Racial Tension Increases at HFD
by: Laurie Johnson, July 8, 2009 5:07:25 pm
The newest occurrence is one in a string of incidents that has some people saying there's a systemic problem within the Houston Fire Department. Details of the message broadcast over a protected frequency were not released, but HFD officials confirmed the message was racially charged. Preliminary evidence shows the radio system could have been hacked by someone outside the department.
Earlier this week, two female firefighters, one white and one black, were the victims of racial and sexual slurs and vandalism. And several weeks ago a fire captain was disciplined for keeping a knot resembling a noose inside his locker. Houston Fire Chief Phil Boriskie says racism and sexism are not tolerated.
"You know me as being a pretty calm, collected individual, even in the face of adversity on emergency scenes. But I'm having difficulty because quite frankly I'm mad. I'm mad as hell. The good men and women of the Houston Fire Department, they do not deserve this."
The Houston Police Inspector General is investigating the onslaught of incidents and the mayor and others have expressed full confidence in that office's efforts. Despite those assurances, the string of incidents has some city officials questioning the integrity of the fire department.
"What is wrong with us? I don't understand it. It makes me sad to my heart."
Councilmember Jolanda Jones was outspoken in her support of a full federal investigation into the HFD.
"I think when we deal with this problem, we need to deal with it honestly. And you know, you guys hear me say it all the time -- what is is and what ain't ain't. The truth is what it is. So if you're confident that we did everything right, then a federal investigation should just verify what you think."
Because the messages and graffiti contained racial slurs, the FBI could investigate the matters as hate crimes. While none of the city's elected officials suggested Chief Boriskie be held personally responsible, Councilmember Ron Green did say the chief should seek outside scrutiny.
"He needs to really get into this and call for some outside help, first of all. Because I think that this is an internal issue that may be bigger than him. He needs some outside help, whether that's through the Department of Justice, whether that's through HPD or anybody else, it is an issue that is so pervasive that someone who has spent their entire career in the Houston Fire Department may not be able to see it for what it is."
Boriskie says he welcomes both internal and external investigations and acknowledges the department has had an ongoing problem with race issues. HFD employees are required to take sensitivity training.
Laurie Johnson. KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.