Kan. fire captain gets harshest punishment in texting scandal involving SWAT
A second Wichita supervisor also was disciplined for sharing a photoshopped image from "A Christmas Story"
The Wichita Eagle
WICHITA, Kan. — The city of Wichita has given a Wichita Fire Department supervisor a harsher penalty for an inappropriate text message than any of the city's police officers who sent similar messages.
Capt. Keith Niemann was suspended for three days without pay on June 2 for texting a photo of himself in a firehouse wearing a gag gift sweater showing a cartoon version of a naked Black man, Wardy "Wood" Joubert, who became a popular meme during the pandemic. The sweater says "I have a big package for you" with a Christmas present covering Joubert's groin. Neimann also is sipping from a coffee mug with a picture of Joubert and a vulgar saying. Niemann texted the photo in a WhatsApp chat with the message, "having a good morning at the firehouse."
A second fire supervisor was disciplined for sending two people a photoshopped image from "A Christmas Story" after Christmas 2020. The image showed the character Flick sticking his tongue to a pole, with the pole replaced by a Black male body part. The character Ralphie is on the other side of the pole staring.
The identity and punishment of that supervisor have not been made public.
International Association of Fire Fighters Local 135 represents Niemann but not the second supervisor. Union business manager Stephanie Yeager said Niemann was sorry for what he did and didn't understand the significance of the mug and sweater. Niemann declined an interview.
Niemann's unpaid suspension came after he was originally given a reprimand on May 19, according to Yeager. Niemann and the other supervisor were put on paid leave April 22 and May 13 respectively, when the messages were brought to fire chief Tammy Snow. Both have since returned to work.
The unpaid suspension for Niemann was a harsher penalty than that for Jamie Crouch, a police sergeant who sent a photoshopped image of Joubert sitting on the head of George Floyd, who was killed when a white officer knelt on his neck. Crouch was given a reprimand. Both Niemann and Crouch are white.
Niemann was also given a harsher penalty than any of the other 10-plus officers, some of whom have fatally shot people and who sent messages joking about shooting and beating people. They were given coaching and mentoring. The only officer put on leave for a few days was one who called former chief Gordon Ramsay a tool.
'Disappointed in their behavior'
All of the people who sent text messages served on the SWAT team. Niemann and the other fire supervisor worked as medics on SWAT, Snow said. The gag gifts from Christmas 2020 were sent from at least one member of the SWAT team, Yeager said.
Snow said she is "really very deeply disappointed in their behavior" and the two firefighters are "exemplary employees other than this mishap."
Niemann has been with the department for more than 20 years. The other supervisor is also in the double digits, Snow said.
"They are good employees and to lose the confidence and the integrity and diminish our image in the public is very concerning to me," she said. "In being a leader, your employees are a direct reflection of you. So where did I do them wrong? So, yeah, I take it very personal."
Yeager said the harsher punishment and the way it was handled — assigning punishment then later giving a more strict punishment — would factor into whether the union grieves, or appeals, the decision. She said the city was trying to "make an example" out of Niemann because the police department was criticized for giving light punishments.
"I don't know that making him a scapegoat, which is surely what it feels like, is the way we should be handling this when we have officers in there that we know are involved with shooting people and they are ... clapping it up about it," she said.
Interim police chief Lemuel Moore could give additional punishment to police officers. He has finished those recommendations and forwarded them to the city law department, police spokesperson Chad Ditch said June 7. Ditch said the department will send out a news release "once the process is complete." He wouldn't say if any of the police officers were on leave, calling it a personnel matter.
Yeager said Niemann was not in the SWAT officer chat where the racist George Floyd meme was shared. If Niemann and the union decide to fight the punishment, people might wrongly read into it that the union supports what he did, she said.
"We don't support racism at all, we think that's horrible, we don't want any part of it," she said. "But you have to treat employees the same. I think that there's really a problem when you have this firefighter that has kind of been put through the ringer, he's been on suspension, off suspension, now he's getting this, now he's getting that. ... It's not right to put it all on this one person."
The fire union's first public statements about the situation stand in stark contrast with the police union's reaction. In a news release, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 president David Inkeelar did not denounce the comments police made but said the FOP didn't influence the discipline process and said, without evidence, that the "city was possibly using the search warrant illegally" to find the messages.
Racist, inappropriate messages found
The racist and inappropriate messages were found when Wichita police searched the phone of a sheriff's deputy in an unrelated domestic violence case. The deputy had served on the SWAT team.
The police department reopened the case after The Eagle reported in March how the department, under Ramsay, had mishandled the case and given little punishment to officers.
The police department did not take the messages to the district attorney, as is required under federal Brady-Giglio case law. Attorneys must disclose, among other things, any evidence that an officer involved in a case could be biased toward a group of people. Key details also were left out when the case was given to the police Citizen Review Board, which was created to improve transparency in the department.
A committee report blamed Ramsay and deputy chiefs Chester Pinkston and Jose Salcido for the lack of discipline.
Redoing the punishment
The inappropriate messages sent by the two fire department supervisors were found after the police department reopened the case.
The firefighters met with Snow on May 19. Neimann was given a reprimand and told he could go back to work, Yeager said, adding he was back at work that day when he got a call telling him to go home — the agreed-upon punishment was void.
"Somebody undid what the chief did, overstepped her," she said, "and took him back off the force."
Snow said differently: She got ahead of the discipline process, which includes involving other city departments when she issued the first punishment.
"Because I'm a bar fighter," she said when asked why she did that. "I came up through the ranks, so you give me a problem, I try to fix it. I tried to fix it immediately because of the sensitivity and the adverse public reaction in regards to the whole investigation. The discipline got ahead of the process."
Snow said she was "made aware that I neglected some of the process." When asked later in an interview who made her aware, she said no one did and she just realized it after thinking it through more.
The firefighters were re-punished June 2.
Snow would not disclose the punishments. She said both the old and new punishments fell under penalty code B, which ranges from a reprimand to a three-day suspension since it was a first offense for both.
The police Citizen Review Board released details of police officers' titles, tenure, texts and punishments after public outcry over the text messages.
Since Niemann was put on paid leave April 22, he was effectively suspended about 1.5 months, Yeager said. Three of those days were without pay, making his punishment harsher than any of the officers.
Yeager said June 10 that there was a "strong probability" the union would appeal, but that the decision would ultimately be up to the union president and vice president.
The three-day suspension wouldn't have been a problem, she said, had it been part of the original agreement.
"No, he wasn't treated the same," Yeager said, "and I'm not sure (if) it's that they're trying to prove a point that from now on we're going to take things seriously."
Contributing: Chance Swaim with The Eagle
(c)2022 The Wichita Eagle