassment and discrimination for all public safety employees.

"Gender discrimination in any form is totally unacceptable, and the City Manager has confidence in Chief Baker's ability to tackle it," Cronk said.

Such a review of training practices would come at a time when the Austin Police Department is facing its own allegations of discriminatory culture. Cronk has ordered an investigation into anonymous complaints publicized early last month accused former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom of using the N-word to refer to President Barack Obama, former Council Member Ora Houston, former Assistant Chief Frank Dixon and subordinates as he climbed to the highest ranks of Austin police. The Austin City Council on Thursday will vote on a resolution that would launch a separate investigation into the Police Department's culture and call off a cadet class next year until the probe is completed.

Baker, who was hired last year, said Tuesday it's clear the Austin Fire Department needs to improve its harassment policies, and officials have begun to take those steps by having complaints now go through the city's human resources department.

"Unfortunately, the fire service has really been one of the last strongholds, if you will, of the male-dominated workforce," he said. "Although the Austin Fire Department has had issues with sexual harassment or things of that nature in the past, fire departments throughout the country are all really dealing with this and working to make changes. ... I'm trying to do what I can do to enhance and make the culture of the Austin Fire Department better for all of us."

In July 2018, the Fire Department began to allow personnel to report harassment anonymously through an online system if they felt uncomfortable going through the formal complaint process.

But earlier this year, Austin Fire Specialist Kelly Gall, said the Fire Department's chain of command seemed unsure how to proceed when she filed a harassment complaint under her name through the online system. Gall sued the city of Austin last year for failing to prevent sexual harassment from former Austin fire Lt. James Baker, who pleaded guilty to filming Gall in a fire station restroom.

"They asked me if I wanted the complaint to be formal, and I told them that I thought it already was because of the way we filled out the complaint," Gall told the Public Safety Commission in August.

After hearing Jones speak, the Public Safety Commission on Monday unanimously recommended that the Austin City Council examine the Fire Department's harassment complaint process on a future agenda. They advised that accusers should have the right to address members of the chain of command — a right that employees facing accusations currently have. They also suggested that accusers should have someone with the union represent him or her and that the chain of command should have a woman or person of color — depending on the type of harassment complaint — in the room to offer insights about discrimination.

The Austin Fire Department has "ignored clear warning signs, and it's going to cost the taxpayers money," said Rebecca Webber, who serves on the Public Safety Commission. "I'm a lawyer, and I think about things in terms of liability. To me, it's so clear that the leadership at the Fire Department are exposing the citizens of Austin to legal liability."

Firefighters charged

The Fire Department has also dealt with a handful of high-profile sexual misconduct cases in recent years.

James Baker was charged in 2017 with invasive visual recording for secretly placing a video camera in a fire station's locker room with the intention of filming Gall. He pleaded guilty through an agreement with prosecutors that kept him out of jail.

Firefighters had previously reported to supervisors that James Baker would sometimes put his hands under women's shirts to check their heartbeats after minor crashes. Investigators looked into this and ultimately determined James Baker knew how to do a correct assessment.

"It was basically swept under the rug," Austin firefighters' union president Bob Nicks said in August during a meeting of the Public Safety Commission.

That same month, former Austin fire Lt. Marcus Reed went to trial after investigators accused him of forcing a woman in distress to have sex with him. Reed was sentenced to one year in jail plus 10 years of probation on charges related to abusing his position as a public servant and lying about sending text messages to the woman, but the jury couldn't reach a decision on whether Reed raped the woman or on a separate indecency with a child charge. The case ended in a mistrial but prosecutors said they will retry the case.

In May 2018, former Austin firefighter Erik Spalteholz was charged with possession of child pornography in Blanco County, where authorities say he was captured on video discussing paying more than $700 for images of a naked girl younger than 5 years old.


©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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