Portland FF suspended for 6 months after using racial slurs against hotel clerk

The firefighter was attending a work-related training event during the altercation with a Black hotel employee that led to police being called


Maxine Bernstein
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

PORTLAND — A Portland firefighter who got drunk and unleashed racial slurs against a Black hotel clerk in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was attending work-related health training in August, was suspended without pay for six months by the fire chief and ordered to complete diversity training.

Portland firefighter Nicholas Perkins, who has been with the Fire Bureau for 13 years and most recently worked at a North Portland station, also acknowledged the city had cause to fire him, and signed a last-chance agreement that requires he complete one-on-one implicit bias training and not challenge his discipline.

Portland Fire Chief Sara Boone said in a statement that a firefighter who used racial slurs against a Black hotel clerk will be suspended for 6 months and required to complete diversity training. (Photo/Samantha Swindler, The Oregonian, OregonLive)
Portland Fire Chief Sara Boone said in a statement that a firefighter who used racial slurs against a Black hotel clerk will be suspended for 6 months and required to complete diversity training. (Photo/Samantha Swindler, The Oregonian, OregonLive)

“When Portland Fire & Rescue received the complaint, we immediately launched an investigation,” Chief Sara Boone said in a statement sent to firefighters Tuesday as Willamette Week prepared to publish a story on the firefighter.

She called the firefighter’s actions “appalling,” ones that “shook me to the core as both a Black woman and chief of a public safety bureau,” and said she appreciated the hotel clerk’s courage for reporting the incident to the Fire Bureau.

“The woman who suffered so much from this abhorrent act asked for us to make sure that this doesn’t happen again: I keep her request close to me as I lead the work for change,” Boone said in a prepared statement.

Perkins was involved in peer fitness training, attending a health and safety symposium in Nashville last August when the incident occurred and prompted a call to the Nashville Metro Police, according to fire bureau records.

After drinking at bars in Nashville, Perkins returned to his hotel early on Aug. 18, 2019, and used his credit card, instead of his electronic room key, to gain access to the hotel. When he was unable to get in, he started banging and kicking on the door, according to his disciplinary letter.

Over a front door phone, he yelled at a hotel clerk, a Black woman, “I have my key, you Black (expletive) ... you Black (racial slur), open the door.”

The clerk was scared and called the hotel assistant manager, Will Lawrence, who could hear Perkins through the phone continuing to beat on the door, using the racist slur, according to the chief’s disciplinary letter.

The Nashville Metro Police responded, but the clerk did not want to press charges, the letter says. A Tennessee corrections officer who was staying at the hotel also witnessed Perkins banging and kicking on the door, and told investigators Perkins was so intoxicated that he “fell on the police officer when he arrived,” the disciplinary letter said.

City Council member Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the Fire Bureau, had sought Perkins’ firing.

The fire chief suspended Perkins for six months after interviewing Perkins but also placed him under a last-chance agreement, meaning he could lose his job for any fire bureau policy violation during a 180-day period from the date the agreement was signed. The chief signed the last-chance agreement on May 26.

Hardesty signed off on the discipline. Perkins signed the discipline letter on June 12, records show.

Perkins, in his meeting with the chief, said he wanted to apologize to the front desk clerk the next morning, but was asked to write a letter instead, which he did. He told the chief he recognized that his actions “showed significant and shameful issues with anger, alcohol, and race,” though he said he never thought he had issues with race, according to the disciplinary letter. He expressed “deep personal pain” by his actions, and said he was sick to his stomach when he read transcripts of the hotel clerk’s statement, the letter said.

Boone found Perkins violated the city’s workplace rules against harassment and discrimination and represented discourteous treatment of people and offensive conduct.

“The violations were of such an egregious level as to cause severe distress, emotional trauma, and fear from the complainant, which is the antithesis of who we are as public servants and the oath we have sworn to uphold,” Boone wrote to Perkins. “Again, while I appreciate the steps and ownership you have taken regarding these events, I must consider the harm to the standards we hold as a Bureau and as a City. Your use of targeted racial slurs against a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, and while representing PF&R on official City business is simply unacceptable and violates the core values of the City and the Bureau.”

But the chief said she decided not to fire Perkins after he expressed “deep contrition,” and a “true commitment to explore the racism he had never known to be a part of himself.”

Under a separate so-called last-chance agreement, Perkins acknowledged the city had just cause to fire him. He agreed to complete an “Equity 101" online course offered by the city, engage in a discussion guided by an equity mentor, complete one-one-one implicit bias training delivered by the city, donate $5,000 to one of a selected group of non-profits that focus on racial equity and refrain from drinking alcohol.

The chief also obtained an agreement with the firefighters’ union to require diversity and equity training of all its members.

Under a memorandum of understanding signed June 10, the firefighters union will have its members receive equity and diversity training over the next year, provided by Markisha Smith and the firm Diamond Law Training. It will include implicit bias training, micro aggression theory and other trainings, according to the memorandum. The city will provide for Smith’s services, and the union shall cover services offered by Diamond Law Training. Training will start when it’s safe for firefighters to meet in person.

On July 25, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, in response to an appeal from Willamette Week, ordered the release of Perkins’ discipline letter, last-chance agreement and a memorandum of understanding between the Portland Fire Fighters Association and the Portland Fire Bureau.

Then-District Attorney Rod Underhill found the documents in this case “do shed light on the issues of structural reform, race, and public employee union involvement in the disciplinary process.’'

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©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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